SFJAZZ: Sounds of Freedom


A celebration of the spirit of resistance in African American music.

The SFJAZZ Center
SFJAZZ is a recognized international leader in jazz creation, presentation, and education, exploring the full spectrum of jazz, from the music's origins in the African American community to its diverse present-day expressions around the world. As a non-profit organization, SFJAZZ works to develop the audience for jazz in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, and celebrates jazz as a living art form, built on a constantly evolving tradition. Founded by Randall Kline in 1983 under the name Jazz in the City, SFJAZZ has become the world’s leading cultural institution devoted to jazz and related forms of music, presenting over 300 performances each year at the new SFJAZZ Center and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. The SFJAZZ Education program serves thousands of adults and youth in communities across the Bay Area with a dynamic and innovative array of programs in the concert hall, classroom, and community. In January 2013, SFJAZZ opened the 36,000-square-foot SFJAZZ Center on the corner of Fell and Franklin streets in the heart of San Francisco’s cultural corridor. The first stand-alone structure in the country built specifically for jazz, the SFJAZZ Center was designed by award-winning San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero. 

Rhiannon Giddens and The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at an SFJAZZ Family Matinee in the beautiful Miner Auditorium

The SFJAZZ Center sits in the heart of San Francisco's cultural corridor.

Explore the gorgeous 700-seat Miner Auditorium.

Sounds of Freedom
Since opening its doors in 2013, the SFJAZZ Center has collaborated with teaching artists and historians to curate several programs highlighting the spirit of resistance in African American music. Featuring the blues as well as other forms of roots music, Sounds of Freedom illustrates the critical role music played in the quest for freedom, and how it became an integral part of the struggle. Beginning with a special project focusing on Harriet Tubman and including several prominent artists in blues and jazz, SFJAZZ celebrates the connections between art and activism in African American music. 

The blues is the foundation of all music born in the United States of America. It has a long history rooted in slavery, and illustrates how African Americans used various forms of communication to help free themselves from the horrors of slavery. Freedom fighter and runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who was born in 1822, used the blues and other root forms such as the negro spiritual to help free herself and others. Using various musical devices and coded messages, Tubman and many others manipulated the songs in ways that cleverly enabled the slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad to make their way to safe passage. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a spy, a nurse, and also led raids against confederate targets. After the Civil War, Tubman fought for Women’s Suffrage until she passed away in 1913 at the age of 91.

Bassist & Bandleader Marcus Shelby
Marcus Anthony Shelby is a bandleader, composer, arranger, bassist, educator, and activist who currently lives in San Francisco, California. Over the past 25 years he has built a diverse biography as a composer. His work has focused on sharing the history, present, and future of African American lives, on social movements in the United States of America, and on early childhood music education. Shelby was a 2006 fellow in the Resident Dialogues Program of the Committee for Black Performing Arts at Stanford University to conduct research for his commission to compose a musical suite based on the life of freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman. In 2009, Shelby was awarded a Black Metropolis Research Consortium Fellowship to conduct research for his commission to compose “Soul of the Movement”—a musical suite on MLK and the Civil Rights Movement. In 2013, Shelby received a MAP Fund Award and commission from the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival to compose "Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratorio," an original composition for big band orchestra about the prison industrial complex, which premiered in September 2015.

Marcus Shelby discusses his inspiration for his critically-acclaimed Harriet Tubman oratorio as he prepares for a presentation at the SFJAZZ Center.

Harriet Tubman is an original secular oratorio for 15-piece jazz orchestra and vocal ensemble composed and written by Marcus Shelby, based on the book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson. Shelby's oratorio tells the remarkable story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who rose out of humble beginnings, escaped slavery, and dedicated her life to challenging the grave injustices in her day. Working on the Underground Railroad, Tubman personally led 70 slaves out of bondage at great risk to her own life, and helped dozens more to freedom.

The Marcus Shelby Quintet performing portions of Shelby's Harriet Tubman oratorio at the SFJAZZ Center.

