Bill Shoemaker
Like many Americans, I spent September 11th on an airplane, flying into Washington, DC. The iconic anniversary was not in my thoughts. My faith in human renewal had a major tune-up the night before, seeing Joseph Jarman perform with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The saxophonist had come down with food poisoning two days prior to the AEC’s headlining concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival (to be reported in the next PoD), and was missing the gig, period. Since Jarman has been ill for two years, and the AEC performs infrequently, it looked like I missed an increasingly rare opportunity to see Jarman perform with the group. Since the MC had repeatedly misspoke earlier in the evening, calling guitarist Jeff Parker (substituting for Jarman in a quartet rounded out by Hamid Drake, Douglas Ewart and Wadada Leo Smith) “Jeff Blake,” I assumed it was another flub when he announced Jarman with the other members of the AEC. Yet, amazingly, Jarman strode onto the stage, played with conviction, sang his Buddhist songs, danced a little, and even laid down for a few moments to play, feet bicycle-pedaling in the air. Talk about a Power Stronger Than Itself.

I’m sure a lot of folks have had a similar reaction to Sonny Rollins’ Without A Song -- The 9/11 Concert (Milestone). The saxophonist lived six blocks away from the Twin Towers, and was evacuated the day after they fell. Coincidentally, CNN was rolling tape and their reporter on the scene asked Rollins why he had a saxophone. It is an astounding document. Rollins puts on a brave face, and answers forthrightly; but he’s obviously shaken. Yet, four days later, Rollins went onstage in Boston to play a concert he almost cancelled, a date his now late wife Lucille convinced him to keep. When he launches into “Without A Song,” a nod to his boyhood idol, Paul Robeson, the old guy with the sax on CNN becomes The Saxophone Colossus. You can count on one hand the number of Rollins albums recorded during the past 40 years where his playing is this purposeful and compelling.

In a larger context, Rollins’ performance exemplified how Americans got up off the mat, bore witness, and recommitted to life, family and community, which made us respected and admired throughout the civilized world in the aftermath of 9/11. Sadly, this good will in-stantly vanished with Bush’s war on Iraq, creating a crucible for Americans of conscience. Two other recently released CDs represent the pre-Katrina antiwar outrage just as well as Rollins’ reflects post-9/11 dignity. Interest-ingly, a multinational conglomerate issued one album and an artist-run label based deep in the heart of Texas produced the other. Heard in tandem with the Rollins CD, they make a solid case that jazz remains a vital American medium for the advocacy of peace and social justice.
Arguably, no active jazz artist is as bankable and as adamant expressing leftist politics through his music as Charlie Haden. Over nearly 40 years, the bassist has recorded such benchmark works as “Song for Che” and “The Ballad of the Fallen” with his Liberation Music Orchestra; and, remarkably, he has released these works on such high-profile labels as Impulse, ECM and Blue Note. The LMO’s newest, Not In Our Name, is on Verve, a Universal imprint. The program juxtaposes such staples of Americana as “America The Beautiful,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “Goin’ Home,” with intriguing interpretations of seldom heard pieces like Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America” and the Pat Metheny/David Bowie movie theme, “This Is Not America.” (Even though The Falcon and The Snowman is about two feckless youths who commit treason for money and spite, the original would have made a cutting soundtrack to cable news packages on the aftermath of Katrina) It is a major statement by a fully matured artist and his longtime collaborator, composer-arranger Carla Bley, whose charts are often propelled by an unsettling dark undercurrent. Still, it is not the firebrand jazz of yore.
Fortunately, jazz still has flame-throwers like Alex Coke, the Austin-based composer and woodwind player best known for his long, improbable stint in the pungently satirical Dutch big band, The Willem Breuker Kollektief. On Iraqnophobia (voxlox), Coke is repulsed, whereas Haden comes off as merely indignant; additionally, Coke’s big band charts for the eight-part work are decidedly rawer than Bley’s. Instead of a star and rising-star studded ensemble, Coke’s is comprised of musicians with little to no name recognition outside of Texas. There is one salient similarity: Coke is also reunited with one of his most sympathetic collaborators, the captivating vocalist Tina Marsh.
The reason Coke’s album is so much closer to the grassroots pulse of Bush’s opposition is that Coke understands that the war, its chaotic aftermath, and grotesque sideshows like Abu Ghraib, have reinvigorated the social justice movement muffled after 9/11. This is reflected in the inclusion of a second, six-part composition on Iraqnophobia, “Wake Up Dead Man,” which takes on the US incarceration epidemic and the capitol punishment craze (of which Bush was an avatar) with equal ferocity. Coke then takes the extra step of assembling a booklet that includes 11 incredible documentary photographs by Alan Pogue (whose work can be viewed at: It’s been a while since a jazz recording and its packaging have been so resoundingly right on.