Liner Notes — We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, by Nat Hentoff

April 30th, 2014


       Thanks to this week’s public airing of the racist thoughts attributed to Donald Sterling — the Neanderthal owner of the Los Angeles Clippers — bigotry, hatred and ignorance have been on full display this week.  Sterling’s discussion with his equally insipid companion is most obviously insulting and hurtful to African Americans, but it is also abhorrent to everyone who had the courage to challenge the thinking of fellow members of the boomer generation — as well as (and especially) those in our parents’ generation — who grew up in a world of segregation, taking part in or witnessing the insensitivity and bigotry that is a product of it on a daily basis.

       At times like this it is helpful to be reminded of moments in our history when heroic community leaders and artists encouraged our society to rise above the Donald Sterling’s of the world when it was most intimidating to do so, initiating a creative climate influential to the political events that would ultimately inspire us to cultivate change in our own individual way.  

       For example…We Insist!  Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite — a seminal recording from the heat of the civil rights era that, according to Candid A&R director (and jazz writer/civil rights activist) Nat Hentoff, spoke “defiant truth to power” — is now-more-than-ever relevant, and required musical achievement, artistic vision and personal courage.  It was recorded and produced at a time of protest against bigotry and racial discrimination when bigotry and racial discrimination were not only not illegal, they were institutionalized.  It took tremendous resolve for these performers — and for the record executives as well — to produce and market We Insist!, which is now acknowledged to be a work of genius.  But it is not only a work of musical genius that demonstrated greatness in the face of bigotry, it is a work that inspired people of many colors to contribute to the “Freedom Now” revolution.  Unfortunately, Sterling reminds us that it is a revolution that remains unfinished.

       With this as the emotional backdrop for this edition of “Liner Notes,” what follows are Nat Hentoff’s liner notes to the August 31 and September 6, 1960 recording sessions of We Insist!  Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.




Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach


      “A revolution is unfurling – America’s unfinished revolution. It is unfurling in lunch counters, buses, libraries and schools – whenever the dignity and potential of men are denied. Youth and idealism are unfurling. Masses of Negroes are marching onto the stage of history and demanding their freedom now!”

      A. Philip Randolph


      The sit-in demonstrations by Negro students in the South began in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. Although the initial sit-ins were spontaneous, the rapidly spreading movement soon received help and guidance from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality). Negroes throughout the country — and many whites — were surprised and stimulated by the effectiveness of these direct, mass action, nonviolent techniques.

      Jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and several others declared public support for the sit-ins. During the same period, there was also increasing press coverage of the emerging, newly independent nations of Africa. Negro students in the South had been particularly aware of the impetus to their own campaigns for freedom given by the African examples because of the presence of African students on their campuses. Jazzmen too had been becoming conscious and prideful of the African wave of independence. Several new original compositions were titled with the names of African nations, and some jazzmen began to know more about Nkrumah than about their local Congressman.

      One of the jazzmen who had been strongly involved emotionally in the movements for integration in American and national autonomy in Africa was Max Roach. In 1959, Roach had begun collaborating with a Chicago writer-singer, Oscar Brown Jr. on a long work to be performed in 1962 on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Events in 1960 affected the content and the direction of the composition, sections of which are presented for the first time in this album. DRIVA’ MAN, FREEDOM DAY and ALL AFRICA were originally written to be performed as sections of a large choral work, and this label hopes eventually to record the piece as originally conceived.

      Brown, 34, is a uniquely diversified performer-lyricist. He has been a newscaster, actor, program coordinator for the Packinghouse Workers in Chicago, and more recently, the writer of a pungently satirical musical, Mr. Kicks and Co. His DRIVA’ MAN is a personification of the white overseer in slavery times who often forced women under his jurisdiction into sexual relations. Many overseers were also relentlessly brutal. In Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (The University of Chicago Press), one former slave said: “They whupped the women and they whupped the mens. I used to work some in the tannery, and we make the whups. They’d better not leave a blade of grass in the rows…Or they’d whup ‘m running away, but not so hard if they come back of their own ‘cordance when they got hungry and sick in the swamps. But when they had to run ’em down with the …dogs, they’d fit in bad trouble.”

      The “paterollers” (patrollers) that figure in the lyrics to DRIVA’ MAN were described by another former slave as men “who would catch you from home and wear you out and send you back to your master…Most of them there patrollers was poor white folks…Poor white folks had to hustle round to make a living so they hired out theirselves to slaveowners and rode the roads at night and whipped you if they catched you off their plantation without a pass.”

