Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Missing the Bus

Marc Myers at had an intriguing post the other day (here), regarding Charles Mingus and his sometimes controversial jazz compositions (at least those exhibiting a boldly political slant). Marc focussed particularly on "Fables of Faubus"--its angry lyrics and churning music.

Yet we know that Mingus had a way of revising his pieces on the fly, again and again, his tunes and arrangements evolving continuously. And Sue Mingus says he never fixed on any one text when words were part of a composition too. "Definitive" Mingus performances aren't often that, but instead just a matter of a moment in time and of tape running in a studio.

Mingus was not alone, of course, in addressing racism and events of the Civil Rights era. Satch spoke out; Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone sang out; Duke wrote carefully; Rollins and Roach, Coltrane and Shepp and others issued their "freedom suites" and tributes with other titles. Marches and sit-ins and freedom rides, mounting tension in Selma and Little Rock, bombs in Birmingham, murders in Mississippi, the later assassinations of the Kennedys and King... the list of horrors and astonishing acts of bravery is endless and likely timeless, and jazz musicians have chimed in often over the decades.

But contemplating the albums and tracks and titles, I came up with none honoring the 1955-56 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, when weary Rosa Parks was too tired to move to the back of the bus yet again, and a young church leader named Martin Luther King was soon decisively taking charge. (The Neville Brothers' "Sister Rosa" remains a fine r&b tribute.)

I was living in Montgomery for that one year (father in the USAF, stationed at Maxwell). Though I was a thoughtless pre-teen cowed by the South in general, I can well remember black people walking everywhere, and a few white drivers including my parents giving them lifts to work or the grocery or across town to some other destination.

The Brown v. Board of Education court decision of 1954 had opened the door to integration, but not many folks tried to walk through till Parks sat down and King stepped forward. Maybe the action was too diffuse, the racial tension largely absent, because those Montgomery folks were refusing something and not yet demanding, absenting themselves rather than getting in the face of the white establishment. Even so, surely the boycott merits some remembrances in jazz too...

It's likely such compositions exist and I just haven't come across them, or have forgotten titles once known, but until someone enlightens me further (and please do), I remain puzzled by such loud silence.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alan Kurtz said...

Don't forget rap duo OutKast's 1999 single "Rosa Parks," with its chorus: "Ah ha, hush that fuss / Everybody move to the back of the bus / Do you want to bump and slump with us / We the type of people make the club get crunk." This stirring tribute stirred Mrs. Parks to sue OutKast and their record company for using her name without permission. See

I Witness said...

Hello, Alan. Nice to hear from you, and i would respond directly if i had an email address that connected. As for OutKast, i happily have never heard that track. Any actual jazz tunes you can think of?