BHM Series: bassist Marcus Shelby brings freedom music back

The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle…They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s no denying the enormous role that music played in the Civil Rights Movement. As Dr. King stated, the “freedom songs,” were a source of encouragement and strength for many African Americans who faced both racism and injustice.

It can be easy to forget just how important this music is to our history, but bassist Marcus Shelby has made it his mission not to let “freedom songs” be disregarded.

The San Francisco based musician incorporates historical elements into his music and his most recent release, Soul of the Movement: Meditations On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. further adds to the socially conscience stance in jazz.

The album was released in January 2011 and is filled with spirituals, and other forms of protest music that were prominent during the Civil Rights Movement. “Soul of the Movement” is also the name Dr. King gave to freedom songs, so Shelby used this album as an opportunity to pay homage to Dr. King’s legacy as well as learn more about the principles of the movement.

Spirituals like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “There’s A Balm In Gilead” give the album its soulful, gospel-infused tone.

Then there is the swinging big band orchestration and creative arrangements, which also makes for a quite an intriguing journey through Shelby’s civil rights suite.

But, the original compositions by Shelby are the most touching and highlight the stories of others who played a part in the movement.

“Emmett Till (Bobo)” is an original composition, named for the slain 14 year old Chicagoan who was murdered while visiting his aunt in Mississippi. His brutal murder was one of the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement. The piece has more of a dissonant, dark resonance and reflected the rebellious tone of those who fought for equal rights.

“Fables of Faubus,” which is one of the only jazz protest songs on the album, was originally composed by bassist Charles Mingus. It  was one of the first  jazz songs to openly challenge white supremacy. Mingus wrote the song in response to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who prevented the integration of Little Rock Central High School by sending in the National Guard.

 Just as Emmett Till and the Little Rock Nine were important, so were the Freedom Riders, a diverse group of  young people who challenged segregation by riding integrated buses throughout the South. Shelby dedicated the song “Trouble on the Bus (Freedom Rides) to those brave individuals, many of whom faced brutality while trying to obtain equality.

Shelby did a lot of research in preparation for the album, which included doing a residency with various research centers and universities in Chicago and California, as well as an independent study at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. He also spent timing learning more about his family’s history and documented their involvement in activism during the civil rights movement.

Although Shelby’s album was released last year, his music reflects a time that will never be forgotten. Therefore, it is important that we continue to embrace freedom based songs, because they aided in the fight for justice. Shelby is following in the footsteps of other musicians who have added a radical touch to the music we call jazz.

 Through this music, the Negro is able to dip down into wells of deeply pessimistic situations and danger-fraught circumstances and to bring forth a marvelous, sparkling, fluid optimism. He knows it is still dark in his world, but somehow, he finds a ray of light.—- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


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