By Krista Terrell
Acting ASC President
Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, can’t believe it. But that’s what they say
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day
Those lyrics were sung by local artist Dawn Anthony on the temporary Black Lives Matter mural in October 2020 in uptown Charlotte.
Anthony, along with other local and regional musicians, were part of JazzArts Charlotte’s performance of “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” whose five pieces convey themes related to the civil rights movement. Roach, an African-American jazz drummer and composer considered one of the most important jazz figures in history, is from Newland, North Carolina.
Even though “We Insist!” was recorded in 1960, the struggle for equality by African-Americans in the United States still resonates.
“This music [jazz] couldn’t have been created in no other place but America,” said Lonnie Davis, co-founder and president/CEO of JazzArts Charlotte – a nonprofit that receives funding from ASC to support its work in the community, “because it came out of the suffering not only of the American slave trade, but all [of] the other elements that were present at the time it was born.”
What moved Davis to present Roach’s work was the ongoing news of African-Americans being killed by police and social and racial injustice. She wanted JazzArts to do something more than release a statement.
“We’ve never done anything that directly addresses these issues as an organization,” she said. “Because of the history of jazz music and the fact that a lot of these issues are embedded in the roots of the music itself, I thought it was only natural for us as an organization to be able to do something more – at least play music.”
Davis was aware that Jazz St. Louis performed “We Insist!” for its community during the Ferguson, Missouri protests in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
She always kept “We Insist!” in the back of her mind. Then, when the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others spurred protests across the nation, including Charlotte, she said, “We really do need to perform this music.” She reached out to Jazz St. Louis, which had the work in its archives, and acquired the music.
At first, Davis imagined a small ensemble performance that could be live streamed. But the more she thought about the significance and relevance of the music, that it was composed by a native of North Carolina and the opportunity to include poetry, dance and historical context, she knew it called for JazzArts to do something bigger.
After it was suggested to her that “We Insist!” be performed on the Black Lives Matter mural, “everything grew organically,” she said. The experience was memorable.
“To see it come together and present it in such a significant space in our city, it was a surreal experience for me. (It) almost felt like a dream to see it come together and that we worked so hard rehearsing for weeks (in-person, masked and socially distanced) with these artists to see it finally materialized in the way that it did was a fulfilling experience. I did not want it to end.”
Davis hopes the music will encourage viewers to recognize and face the challenges in our community.
“After hearing it, I would love for this music to hopefully create opportunities for more dialogue, new conversations and actions that really bring the community together and allow us to have conversations that are not easy,” she said.
The Music Matching the Times
JazzArts Charlotte partnered with Levine Museum of the New South on “We Insist!”. Dr. Willie Griffin, the museum’s historian, provides historical context for what was happening during the civil rights movement at the time Roach composed his album and connects it to the music performed in the production.
When Davis approached Griffin about the project, he jumped at the opportunity to do something cultural to show the contributions of Blacks.
“It’s more than politics. It’s more than activism. Our experiences are much broader,” he said. “Our history is just so much more complex than it has been presented to us. We’re not just people who protest and are activist. We are creating culture. The culture reflects our feelings, our experiences and it’s important that we pay attention to that These are really important pieces to the larger body of American culture.”
Griffin, who grew up in a house of piano players and was introduced to jazz by his wife, knew who Max Roach was and that North Carolina was the birthing ground of Jazz greats like Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and others. But he did not know about “We Insist!” or that vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who appeared in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Betta Blues” as the mother of Denzel’s Washington’s character Bleek Gilliam, is featured on the album.
“I never heard Abbey Lincoln’s music until I heard the Max Roach album, so I was really surprised by that,” he said.
“‘We Insist!’ is just a bold piece. It was new for me and exciting. Those are things I like to do as a historian. You know, find out new things.”
Griffin researched the album and recording dates and looked at it in relation to what was going in North Carolina, the South and the civil rights movement.
“We were taking the position that North Carolina is a breeding ground for not only jazz music, it’s a breeding ground for the civil rights movement,” he said.
Viewers watching “We Insist!” will learn how African-Americans overcame Jim Crow traditions that had been in place for decades, arranged sit-in’s in Charlotte and Orangeburg, South Carolina and other cities, fought to integrate the public school system and navigated the economic squeeze of “urban renewal.”
“I was looking at how literary or musical scholars have talked about ‘We Insist!’ and tried to pair the feelings with the songs on the album with what we were seeing on the ground,” said Griffin.
He filmed his pieces on the Black Lives Matter mural as well.
“The more I talk about these issues (and) the more that Black Lives Matter surfaces to the top of discussions, I realize this history contributes to the moment and the movement,” he said. “It explains why our lives matter and explains why up until this point we know basic stuff about that episode in our existence and in America’s experience we know a few names: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We barely know what happened here in our own city. Talking about Dorothy Counts along with Delois Huntley and Girvaud and Gus Roberts because those names never get mentioned and talking about what the city was doing with neighborhoods to avoid integrating the schools.”
To those who are not aware, Huntley integrated Alexander Graham Middle School. Girvaud Roberts integrated Piedmont Middle School and her brother Gus integrated Central High School and was the first African-American to graduate from an all-white school.
“It provides greater context for understanding the evolution of the city,” said Griffin.
Want to Watch?
“We Insist!” was supported by U.S. Bank and Knight Foundation. Programming partners were Levine Museum of the New South and Charlotte Center City Partners.