Jazz is Black American Music. Black Culture and jazz are inextricably linked–so much so that I like to say that when you are a jazz musician, every month is Black History Month. In this post, I am going to highlight two artists of this great art form: Art Blakey (specifically his group, the Jazz Messengers) and Herbie Hancock.
Before we get into that, though, we have to have a bit of a history lesson. In the mid 1950’s, there was a movement among jazz musicians to write music that had soul. Music that grooved. Music that was based on the Black popular music of the time: Doo-wop, R&B, soul, and gospel.
This subgenre’s inspirations were not a stretch, by any means, as the musicians who created it were simply striving to create music that grooved like the music that they grew up listening to. Critical to this was the element of the blues–not the songform, but rather the blues feeling that came from the Black Church. The rhythms danced. The raw, emotive power of the saxophone and trumpet reigned supreme. The hard bop era led the music into a new realm of soulful possibilities.
Concurrently, the Civil Rights era rose to a fever pitch. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first in a line of social changes brought on through the ongoing fight for equality. Still, the fight raged on, and many musicians expressed these sentiments in their music.
Having struck out on his own after performing as a sideman for a number of years, pianist Herbie Hancock recorded his seventh studio album as a bandleader in 1969. Dedicated to the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., this was Hancock’s final record on Blue Note. A statement of social justice, this album.
In and of itself, this album is noteworthy for its unconventional instrumentation featuring Hancock on piano, Johnny Coles on flugelhorn, Gamett Brown on trombone, Buster Williams on bass, Tootie Heath on drums, Tony Studd and Jack Jeffers on bass trombone, Hubert Laws on flute, Jerome Richardson and Romeo Penque on bass clarinet, and the unmistakable sound of Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone.
Known for his orchestrational prowess, Hancock’s compositions are timeless. The first track, I Have A Dream, begins with a bassline that establishes the groove of the entire track. With a lyrical, floating melody initially presented by the alto flute, Heath provides the tracks heartbeat with Williams’ bass providing an element of harmonic and rhythmic stability. The track is named for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The title track, The Prisoner, “illustrates how black people have been prisoners in the United States for a long time” according to Hancock. Punctuated by Henderson’s fiery tenor saxophone sound, this song illustrates the urgency of civil rights. This album is a must-listen; it is a time capsule into the 20th Century Civil Rights era–a perfect image of the emotions and textures that demanded change and liberation from unjust laws and oppressive actions.
Recorded in 1977, Art Blakey’s album In My Prime Volume I., showed that the seminal figure in hard bop drumming had no shortage of energy on the bandstand. Consisting of several important recordings of the band, the reason I am bringing this particular record into focus is because of Blakey’s political leanings. According to alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, featured on this record, Blakey was not one to make overt political statements. However, the statement he did make was that he often opened concerts with Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Black National Anthem. Lift Every Voice and Sing is featured on this album with Blakey’s emphasis on rudimental drumming techniques put into syncopated places in the song. James Williams opens with a powerful gospel piano introduction giving way to the melody in the wind instruments. The strains of this hymn are accompanied by blues interjections of Watson’s soulful alto saxophone, and though it lasts only a few minutes, this rendition is impactful.
The hard bop was one during which the jazz idiom returned to its roots of gospel, the blues, R&B, and soul. While these two artists represent just a few proponents of the hard bop sound, their impact cannot be overstated.