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. ​

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    Brandee Younger remembers the time she wished Barack Obama happy birthday on Facebook. “Six people blocked me,” the harp player says. “Two were harpists.” It wasn’t really a surprise. The harp world likes to keep politics out. Once, Younger was offering downloads of a song for Trayvon Martin at a harp festival. The director objected. “It was just a song I composed for a boy who was killed!” she says. Younger takes it in stride. She always stood out, as a young Black woman who grew up on Long Island playing harp, and became a virtuoso. “I didn’t have models who looked like me,” she says. “But I was kind of used to doing my own thing.” Trained in classical music, Younger gravitated to jazz at the University of Hartford, and now roams across genres freely. She’s played with jazz legends like Pharoah Sanders, but also with John Legend, Common and Drake. Her second LP, “Wax & Wane,” came out in 2016, with a sextet including regular collaborators Chelsea Baratz on saxophone and Dezron Douglas on bass. It’s soul-jazz with lavish helpings of funk and, in places, a hip-hop sensibility. Younger often plays compositions by two great harpists in jazz history: the late Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. After Coltrane died in 2007,  Younger – then just 23 – played harp at her star-studded memorial. “No pressure at all!” she says with a chuckle. Younger keeps up with classical harp, even though its gatekeepers are fusty. But she credits jazz for her creative direction. “Veering off in this direction as an adult offered me a great deal of liberation.” (Photo: Kyle Pompey)





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    Jaimeo Brown was the drummer in other people’s bands for years before his epiphany arrived. It took the form of a recording of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, the Black women in rural Alabama who sing age-old spirituals as they make their quilts. Those songs became his strength. “When I had to do something important, I’d listen to them,” Brown says. “It would put me in a place that was centered, honest, and brought the best out of me.” This insight sparked Brown’s project Transcendence, which has made two albums, including last year’s “Work Songs.” Along with producer-guitarist Chris Sholar (at right), he combines archival recordings from the Southern tradition with acoustic and electronic jazz. Other sounds appear, with disparate sources. Indian singer Falu is a regular guest. The deft Sholar has worked with Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Kanye West and many more. The sound stitches together in a way that feels both ancient and new. Videos, mixing archive images with effects and animation, complete the live experience. “We’re more storytellers than we are jazz musicians in a sense,” says Brown, 38.  His credentials are strong: he grew up in a musical family and studied jazz at William Paterson University. But Transcendence extends beyond making music. “This music had functions outside performance,” he says of spirituals and work songs. “It was community building, healing, resistance.” Brown works with afterschool programs in New York and New Jersey. “I’m active in outreach with young African-Americans,” he says. “I started to see how they are attached to this much bigger story.” With this archive and myriad ways to make it current, Transcendence has only begun. “This will be my work for the next 15 to 20 years, if not the rest of my life.” (Photo: Rebecca Meek)













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    What does trap music have to do with jazz? For trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the answer is everything. First off, Scott doesn’t like the word jazz. He uses the term “stretch music,” because it’s always expanding. “The actual tradition of this music is to always look for new language, new ways of communicating, new landscapes to build on,” he says. His eight-member ensemble plays long, cinematic songs that pull in blues, polka and salsa. A trap vibe appears on his new album, “Ruler Rebel,” enhanced by drum machines. All these sounds have a common core, Scott argues. The difference is perception, laden with bias. Scott, 34, lives in his hometown New Orleans, where music debates run deep. This year he is putting out three albums to commemorate 100 years since the first jazz recordings. But they won’t sound traditional. “I wanted to make a document from the perspective of people born when we were born, listening to the things we listened to,” he says. Scott has developed his sound and theories over the course of 10 albums, adding aTunde Adjuah to his name en route to honor African ancestry. He has written about Angola prison and racist New Orleans police, but he seeks a broader understanding. “In my neighborhood, there were Black families that were food-insecure and White families that were food-insecure,” he says. “If I can create a musical space that shows the sameness between them, that will be more powerful than harping on differences.” (Promotional photo)















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    Vocalist Amirtha Kidambi was in the practice room when the video of a New York City cop choking Eric Garner to death went around. “I tried to call someone, like a friend or my parents, and no one was around,”  Kidambi says. “So it was like, ‘All right, I’m going to keep singing and try to work through these emotions with my voice.’” “Dvapara Yuga (for Eric Garner)” is a 12-minute song in Kidambi’s unique style: wordless syllables that rise and dip, leap and growl, performed with her quartet Elder Ones. It’s tense, ominous, cathartic. It appears on their 2016 debut, “Holy Science.” Kidambi chose the band – saxophonist Matt Nelson, bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Max Jaffe – to fit the song. “I was looking for ecstatic, visceral players who were going to absolutely attack the material,” she says. Kidambi, 30, grew up in California around Indian classical and religious music, then studied Western classical voice, and has worked with Matana Roberts and Darius Jones, avant-garde musicians with deep interest in the blues and Southern Black history. A key icon is Alice Coltrane, who started an ashram after John Coltrane died. Her Indian-inspired free jazz was “an amazing confluence,” Kidambi says. “It had the energy of punk and things I was into, but all these cultural references that were familiar.”A rising star in the avant-garde, Kidambi’s not likely to go pop soon. But if her music is abstract, it’s still full of emotion. When she performs, she makes plain her commitments. “We can use this music as expression, but also as a platform,” she says. “Every time you take the stage, you have the opportunity to say something.” (Elder Ones promotional photo)





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    “The edge is coming back to the music,” says drummer Kendrick Scott. He’s well-placed to know. Ten years ago, he played in Terence Blanchard’s band on “A Tale of God’s Will,” the trumpeter’s mournful album for New Orleans, where the Katrina floodwaters had devastated Blanchard’s neighborhood and family home. Now, Scott, 36, is a bandleader, one of a generation that has watched police violence, polarization, and inequality—and is channeling fury into art. “We have to ask, are we going to let this slide, or stand up?” Scott says. “Right now, most of my friends are making music and art that tells their truth.” Scott comes from a fount of talent, Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts, where alumni include drummers Eric Harland, Jamire Williams and Chris Dave; pianists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper and Beyoncé. On his latest album with his band Kendrick Scott Oracle, “We Are the Drum” (2015), the sound is expansive, evocative, kinetic. He covers the Flying Lotus-Kendrick Lamar masterpiece “Never Catch Me,” with his drums in place of the rap. Recently, using new equipment that lets him play a range of effects, Scott composed a solo track around a sample: the horrific video in which Diamond Reynolds witnesses the police shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castile. “I went to YouTube, and I couldn’t let it go,” he says. Building the piece was hard. “I listened to it hundreds of times, and I’m sitting here bawling in my room. And I said, if I’m getting this visceral reaction, an audience has to experience this.” Scott hasn’t decided if “Philando” will be on his next album. But in performance, he’s been glad for the song’s room-stilling effect. “Sometimes we get so arty,” he says. “But this just grabs you, and you can’t walk away.” (Photo: Mathieu Bitton)