      In this intensely expressive performance, Coleman Hawkins plays the male counterpart to Abbey Lincoln. Hawkins was intrigued by the work as a whole and stayed long after his own part was finished. He kept turning to Max Roach, commenting on the strong, bold melodies. “Did you really write this, Max?” Hawkins kep asking. “My, my!” Abbey Lincoln’s fiery strength and hard clarity were a revelation to me after having heard her on several albums which lacked definition. “I feel this,” she explained, “and I’ve also learned a lot from Max Roach in recent months about being me when I sing.” It is Coleman Hawkins who solos after Abbey’s opening. There was a squeak in this, his best take. “No, don’t splice,” said Hawkins. “When it’s all perfect, especially on a piece like this, there’s something very wrong.”

      FREEDOM DAY, another collaboration of Brown and Roach, communicates the vibrant expectancy and wonderment and nagging disbelief in the period immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. The song, particularly in Abbey Lincoln’s surging performance, projects a bursting impatience. The celebratory instrumental solos are by Booker Little (trumpet); Walter Benton (tenor saxophone) in one of his best performances so far on record; Julian Priester (trombone); and Max Roach. Roach arranged the backgrounds throughout the record as well as having composed the melodies.

      TRIPTYCH: PRAYER, PROTEST, PEACE was originally conceived by Roach as a ballet, and has been performed by him with the Ruth Walton Dancers. The choreography by Roach and Walton is largely improvisatory within a general framework. The demands this piece makes on a singer are fierce and exhausting. PRAYER is the cry of an oppressed people, any and all oppressed peoples of whatever color or combinations of colors. PROTEST is a final, uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulated fury and hurt and blinding bitterness. It is all forms of protest, certainly including violence. PEACE, as Max explained to Abbey before the take, “Is the feeling of relaxed exhaustion after you’ve done everything you can to assert yourself. You can rest now because you’ve worked to be free. It’s a realistic feeling of peacefulness. You know what you’ve been through.” Worth noting is how aptly Max complements Abbey in the three sections. ALL AFRICA connotes both the growing interest of American Negroes in the present and future of Africa and also their new pride in Africa’s past and their own pre-American heritage. In this collaboration between American jazz drummer Roach, Afro-Cuban players Mantillo and Du Vall, and Nigerian Michael Olatunji, it was Olatunji who set the polyrhythmic directions. It is his voice answering Abbey Lincoln in the introduction. She chants the names of African tribes. In answer, Olantunji relates a saying of each tribe concerning freedom — generally in his own Yoruba dialect. His is also the leading drum voice (he’s actually playing three, the basic drum being an Apesi from Nigeria, a whole drum carved from the trunk of a tree.) The resultant interplay gathers in tension and complexity until TEARS FOR JOHANNESBURG is introduced by an insistent motif played by bassist James Schneck. TEARS FOR JOHANNESBURG sums up, in large sense, what the players and singers on this album are trying to communicate. There is still incredible and bloody cruelty against Africans, as in the Sharpeville massacres of South Africa. There is still much to be won in America. But, as the soloists indicated after Abbey’s wounding threnody, there will be no stopping the grasp for freedom everywhere. In order, the solos are by Booker Little, Walter Benton, Julian Priester, and the drummers.

      What this album is saying is that FREEDOM DAY is coming in many places, and those working for it mean to make it stick. In 1937, a Negro who still remembered slavery spoke of what it was like in 1865. “Hallelujah broke out…Everybody went wild. We all felt like heroes, and nobody had made us that way but ourselves.” It’s happening again.

Nat Hentoff


Candid 9002


Abbey Lincoln – vocal
Coleman Hawkins – tenor saxophone
Walter Benton – tenor saxophone
Booker Little – trumpet
Julian Priester – trombone
James Schenck – bass
Max Roach – drums

same personnel as “Driva’ Man” except Coleman Hawkins is omitted

Abbey Lincon – vocal
Max Roach – drums

Abbey Lincoln – vocal
Walter Benton – tenor saxophone
Booker Little – trumpet
Julian Priester – trombone
James Schenck – bass
Max Roach – drums
Michael Olatunji – conga drums
Raymond Mantilla – percussion
Tomas du Vall – percussion

same personnel as “All Africa”


Produced by: Max Roach
Recorded at: Nola Penthouse Sound Studio, New York, August 31 and September 6, 1960
Engineer: Bob d’Orleans
Supervision: Nat Hentoff




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