Vocalist Faye Carol delivers a powerful and moving performance as the voice of Harriet Tubman in Marcus Shelby’s oratorio and recording.

Faye Carol is one of the premier vocalists of her time. Her unique style and gift of connecting with her audience is astonishing. This Bay Area living legend remains true to her Mississippi roots, infusing the blues into everything from Cole Porter to Michel Legrand songs. She began singing while still a young girl in Meridian where her grandmother recognized her gift, keeping her involved in school and church events. After relocating to Pittsburg, CA, she became immersed in gospel music, touring nationally with her church group. SFJAZZ is honored to have presented Miss Carol numerous times over more than three decades; here she is photographed during her deeply moving performance of Marcus Shelby’s Harriet Tubman oratorio.

Bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby adapted his critically-acclaimed oratorio for the SFJAZZ Center’s Family Matinee program, sharing the extraordinary legacy of Harriet Tubman’s work in the quest for freedom, as well as her use of musical traditions of the African American Diaspora. In this photograph, the dynamic Miss Faye Carol performs a rollicking blues

This military march to blues piece evokes the Civil War era, and challenges black allegiance to the Union cause in Marcus Shelby’s evocative work.

The magnificent finale in Marcus Shelby’s stellar oratorio signifies the final push and arrival to a better life for those seeking their freedom in this adaptation of the classic negro spiritual.

In 2007, the 110th Congress of the United States passed Resolution H. Res. 120, recognizing the African American spiritual (or “negro spiritual”) as a national treasure. Here are the lyrics to “Go Down Moses,” which describe events from the Old Testament of the Bible. The tradition of singing spirituals was championed and maintained by students of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Much of Marcus Shelby’s work as a musician centers around his fight for social justice. Along with members of his quintet, Shelby shares his musical inspiration and purpose with inmates at a juvenile justice facility, and continues to champion jazz education in his community.

Blues Women
The legacy of the blues is found in modern day music as well, and began with great singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, and many other black women who used the power of the blues to great effect. Later on, jazz composers and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Melba Liston, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, and many others, made the blues central to the music they created. Furthermore, the blues can be found outside the genre known as jazz, and can be found in other styles of music such as rock and roll, country western, rhythm and blues, pop music, hip-hop and rap—all music born in the United States.

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894—September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer. Bessie Smith stands out as the music’s towering figure, whose influence spread far beyond the blues. Often billed as the “Empress of the Blues,” she was the most prolific and popular blues singer of the 1920s and 30s, and she recorded with many of the era’s most advanced jazz musicians. With her big sound, sly sense of humor, and deft but steamroller phrasing, she put an indelible stamp on every song she sang. Smith was not only one of the most influential blues singers of all time, she was also one of the highest paid black entertainers in her day.

In her only appearance on film, 1929’s St. Louis Blues, Bessie Smith performs W. C. Handy's standard with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, James P. Johnson, a choir and string section. In many ways, Smith’s legacy helped to shape the role women played in defining and shaping the blues as a quintessentially American art form. The lyrics of her many hit songs are often viewed as examples of early feminism through their honest portrayal of the plight of the black woman in America.

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915—July 17, 1959) was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly thirty years. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education. Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice, and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music, made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity, and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.

Roots Music
Since opening its doors in 2013, the SFJAZZ Center has collaborated with teaching artists and historians to curate several programs highlighting the roots of jazz, tracing the wealth of African American musical traditions.

American jazz violinist John Blake Jr. (1947-2014) presented his program on the African roots of the violin for our Family Matinee program in our first season at the SFJAZZ Center. In addition to his improvisational skills, he highlighted an ancestral link of the violin with the riti single-stringed instrument of West Africa (pictured here).

American jazz violinist John Blake Jr. (1947-2014) presented his program on the African roots of the violin for our Family Matinee program in our first season at the SFJAZZ Center. Joining Blake for this performance were Charlotte Blake Alston (vocals, narration, and riti), Diane Monroe (violin and riti), Sumi Tonooka (piano), Nimrod Speaks (bass), Harry "Butch" Reed (drums and washboard), and Dr. Leonard Gibbs (percussion).

The GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops is an ensemble that has proudly reclaimed the African American string band tradition. They reveal the celebratory, interconnected currents running through blues, country, and bluegrass, bringing brash, youthful energy to music rooted in the red soil of the southern Piedmont. The SFJAZZ Center was pleased to present this exciting ensemble as part of our Family Matinee series.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops highlighted the traditional aspects of American vernacular dance in their SFJAZZ Family Matinee performance, collaborating with crossover dance artist Emily Oleson, Co-Artistic Director of the Good Foot Dance Company. Here she demonstrates the style known as Appalachian flatfooting.

The Cultural Heritage Choir is a Grammy-nominated, percussion driven vocal ensemble whose mission is to preserve and share the rich musical traditions of African American roots music. Their music is rooted in the Deep South and strongly connected to their West African and Caribbean origins. Founded in 1992 by vocalist, percussionist and cultural activist Linda Tillery, the Cultural Heritage Choir transports the audience to a place in time when the roots of American popular music were just being sown by the "involuntary immigrants" from Africa's western regions. Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir have become world renowned for their breathtaking performances and commitment to the authenticity of African American roots music.

In celebration of Black History Month, the SFJAZZ Family Matinee presented a performance by Linda Tillery and The Cultural Heritage Choir highlighting African American children’s folk music as well as spirituals and work songs. This medley begins with Woodie Guthrie’s adaptation of “This Train Was Bound for Glory,” followed by a series of African American spirituals including “Little David Play On Your Harp” and others, and features each member of the group alternating in call-and-response singing technique, one of the most prominent African music characteristics in American music. The members of the Cultural Heritage Choir are Linda Tillery, Rhonda Benin, Bryan Dyer, Tammi Brown, Zoe Ellis and Javier Navarrette.

The Cultural Heritage Choir performs a Gullah singing game, also known as “Frog in the Bucket,” wherein four participants form a circle and take turns as the frog inside and outside of the bucket. These singing games are an important part of the African American Gullah traditions from the Georgia Sea Islands and South Carolina.

The Cultural Heritage Choir performs a Gullah social dance song called “Old Lady Come From Booster,” also known as “Ranky Tanky,” which gets its name from the Gullah phrase meaning to “get down” or “work it.” Sometimes referred to as “Ranky Tank” and “The Old Lady from Brewster,” this song exhorts the dancer to move their body in ways that would have been considered risque.

Popularized by Nina Simone in 1964, “See Line Woman” is a children’s playground song thought to have originated in Alabama. The Cultural Heritage Choir does a rousing rendition and invites the audience to sing along.

Nina Simone
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina Simone (February 21, 1933—April 21, 2003) was an American singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, and civil rights activist who worked in a broad range of musical styles including classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop. On her debut album in 1964, Nina Simone in Concert (recorded live), for the first time she openly addressed the racial inequality that was prevalent in the United States with the song "Mississippi Goddam," her response to the June 12, 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, and the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls and partially blinded a fifth girl who survived. She remarked that the title and the song itself was, "like throwing 10 bullets back at them," becoming one of many protest songs written by Simone.

Nina Simone recorded more than forty albums, mostly between 1958, when she made her debut with Little Girl Blue, and 1974, and had a hit in the United States in 1958 with “I Loves You, Porgy.” Simone had always included songs in her repertoire that drew upon her African American origins (such as "Brown Baby" by Oscar Brown and "Zungo" by Michael Olatunji). The importance of Simone as a champion of civil rights as well as artist can not be overstated.

A celebration of the spirit of resistance in African American music.
Credits: Story

Special thanks to KQED Public Television, the William Gottlieb Photo Archive, Getty Images, Marcus Shelby, Linda Tillery & The Cultural Heritage Choir, The SFJAZZ Collective, and the SFJAZZ Education Department.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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