It is late on Martin Luther King Day to be posting an MLK tribute, but it would be an even more serious oversight not to do so. To one who reported on the civil rights movement in the American South and was sometimes in the midst of its demonstrations, marches, brutality and occasional elation, the images and emotions never entirely fade. Nor does the melding of sadness and adrenalin-driven urgency in our New Orleans newsroom on the April evening in 1968 when a wire service bulletin announced that King had been assassinated.
There are many songs that summon the atmosphere of those years; “We Shall Overcome,” “Up to the Mountain,” “A Change is Gonna Come” among them; but a decade before the murder, one piece of music encapsulated the frustrations and yearnings that seethed within repressed black Americans and would come to the surface in the 1960s. Sonny Rollins’s “Freedom Suite” had no words. It needed none. In the notes to the Rollins box set The Freelance Years, Zan Stewart quotes the saxophonist (pictured ca 1958) about what led to the suite.
‘About that time, I had been getting a lot of acclaim in the music business,’ he said. (He was placing highly in polls in Down Beat and Metronome, his records were selling and he worked as much as he liked.) ‘But when I attempted to get an apartment in desirable areas of New York City, I found I couldn’t, basically because of ethnic bias. I was quite upset about it and decided to write the piece and do the album.’
Rollins went into the Riverside studio with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach. Here is “Freedom Suite.”
Freedom Suite is a singular accomplishment of Rollins’s early career. It deserves a place in any comprehensive collection of American music.