Angry Jazz
 
There was a time when the wailing and gnashing of teeth over social matters was widely believed to fall entirely within the purview of the young. That is to say, the unformed personalities who wandered the often bleak corridors of the world hadn't enough experience as songwriters or, more importantly, the wisdom that living brings to us frail humans to articulate what was bothering them.


In those days, parents were apt to prefer Lawrence Welk to Count Basie, the Lennon Sisters to Billie Holiday and the lighter side of Al Hirt to the dark brooding of Miles Davis.


The popular view was that distress among the young made for neither good music nor for entertainment of any stripe, because the young sounded off without a foundation upon which to build. Besides, thought the elders, politics and psychology wedded to music have a taste reminiscent of a toothpaste-and-grapefruit cooler.


Maybe so.


Bob Dylan did a lot to change that notion. But he was drawing on the much older tradition of the topical song as exemplified by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Peter Paul and Mary, and Odetta. And those forerunners of Dylan went clear back to the mountain hollers of Appalachia, the southern Delta region, even to the sanctified churches in the hard-scrabble areas where cotton was king but the gospel choirs rocked the house during Sunday services.


What we have here is beginning to look like a common ancestry with jazz.


Though it has grown into something more sophisticated than a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus creature, jazz remains a musical vehicle for social expression.


Billie Holiday has, perhaps, the most famous example of jazz topicality in her standard, "Strange Fruit," a pungent reminder that all was not well in the social fabric of the southern United States where race relations were concerned. The black bodies hanging like fruit from southern trees is an image difficult to ignore.


Similarly, that raucous genius of the larger ensemble, Charles Mingus, gave us "Fables of Faubus," an  instrumental dedicated to Orval Faubus, governor of Arkansas in 1957, who called the National Guard to Little Rock to prevent black students from entering Central High School, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its historic desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education three years earlier.

And Les McCann in 1969 teamed up with Eddie Harris for "Compared To What," an extended piece that tackles everything from the Vietnam War to unwed mothers to greed to cowardice. The catalogue of concern in this live recording is so fraught with frustration that McCann's lyric descends into a nearly inarticulate "godammit" aimed not at his Swiss audience at Montreux, but at the folks back home
The jazz of anger is not confined to titles and lyrics. The very form accommodates revolutionary approaches.

One of the best examples is the music of John Coltrane, who wrestled the music in every conceivable way and, like poet Walt Whitman, sounded his "barbaric yawp" above the rooftops of Manhattan and called into being a new form that exchanged prim delicacy for blunt directness. Though it took some getting used to, Coltrane's music has become a standard behind which adventurous musicians march.

Archie Shepp chose Trane as a mentor, followed his lead on tenor and soprano saxophones, and recorded with him. Shepp carried the musical pennant farther into the unknown territories of Black Nationalism and worked within ever more revolutionary frameworks -- especially with the short-lived New York Contemporary 5 during the early 1960s -- before settling into his current status as a kind of survivor of the culture wars. His earlier, angrier recordings are peppered with spoken soliloquies and asides, in case the listener fails to get the point.

Listen again to the likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, a pair of iconoclasts who are worth hearing. Both are capable of delicacy, but each assaults the senses in ways that force new considerations of the music. It is often about as pleasant as an amputation without benefit of anesthesia, but it is worth hearing with ears and minds wide open.

There are more examples of this type of experimentation that loosed the arrow of outrage into the jazz phalanx. Find them yourself and discover the richness of this music of ours. And let us know here at SkyJazz what you find.