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Max Roach's 1960 landmark 'We Insist!' proves timeless in a reissue


This is FRESH AIR. Last month, Max Roach's 1960 album "We Insist!" was reissued on CD. It also was named to the National Recording Registry, a roster of works deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, says Roach's landmark album scores in all three categories.


ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Whisper. Listen. Whisper. Listen. Whispers say we're free. Rumors flying - must be lying. Can it really be? Can't conceive it, can't believe it, but that's what they say. Slave no longer. Slave no longer. This is Freedom Day. Freedom Day. It's Freedom Day. Throw those shackle and chains away. Everybody that I see says it's really true, we're free

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Abbey Lincoln in 1960 singing "Freedom Day." Oscar Brown Jr.'s lyric celebrates emancipation and maybe looks ahead to freedoms yet to be secured. The album "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite" epitomizes African American jazz musicians' support for the burgeoning civil rights movement. No equivocating here - the timely cover photo depicts a lunch counter sit-in. And the album begins with a blunt rebuttal to dubious songs where Black narrators pine for the Old South. "Driva'man" presents a slave's-eye-view of plantation living.


LINCOLN: (Singing) Get to work and root that stump. Driva'man will make you jump. Better make your hammer ring. Driva'man will start to swing. Ain't but two things on my mind. Driva'man and quitting time.

WHITEHEAD: Drummer and composer Max Roach gave that song a lopsided five-beat rhythm, where that slammed-out extra beat in every bar suggests the endless drudgery of the work and the crack of the overseer's whip. Guest soloist here is the grand old man of the tenor saxophone, the normally elegant Coleman Hawkins, who catches that rough work song spirit.


WHITEHEAD: Coleman Hawkins squeaked a couple of times in that solo. Normally that'd call for a splice or a retake, but Hawkins said, leave the squeaks in. A piece like this shouldn't be too perfect. Repeated mentions of quitting time in Oscar Brown Jr.'s lyric suggest a parallel to modern-day wage slavery. Max Roach's album "We Insist!" cites history to illuminate current realities and not just in the U.S. "All Africa" builds to Abbey Lincoln shoutouts to various sub-Saharan peoples, some involved in their own liberation struggles. A Pan-African percussion trio includes Nigeria's Olatunji and New York's Ray Mantilla.


LINCOLN: (Singing) They say it began with a chant and a hum and a black hand laid on a native drum. (Singing in non-English language).

WHITEHEAD: On the album's closing tune, a more limber five-beat rhythm calls back to the slave era, "Driva' Man." The title, "Tears For Johannesburg," connects it with the recent Sharpeville massacre of Black protesters in apartheid South Africa. The horns are Booker Little on trumpet, Walter Benton on tenor sax, and Julian Priester on trombone.


WHITEHEAD: Part of this album's story is how it and Max Roach helped Abbey Lincoln find her own voice as a socially aware singer and songwriter. "We Insist!" is now officially a classic, but on first release, it attracted some negative reviews from folks who thought jazz should stay away from politics, as if political realities hadn't helped shape jazz all along or as if Black musicians' present-day lives were of no concern.


LINCOLN: (Vocalizing).

WHITEHEAD: Three short pieces for Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln alone reassert the primacy of drums and the voice as political instruments potent enough to be suppressed on antebellum plantations. On "We Insist!" drums and voice, Oscar Brown Jr.'s pointed lyrics and a band that amplifies their message all insist on being heard.


BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the reissue of Max Roach's classic 1960 album, "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite."

On Monday's show - novelist Emma Straub. Her new book, "This Time Tomorrow," is about a 40-year-old woman who is floating through her life and worried about her beloved, ailing father. She wakes up from her birthday to find herself 16 again, back to the year 1996. Straub also owns Books Are Magic, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.