Friday, January 3, 2014

CAL MASSEY: The Black Liberation Movement Suite

The Damned Don’t Cry: a short biography of Cal Massey

Calvin Massey (b. January 11, 1928) passed away October 25, 1972 at the age of 44, on the eve of the premiere of the black revolutionary opera, Lady Day, for which he was one of the musical collaborators, with a book written by Aishah Rahman, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The most detailed biography of Mr. Massey appears in Fred Ho's book, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader (The University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

Today Cal Massey is virtually unknown with the exception of both highly knowledgeable “jazz” scholars and a small coterie of illustrious musicians who remain alive and were immensely indebted to Massey’s musical influence and mentorship (eg., the great pianist McCoy Tyner and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, while other great “jazz” names have passed who very close to Cal Massey and who had immense respect for him, such as John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Parker...). Massey was a father figure and close friend to many of the greatest “jazz” musicians of the post-World War era until his early death in 1972. 
Cal Massey ranked among the greatest “jazz” composers of the 20th century, included with Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk and Sun Ra.

In addition to Massey’s tremendous musical leadership, mentoring and collegial, due to severe “blacklisting” and exclusion from the “jazz” industry (recording labels, bookings, press), Cal undauntedly became a pioneer in self-producing a series of highly successful concerts, many of which were based directly within the Black community of Brooklyn, in close proximity to where he and his family resided in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Like Sun Ra, Cal Massey exerted the ethos of Black self-determination, rather than as supplicant to and recipient of the dominant and ubiquitous white “jazz” patronage, whether it be financial and/or notoriety.

Cal Massey was a trumpeter but most noted as a composer of magisterial works, for which his epic opus was The Black Liberation Movement Suite (commissioned in 1971 by Black Panther Party-leader-in-exile Eldridge Cleaver), an extended work of originally eight movements, and then later extended to nine movements. Until recently, the work was never recorded in its entirety, only 3 of 9 movements had been recorded, all by Archie Shepp. In 2012, the first full recording of the Black Liberation Movement Suite was finally recorded, produced by Fred Ho and Quincy Saul. It won "best tribute album" of the year by the New York City Jazz Record.

(The band at the recording studio in Brooklyn, after the first ever full recording of 
the Black Liberation Movement Suite. Photo by Quincy Saul)

The Black Liberation Movement Suite is one of the undiscovered gems of an epic “jazz” extended work. It perhaps may be regarded as one of the greatest “jazz” suites of the 20th century. While of considerable musical and artistic grandeur, The BLM Suite is also a work of considerable socio-political significance, commissioned by the Black Panther Party and musically and ideologically expressing the revolutionary upsurge of the Black Liberation struggle in the U.S. during the late-1960s. Massey’s political stance was unparalleled, both then and now, and may remain singular for paying explicit tribute to revolutionary figures such as Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Eldridge Cleaver (who asked Massey to compose the Suite to raise funds for the Black Panther Party’s defense fund for political prisoners when they had met in Algeria during the Pan-African Arts Festival in 1969).

A Prose Illustration of the Black Liberation Movement Suite
by Ben Barson, 2012

The Black Liberation Movement Suite is a 9-movement suite, spanning different styles, worlds, political leaders, and ears of African-American history.

Movement 1: Prayer is a direct invocation to the divine to grant safe travel and blessing of this journey through the painful, beautiful and chosen history to ensue. It fluctuates between a solemn, fiery dirge and a lush, angelic call to the divine—signifying the both violence of the state and democratic energies within the movement, evoking the life and death found in the struggles to reclaim dignity and overthrow Empire, that Black Liberation Movement bore witness to.

Movement 2: Things Have Got to Change is a call to begin the struggle in earnest. Its west African percussive opening, yearning string melodies and fierce band entrance all paint a picture of a people in motion, ready for battle.

Movement 3: Man in Peace in Algiers (For Eldridge Cleaver) is a mediation on exile and diaspora. It touches on the essential sadness of being cast out of one’s homeland that Eldridge had to go through following his fleeing U.S. persecution. 

Movement 4: The Black Saint (For Malcolm X) summons forth the sense of despair, anger, and cosmic tragedy over the 20th century’s most influential African-American, one that looked straight into the white power structure and its 500 year history of genocide, slavery, and colonization and said “I’m not afraid of you.”

Movement 5: The Peaceful Warrior (For Martin Luther King Jr.) is a composition dedicated to the most profound spiritual leader in American History, whose combination of liberation theology and militant pacifism was born out of Ghandi’s own struggle, and inspired the world in turn.

Movement 6: The Damned Don’t Cry (For Huey P. Newton) presents the struggle of the founder of the Black Panther Party, who was imprisoned in a counterrevolutionary act of state violence. What does it mean that the Damned Don’t Cry? It means the oppressed don’t have time to sob and talk petty trash while the struggle is in their homes, on their streets, in their police states. It means violence must be met with violence, and safety and dignity must be attained by any means necessary.

Movement 7: Dear John (For John Coltrane) is a tribute to Cal Massey’s longtime friend and collaborator. Upon clearer listening one can discern the changes as none other than Coltrane’s signature “Giant Steps,” its movement in major thirds creating evocative and sublime colors for tenor saxophonist Bhinda Kheidel to dance through. In the author’s opinion, this is the best Coltrane tribute ever composed.

Movement 8: Babylon (For the U.S.A) could not say more clearly how Massey saw his slave masters—a quasi biblical empire that needed to be toppled, for once and for all.

Movement 9: Back to Africa (For Marcus Garvey) is a piece dedicated to one of the original Black nationalists, Marcus Garvey, who mobilized millions in the African diaspora and called for national independence. The piece depicts the turning of ship in a reverse middle passage, to return to the source, with an Afro-Asian temperament in a haunting and evocative melody.

 Below are live video recordings from the premiere album release of 
Cal Massey: A Tribute, a concert at the Red Rooster in Harlem, 
produced by Fred Ho and Ben Barson. 
Video recording by DeeDee Halleck.

No comments:

Post a Comment