Jazz has always had to do with freedom.
It’s built into the music’s DNA, its anchoring in Black culture and history.
It expressed and sustained community under Jim Crow. In the Civil Rights era, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln made “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.” John Coltrane recorded “Alabama.” In the late 1960s, as the Black Arts movement rose, jazz musicians in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, helped shape the liberation culture, freeing their own sound to take on African, Indian, and avant-garde European ideas.
At the dawn of the new century, something felt lost. Jazz was played around the world, now a respectable subject taught in universities; but old heroes were dying, club culture fading, the Internet killing the business, making livelihoods even more tenuous.
Jazz didn’t die, though.
If anything, it’s more relevant now than it’s been in a generation. It has new stars. Pianist Robert Glasper switches between “pure” jazz and R&B ventures, his band and others around them building a fresh language that blurs those categories. In Los Angeles, saxophonist Kamasi Washington emerged from the same world as Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar; Washington’s band made its debut with a triple album of 1970s-style soul jazz, “The Epic,” then went on to play Coachella.
And from the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina’s floodwaters to the tragic succession of police shootings of Black Americans, to surveillance, polarization, xenophobia and fear—jazz has renewed its role as music that heals, expresses anger and finds catharsis. Artists are rising to the challenge, finding ways to balance the political and the spiritual, creativity and activism, community and self-care. Here are five makers of the new liberation music.
Siddhartha Mitter is a culture journalist based in New York City. He contributes to the Village Voice, Boston Globe and other outlets.