In the late 1960s, as black Americans fought for equal rights, music started to reflect their calls to action. Nina Simone wondered what real freedom felt like, and James Brown encouraged black people to proudly proclaim their race. While black music has always been a refuge, these songs expressed a new way of thinking, combating racism with unflinching pride.
Jazz musicians including Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and John Coltrane also sought transcendence with their art, and through shrieking horns and deconstructed rhythms, they set forth a new wave of energy music. It was called free jazz, a loose, improvised blend less tied to structure, and its creation has been credited to Coleman, who started playing these frenetic arrangements on a white plastic saxophone in 1959. The music, and its focus, evolved over the next decade: Sun Ra believed that black people would never find peace on Earth and should live on other planets. Coltrane, through his saxophone, blew shrill notes to summon higher powers.
Some jazz purists weren’t thrilled with this “new thing.” Still, the music persisted. Through Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and others, free jazz started tapping into black consciousness, and songs like “Journey in Satchidananda” and “The Creator Has a Master Plan” helped listeners escape the despair of everyday life.
In 2015, when America was in peril once again — unarmed black people were being killed by the police at an alarming rate, and the country’s ideological divides grew wider in the run-up to the presidential election — the music responded in kind. In December 2014, the R&B singer D’Angelo released “Black Messiah,” his most political album to date, and the following March, Kendrick Lamar put out “To Pimp a Butterfly,” an avant-rap album that embraced free jazz. Two months later, the saxophonist Kamasi Washington, a major contributor on “Butterfly,” released his own bold statement — a three-hour jazz album called “The Epic” — which, through its collection of big band, funk, spiritual music, gospel fusion and R&B, was meant to heal a new generation of black people fighting against overt oppression. Suddenly, jazz was cool again, and acts like Shabaka & the Ancestors and Irreversible Entanglements continue pushing forward.