HITS Daily Double


Kind of Blue and Kind of Bloody

Responsible for revolutionizing the music four times with his innovations in bebop, cool, modal and fusion jazz, Miles Davis struck a protest stance with his defiant attitude. Duke Ellington projected African-American elegance; Davis personified Black cool, progressively making it clear that a race man stood behind his trumpet.

In 1959, Manhattan’s Birdland (named for the iconic jazz saxist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker) was the epicenter of jazz. Davis headlined that August. As he stood outside the club after escorting a white female friend into a taxi, police harassed him, asking him to move along. Pointing to his name on the marquee, Davis stared down an officer until the cop assaulted him, spilling blood all over his bespoke suit; eight days after he recorded Kind of Blue, one of the century’s most enduring masterpieces, the NYPD attacked and arrested Miles Davis for loitering. The incident only fueled his righteous anger.

In 1961, he raised his voice to Columbia Records about distributing his albums with white women on the cover to facilitate sales to white people, insisting LPs like Someday My Prince Will Come, Filles de Kilimanjaro and Sorcerer feature his model-esque wives instead. In 1971, he recorded Jack Johnson, the soundtrack to a documentary about the first Black world heavyweight boxing champ (who scandalously married three white women over the course of his life and suffered a racially motivated felony conviction in 1913). In 1985 he contributed horn lines to “Sun City,” a political take on the “We Are the World” model that found Run-DMC, George Clinton, Bob Dylan and Bono, among others, objecting to Apartheid in South Africa, and the following year titled an album Tutu after South African activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Davis could be as cool as Sean Connery’s James Bond and as militant as the Black Panther Party.

Two years ago, The New York Times launched the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative meant to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” by commemorating the 400th anniversary of slaves landing in America. But during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1950s and ’60s, it was 1862, the year Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that served as a temporal marker. Thus, drummer Max Roach and lyricist Oscar Brown Jr. planned a suite of songs honoring the centennial of that famous executive order.

But the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., and the growing prominence of organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) created such urgency that Roach and his collaborators released We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite two years early, in December 1960.

Featuring a black-and-white cover depicting musicians seated at a lunch counter, a white soda jerk lurking in the background, and song titles like “Freedom Day” and “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace,” Roach, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and singer Abbey Lincoln confronted inequality head-on. In the “Protest” section of “Triptych,” Roach goes supernova on his drums while Lincoln uncorks a series of bloodcurdling screams. It feels like centuries of catharsis, certainly not the sort of jazz that pairs with a glass of pinot grigio.

We Insist!—a signal achievement—captures an irrefutably activist moment.

Click here for Part 3, Whitey's on the Moon.