What is freedom? Freedom is existing unrestrained in thoughts, actions, and achievements but is not absolved from the world’s reactions to either. The American Dream is free from the constraints imposed on those not of the privileged set. Legendary jazz singer/composer/arranger and social activist Nina Simone said, “freedom is having no fear.” What does it mean to be seen, heard, and even felt, in a society, relentless in its posture that the minority, individually and collectively, are inferior, except for the skills and talents they possess and exhibit? The Black American experience is traded on the invisible auction block for its physical attributes, dominating athleticism, or cultural offerings of dance, fashion, cuisine, and music. The most famous Negro hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by brothers James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938) and J. Rosamond Johnson (1873 – 1954), became the prevailing narrative of the Black experience, encompassing their aspirations to achieve full citizenship and social reparations in post-Civil War America. A subtle yet defiant statement of allegiance to their ancestry and homeland.
The term “harmonies” in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” conveys a need for reconciliation and rebuilding for the coming generations while representing the connection from ancestor to descendent. The lyrics sermonize souls being prepared for life beyond cotton fields and plantation rows. A melding of shared struggles they have overcome, and the fortitude to endure the ones that lay ahead, is at the core of this song. The proliferation of jazz and its longevity is a testament to the aspirations of pursuing life, liberty, and the humanity of all people as a divine right. This work is, perhaps, the first peaceful protest anthem, unlike our country’s national anthem, which references “rockets and bombs” of mass destruction and death. It retells the dark days of bondage and persecution yet insists we focus on brighter days and bigger dreams for the future.
So often, the Black church was the only place the voice of the Black woman was heard without opposition. Arguably, these verses of hope and daring laid the foundation for jazz to propel forward into an international phenomenon and a platform to exercise artistic expression, but not without pushback. Jazz became the black woman’s megaphone to speak her mind on the world stage and disseminate her truth around the globe. However, are we listening yet? “Lift Every Voice and Sing” elucidated the condition of a people long silenced by the chokehold of violence. From the confines of the gospel, jazz countered Black sacred life, becoming a cultural tradition that must be preserved for its most ardent purveyors. The procès verbal gospel spoke of the hope to find refuge from captivity and overcome the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. Eventually, integration would emerge as the olive branch for past ills, but the narratives of Broadway, minstrel shows, and eventually television and cinema only caricatured the experiences of Black life.
Jazz singer Billie Holliday’s most seminal and controversial work was her collaboration with Lewis Allen, who wrote and composed the American horror story “Strange Fruit,” released in 1939. This single recording set off a firestorm for its graphic depiction of Black American life, exposing the brutality of racism through lynching and the complicity of the US government in its failure to uphold the principles of the Constitution to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. This song became the lynchpin that allowed other black artists to wield their talents like swords to vocalize their rage, disappointment, joys, and expectations. The Black jazz singer has been the most influential voice in the critique of America.
While singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae left their political views off the bandstand, others like the outspoken Abbey Lincoln, the spiritual Alice Coltrane, and the irrepressibly defiant Nina Simone did not. These were the untethered tongues of the mothers, aunts, sisters, and daughters that decided to tell it like it is, come hell or high water. Bessie Smith’s lamenting “Downhearted Blues” from 1922 and Ma Raney’s bluesy “See, See Rider” expressed unrequited love, betrayal, and regret. Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” highlighted the burden of Blackness and the longing for love and understanding.
Perhaps most prolific was Nina Simone, whose catalog is to jazz what Toni Morrison’s is to literature. Unflinching in her trueness, Simone’s 1964 “Mississippi Goddam” recording denounces the assassination of Medgar Evers and the killing of four Black girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Alabama, expressing how racial intolerance was not a localized issue but seen through the microcosm of the song. Alice Coltrane’s exploration of the spiritual in jazz was groundbreaking in her 1970 release of Ptah, the El Daoud. The album title honored an Egyptian god, not a western one, and the music sought spiritual elevation from the earthly constraints of oppression that far too often feel inescapable.
Anthems of the Black female experience and others like Vanessa Rubin’s 1995 version of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” retitled All for One from her CD Vanessa Rubin Sings, serves as a plea to choose liberation over oppression, the future over the past. Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species” from the 1994 release Art & Survival is a graphic depiction of Black female exploitation that equally highlights her reality and resilience. In 2021, jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington, with bassist Me’shell Ndegeocello and the backing band Social Science, released “No Justice (for Political Prisoners),” paying homage to American activist and member of the Black Panther and Black Liberation Party, Assata Shakur, god-mother of late rapper Tupac Shakur. Shakur’s defiance against a failed and unjust legal system, as well as her opposition to police brutality and demoralizing racial inequality, gained her political asylum in Cuba. This history allows for telling a Black woman’s side of the story through elements of jazz, gospel, and R&B with a spoken word motif of “No justice,” suggesting America has been less than democratic. Her promise still needs to be fulfilled. These works, and others like them, tell and retell the burden and beauty of Blackness without a filter, but this is not music for mainstream radio. So, where do we find these siren songs? Wherever we dare to seek them out because the Great American Songbook is disconnected from the experience of Blackness.
As an art form, jazz continues to evolve and transcend while holding steadfast to the past. The lines between appropriation and inspiration grow ever thinner with the emergence of the term Black American Music, coined by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and how it has become a marketing tool for non-Black artists across all genres. Its use is being employed to diminish and distort the music and the real-world experiences on which it founded. It becomes imperative to reserve and protect spaces for the contributions of Black women so their voices will not go unheard or, worse, be misrepresented or silenced. She must not be required to seek approval or permission to give an oral account of her experience and existence. Frederick Douglass once famously wrote, “What is the 4th of July to a Slave?” not simply posing the question to the unfree–sitting on the sidelines of democracy while hoping, praying, and occasionally, shucking and jiving, for more than a mere “crust of bread and such” –but to the ones who insist on keeping them ensnared, generation after generation. So, what is freedom to the Black female jazz singer? Freedom is her untethered tongue speaking and singing for herself.permission.