Every social movement should have its own music.
That, at least, is the view of local bassist, composer, arranger, and educator Marcus Shelby. His latest project, Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Porto Franco, 2011), a result of many years of exhaustive research, travel, and creative work, forms a kind of musical catalogue of the American Civil Rights Movement.
With beautifully written liner notes including lots of amazing B&W photos from the 50’s and 60’s—a portrait of the smiling Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, strikers in Memphis holding signs that simply say “I am a man,” walking single file between a line of pointed bayonets and a row of tanks, black protesters in Washington demanding “integrated schools” and “decent housing,” contrasted with photos of white protesters from Arkansas demanding an end to integration—it is easy to get a sense of that troubled period in American history.
But there’s a deeper connection to be found in this album and that, of course, is through the music. An orchestral suite containing a mixture of traditional spirituals and freedom songs, re-arrangements of some jazz hits associated with the movement, and many swinging compositions from Shelby himself, the music conveys a real sense both of the monumental struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and of its unassailable spirit
Shelby began his work on Soul of the Movement with a Charles Mingus track, “Fables of Faubus,” the piece from the civil rights era that first revealed to him “how music can open up consciousness.”
Fables has an interesting history.
Mingus originally released the track on his 1959 album (clear your throat as you say this) Mingus Ah Um. The song was inspired by events in 1957, when the Arkansas National Guard prevented a group of nine black teenagers from entering the previously whites only Little Rock Central High School, in which they were newly registered students. It was three years after Brown v. Board of Education, which had ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But changes were slow coming and, in some cases, especially in the South, vehemently resisted.
Leading the segregationist effort in Little Rock was Orval Faubus, then governor of Arkansas. Faubus ordered the National Guard to block the nine black teens from entering the high school and, many contend, engineered the entire crisis by stirring up racial fear and hatred amongst the white population of Arkansas. Thanks to Faubus and his machinations, not only were the Little Rock Nine prevented from entering the school, but they also had to deal with crowds of angry white segregationists who verbally abused, spat on, and threatened them.
Several weeks after what should have been their first day, the students were finally admitted to Central High School under escort of the US Army, a directive from President Eisenhower. For the next year, the nine students faced daily hostility, harassment, and violence at the school.
Like many others at the time, Mingus was outraged by this incident, and wrote what is considered to be his most overtly political song. Ironically, Columbia Records refused to allow Mingus to record Fables with the original lyrics he had written for it, so it was first recorded (and became a hit) as an instrumental.
By current standards, the lyrics could hardly be considered offensive, opening with the rather reasonable request, “Oh Lord, don’t let them shoot us.”
As Shelby says, “In retrospect, they’re not that explicit, not that charged. But in 1957/58, I imagine that they would be to the Southern ear. But they’re basically saying, ‘Oh Lord, don’t let them kill us. Oh Lord, don’t let them lynch us. Oh Lord, no more KKK.’ So…” Shelby pauses in reflection, “that’s how ridiculous things were back then.” Indeed, the greatest insult Mingus irreverently hurls in the direction of Faubus is that he is “sick and ridiculous” for teaching hate—pretty mild language given the latter’s egregious offences.
According to Shelby, that kind of reaction to political music was typical at the time. “A lot of the artists’ original works that spoke out against racism and segregation were banned by the big labels,” he says. Shelby also notes how two decades earlier, Columbia had similarly refused to release Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” the powerful song about lynching in the South. In the end, Holiday had to record the song with Commodore, a smaller, alternative jazz label.
When I first discovered and became a fan of “Fables of Faubus,” I had no idea of this rich history. I just really liked this swinging, irreverent tune with its unforgettable opening theme. The track has multiple themes and tempo changes, so there’s lots of variation with room for some great solos to keep things interesting, and it’s always so satisfying to return to that cheeky opening theme.
Shelby describes Fables as “quite a modern composition for its time” because of its long form. With angular, multi-layered melodies, which, he says, are typical of Mingus, and a beautiful harmonic construction containing a diversity of colors, textures, and voices, the piece offers many different expressive possibilities for a jazz orchestra.
Not surprisingly, Fables is a favorite of many jazz musicians.
When the New York saxophonist and bandleader Mitch Marcus was still based in San Francisco, it was one of those tracks his quintet regularly performed at the Wednesday night jazz jam at Amnesia (which continues now with guitarist Mike Abraham). For Marcus, the political aspect of Fables is important, but it’s not the main attraction. “I’m such a huge fan of Charles Mingus’s music,” he says. “I can’t think any of his tunes that I don’t like, and that one is just . . . it definitely speaks to me, very deeply.”
Marcus recorded his own version of Fables a few years back, not for release on any album, but just to have a recording of this favorite from the Amnesia sessions. As he describes it himself, it’s “real loose—just a jam session, but in the studio.” Although there are some differences in instrumentation, e.g. guitar instead of piano, Marcus doesn’t mess too much with the piece. “I’ve always found Mingus’s music to be so perfectly, so thoughtfully arranged,” he says, “that I’ve never felt much need to do too much, other than put your own voice on it.”
