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FREEDOM NOW AND OTHER JAMS, PART 4

The Remix

Around the time Gil Scott-Heron took off, jazz fusion set in with Miles Davis’ groundbreaking Bitches Brew. For many critics and musicians, the signpost of that double album nonetheless read “DEAD END,” while a more modernist, commercial bent marked releases by Herbie Hancock, Grover Washington Jr., Weather Report and others. The early ’70s saw the first attempts by academics to set pre-1970 jazz in amber as U.S. classical music, the way it should be played—largely without the involvement of Black scholars.

Jazz had lost its status as pop music; the age of instantly recognizable radio hits like Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” was long gone. Protest songs in the genre did emerge during the fusion-and-beyond period, but they weren’t heard on the same frequency as material by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and the other R&B artists who dominated the airwaves.

Saxist Hal Singer—the last male survivor of 1921’s Tulsa race massacre—released “Malcolm X” (from 1971’s Paris Soul Food). The African liberation colors of red, black and green suffuse the cover of Ethnic Expressions, a 1973 release from jazz drummer Roy Brooks that features “The Last Prophet” and other pro-Black cultural emanations. And an African jazz-funk band dubbed Oneness of Juju, founded by saxophonist-activist James “Plunky” Branch, dropped its African Rhythms debut in 1975. The album filtered the spirit of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat through a jazzy African-American mesh, making statements like “Liberation Dues,” which rails against South African Apartheid.

Outfits like the Mtume Umoja Ensemble, Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and The Ensemble Al-Salaam, as well as solo artists including Brother Ah, also joined the chorus. Records by these torchbearers and their compatriots would be excavated from record-store bargain bins by jazz-loving rap producers like Q-Tip.

Hip-hop also first appeared in the 1970s, of course, and by the ’80s had begun to musically supplant all comers as the voice of the voiceless with tracks like 1980’s “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” by Brother D and Collective Effort.

Commercially, jazz (particularly the sax) became something of a seasoning element on pop and R&B records. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer-winning artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, upheld the genre’s deep-rooted traditions as the smooth sounds of Kenny G and Najee topped jazz sales charts.

In 1989, Oscar-winning director Spike Lee, son of jazz bassist Bill Lee, unleashed the racial jeremiad Do the Right Thing, which showcased the music of Public Enemy—the greatest band of hip-hop’s most politically conscious period. Radio Raheem’s love for blasting PE’s “Fight the Power” on a large Tecsonic radio results in his death at the hands of police. Riding on the bedrock of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” the song’s extended remix (heard absolutely everywhere that summer) featured solo riffs from jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. This “Powersax” version stands as the earliest convincing union of jazz and hip-hop.

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