On Saturday at the Merriam Theater, bassist Christian McBride performed like it was 1969. McBride’s “The Movement, Revisited” is centered around the words of four Civil Rights icons, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.
McBride and his 18-piece band were joined by the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, and four narrators – Rev. Alyn Waller as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dion Graham as Muhammad Ali, Samuel Stricklen as Malcolm X, and Sonia Sanchez as Rosa Parks.
McBride shared that he grew up reading Jet and Ebony which gave him a history lesson in the black experience. The four icons stood out for him. “The Movement, Revisited” stems from a commission by the Portland Arts Society to compose a piece for Black History Month:
The genesis for this project began in 1998 when McBride was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society to compose THE MOVEMENT, Revisited, a two-part composition for small instrumental group and gospel ensemble. This year, McBride envisioned a project of wider scope on the same theme and it has grown into a full-scale, 90-minute production.
The narrators brought to life the personality and passion of their character. I particularly enjoyed McBride’s exuberant “Rumble in the Jungle.” The choir evoked the spirit of the Freedom Singers with “I’m So Tired” and “Freedom, Struggle.”
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, McBride said:
I don't want to predict anything, but the magnitude of the piece - why it was written, what it was about - I can't imagine I'll ever write something as monumental on this scale again. I do get overwhelmed playing it, and every time I do, it feels new. Sometimes, I play this piece and still go, “Wow, did I really write this?”
If the standing ovation is any indication, the audience was wowed by the piece.
McBride’s message music harkens back to earlier generations of jazz greats who were inspired by the struggle for racial justice. In 1929, Louis Armstrong asked, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Composed by Fats Waller, it is considered the first American popular song of racial protest.
Billie Holiday told the world about the horrors of lynching.
Both Armstrong and Holiday are featured in an exhibition at the Library of Congress, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” The multimedia exhibition explores the events that shaped the Civil Rights Movement. It includes manuscripts like Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” composed in 1954 and popularized by Nina Simone in the 1960s.
In 1959, bassist Charles Mingus composed “Fables of Faubus,” a satirical protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who had deployed the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock Central High School to prevent nine African American students from entering the segregated school.
Jazz has an element of freedom. It is that freedom that allowed jazz musicians to use their platform to sound a message of defiance and resistance. From John Coltrane’s “Alabama” to Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” jazz was a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” will be on exhibit at the Library of Congress until Jan. 2, 2016.