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Civil Rights movement inspired musician with northeastern NC connection

As I was browsing Twitter this past week, I saw a fascinating series of tweets from the NC Arts Council. The organization shared some interesting tidbits of information about the anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins and a connection to a famous jazz musician who was born in northeastern North Carolina.

It seems appropriate that the beginning of Black History Month coincides on the same date that four Black students from North Carolina A&T University sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro to protest segregation. On Feb. 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil took their seats at the restaurant and simply refused to leave after they were denied service. The event sparked a “sit-in” movement throughout the country, as more and more people joined in to show that segregation shouldn’t be allowed any longer. The movement was successful.

I’ve always thought the photos of the four men sitting at the counter on that day are somehow both simultaneously striking and mundane. Their facial expressions are serious when they look over their shoulders at the camera. There’s no question that they’re committed to their protest and its importance. But looking at it now, it almost seems crazy to think that the simple act of sitting wasn’t allowed. It doesn’t look like an act of defiance in today’s world, but it was a big deal in 1960.

According to the NC Arts Council, the sit-in movement was what inspired Max Roach to create one of his best works, a jazz album entitled “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.”

Roach was an extremely successful drummer in the jazz scene, especially in the bebop subgenre. In his career, he played alongside other famous musicians including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. (If anyone remembers my column from last February, Monk was originally from North Carolina, having been born in Rocky Mount before his family moved to New York.)

I was surprised to learn that Roach, like Monk, was also born in northeastern North Carolina in 1924. His family lived in the community of Newland in Pasquotank County, which isn’t too far east of the Roanoke-Chowan area. When he was four years old, however, Roach and his family moved up to Brooklyn, New York.

Roach’s drumming skills were mesmerizing to watch. I watched a few YouTube videos of his drum solos and was amazed at how fast his hands could move, and how well he could coordinate the beats together with his hands and his feet. He utilized all sides of the drum set, not just the tops, to create his music.

The Freedom Now suite was a concept album about the Black experience. It featured music written by Roach, lyrics written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and performances from many musicians including vocalist Abbey Lincoln, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Booker Little, and trombonist Julian Priester.

Mark Anthony Neal, in a 2019 article on the NC Arts Council’s website, described Roach’s album as “an early testament to the burgeoning rage, anger and passion that would take the Civil Rights Movement from its early victory in Montgomery in 1955 into a future that would dramatically alter race relations in the United States.”

The most memorable song on the album is called “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace.” You can definitely feel the emotions in that song when you listen to it, especially through Lincoln’s wordless singing which turns into painful howls by the end of it.

Neal concludes his article by saying, “By the end of the 1960s, the sense of urgency that the ‘We Insist! Freedom Now’ suite emboldened, could be heard throughout American culture in the work of musicians, playwrights, novelist, poets, and visual artists alike. Almost 60 years after its recording the vision of resistance that ‘We Insist!’ conjured is as relevant and needed today as it was then.”

Since February is Black History Month, it’s the perfect time to look at these important moments, like the Greensboro sit-ins, and how they made an impact on different aspects of life. And I think it’s really cool to see how people connected to our area of North Carolina contributed as well.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.