Contrast Marcus’s version with The Nice Guy Trio’s recording of the tune on their debut album Here Comes The Nice Guy Trio (Porto Franco, 2009), which features their usual mix of trumpet, accordion, and bass, as well as special guest Dave Phillips on pedal-steel guitar.
“I love it!” Marcus says of this unusual arrangement by Nice Guy trumpeter Darren Johnston, who, coincidentally, also plays trumpet on both Shelby’s and Marcus’s recordings of Fables. “The pedal steel is from bluegrass and country music,” Marcus explains, “and I don’t think I’ve ever really heard a pedal-steel player play jazz, let alone play Mingus. That just kind of knocked me out.”
Although the particular instrumentation may be unexpected, in terms of rhythm and melody, Johnston’s arrangement also stays true to the original. “All we do is shake it up instrumentally,” he says. With its many counter-melodies, arranging Fables for the trio felt very natural for Johnston, and its obvious humor made it a good fit for the Nice Guys, who “are basically a bunch of goofballs.” The newly-formed trio had just started to incorporate the tune into their repertoire, when they began a collaborative project with Phillips. For Johnston, having Phillips play on Fables was “a perfect match” and he especially liked how the pedal-steel sounded on that whimsical intro.
But, of course, the whimsy inherent in Mingus’s composition belies the fact that it was written in response to a very serious matter. So, what of the political nature of this song? Was knowing the historical context in which this tune was composed part of Johnston’s motivation for recording a version of Fables?
“If anything it would almost make me hesitate,” he says. “I’m always drawn to protest songs and I’ve written quite a few. I tend to be thinking about human rights and civil rights all the time, trying to do what I can, seeing art and music as a form of activism. But The Nice Guy Trio is three white guys. We’re not an integrated band. And it’s a song about the American Civil Rights struggle. So, you just have to make sure your own intentions are in check, I guess.” Smiling, he adds, “I hope that Mr. Mingus would not disapprove of our arrangement.”
In many ways, the fact that a bunch of white guys are celebrating the music of Mingus, mixing it up in new and exciting ways, is an indication of how much progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement. “Back in the 60’s this wouldn’t have happened,” Johnston says. “We were more polarized then.”
These days, you’ll find many non-black musicians honoring Mingus with interpretations of Fables.
New York’s contemporary chamber ensemble Project Trio, consisting of bass, cello, and flute, can be seen here rocking out in a short-form version of Fables.
Amongst others, I also discovered a fantastic blues/reggae version by UK artist Tony Menzies AKA “Tony Mingus” (who sings the original Mingus lyrics with great style and sincerity); a dub version with flute by a Peruvian artist; a glitchy electro-house interpretation by a French DJ/producer; and a strange, slightly creepy, and so not swinging Logic demo of an arrangement of Fables for string quartet.
Oklahoma’s top-notch Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey does a wonderful piano-heavy version on their album The Sameness of Difference (Hyena Records, 2005). Interestingly, their most recent album, The Race Riot Suite (The Royal Potato Family, 2011), tells the mostly forgotten/suppressed story of Tulsa’s 1921 race riots, in which the city’s affluent African-American Greenwood District was intentionally burned to the ground, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries amongst the black population there.
It seems a safe bet to say that Mingus’s work, particularly Fables, has inspired generations of jazz musicians, black and white alike, to create music that challenges and subverts the status quo of inequality, prejudice, and denial. As a result, consumers of that music start to ask questions. “That’s the very least that music can do,” Shelby says. And “Fables of Faubus” is one of those songs, he says, that makes people ask questions. Its cryptic title alone provokes curiosity. “Every composer wants to know what that means,” he says. “And every musician who plays that song.”
So, what does it mean?
An obvious interpretation is that the song simply tells the story of Faubus, a tale that we can perhaps learn something from. Fables are, after all, supposed to have a moral to them. Shelby, however, points out another possible interpretation, one that makes sense of the plural “fables” in the title. Governor Faubus, he believes, was actually more alarmed about the situation than the white community in Arkansas initially was. His reaction to the possibility of Central High becoming an integrated school was so severe that it directly influenced the community’s response. “And part of that was him telling all these stories, these ‘fables’,” Shelby says. “He was making up stories about what would happen if these kids entered this high school to try to scare these white parents.” So, the “fables” of Faubus are these stories Faubus made up in an attempt to incite racial fear and hatred.
On his travels through the South, Shelby met and ended up becoming good friends with historian Dr. Adam Green, son of one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green (the first black student, and only one of the nine, to graduate from Central High). Adam Green is responsible for writing the wonderful liner notes on Shelby’s album.
Shelby and his family also visited Central High and took a tour together. It was important for him to share the experience with his two young daughters. “Kennedy, my oldest one, was very much inspired by this whole thing,” he says. “As I was.” When he started the project, he felt like he already knew a lot about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. But through his extensive research and travels—immersing himself in the music of the period, meeting the families of key figures in the movement, visiting historical sites in the South with his own family, and uncovering new connections to the movement—Shelby began to develop a greater and deeply personal insight into the immense power music has as a form of communication that can inspire and instigate important social change.
It should not be surprising to learn, then, that Shelby’s current project, Green and Blues, is a suite inspired by the sustainability movement. It will premiere in September this year.