JazzArts Charlotte will commemorate the 60th anniversary of Max Roach’s album ‘We Insist!’ from the Black Lives Matters mural

 By Jamel Smith

February 9, 2021

In recognition of Black History Month, JazzArts Charlotte will present a virtual tribute performance to North Carolina’s own, legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, and his 1960 protest jazz album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The performance will premiere live on February 12, 8 p.m. on JazzArts’ Facebook and Youtube channels. 

The presentation will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the jazz suite’s groundbreaking artistic statement. Aptly presented in conjunction with Black History Month, the tribute will reflect on the album’s social themes through a multi-disciplined performance featuring a 12-piece jazz ensemble, dance, spoken word, and history. The performance also takes place at the Black Lives Matter mural in uptown Charlotte. 

‘We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite’ will feature music, dance, and poetry to pay tribute to the groundbreaking jazz album. Photo: Tyrus Ortega Gaines

In addition to honoring the historic jazz album, the performance will recognize Max Roach for his contribution to the civil rights movement and to the legacy of jazz in the Carolinas. The jazz drummer and composer, born in 1924 in Newland, North Carolina, has been considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. His virtuosic drumming defied listener expectations and broke musical barriers. 

Over the span of 63 years and over 100 albums and recordings, Roach collaborated with an array of artists. He led a “double quartet” and an ensemble of percussionists. He performed unaccompanied, and occasionally dueted with fellow avant-garde musicians, pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Additionally, he wrote music for Sam Shepard plays and Alvin Ailey dance pieces, and collaborated with gospel choirs and hip hop performers. Roach’s talent knew no bounds. 

Album cover for Max Roach’s 1960 protest jazz album ‘We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.’

Roach was also a trailblazer in producing socially conscious work, and became widely regarded as significant to the civil rights movement. His 1960 album, We Insist! debuted as a controversial protest album and became one of the earliest offerings to address the racial and political issues during the 1960s.

“Like many artists in the 1960s, jazz musicians channeled the turmoil of the era into their art. Max Roach’s We Insist! is one of those albums,” said Dr. Willie Griffin, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “In many ways, We Insist! served as the keynote of jazz albums for the 1960s, as it and subsequent music produced by prominent jazz artists served to inspire many of the young civil right activists of the period.”

L to R: Dawn Anthony, pianist Lovell Bradford, bassist Shannon Hoover, poet and singer Quentin Talley, and drummer Ocie Davis. Photo: Tyrus Ortega Gaines

The JazzArts production, co-developed with Charlotte Center City Partners and Levine Museum of the New South, will honor Roach’s legacy with talent from top local and regional artists, and special guest, world-renowned trumpeter, Sean Jones. The slate of artists include: vocalist Dawn Anthony, pianist Lovell Bradford, bassist Shannon Hoover, saxophonist Elijah Freeman, trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, drummer Ocie Davis, and percussionists Rajuma Bey, Gary Munford, Noah Munford, and Johnny Vegara. Also joining the jazz ensemble will be speaker Dr. Willie Griffin, poet Quentin Talley, choreographer Tamara Williams, and dancers Dinora Ramirez, Lydia Heidt, and Raquelah Conyers. 

For the past decade, jazz music and culture have occupied the Queen City, thanks to the efforts of JazzArts Charlotte (formerly known as JazzArts Initiative). Led by Lonnie Davis and her husband Ocie Davis, the non-profit organization– comprised of arts patrons, educators, performing jazz artists, business leaders, and volunteers– has championed jazz preservation in Charlotte through its musician support, performance, and education initiatives that enrich the city’s local arts scene. The organization’s mission is to call upon and utilize music as a bonding force between people, a mission not far fetched from that of the jazz movement 60 years ago. In fact, they are synonymous. 

JazzArts Charlotte co-founder Lonnie Davis. Photo: Tyrus Ortega Gaines

As jazz became the leading genre of music in the 1950s and ‘60s, civil rights movements started to lean on the art form to present its message. The partnership between the two resulted in a discovery of common ground between white and Black communities, as well as amplified the message of equality through music. In 2021, JazzArts is using the timely work of the past to carry out a similar objective.

“[JazzArts Charlotte’s] goal is to educate and share all aspects of the music, including its role in the struggle for civil rights and equality,” said Lonnie Davis. “We Insist! is a masterful work that captures the movement, with many references to today’s ongoing challenges.”

JazzArts Charlotte’s tribute to Max Roach’s We Insist! will air live on February 12 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on JazzArts Charlotte’s website, Facebook and YouTube channel

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