The Civil Rights Movement came complete with its own soundtrack.
But one piece of extraordinary music, transcendent saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” is mostly overlooked; indeed, most people do not realize (perhaps because it is a wordless jazz dirge) that it has a very specific connection to the Movement and Birmingham itself.
Coltrane, one of the most spiritual musicians who ever lived, wrote the under-six minute piece in reaction to the September 15, 1963 terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and in memory of the four little girls killed in the church’s basement by a dozen sticks of dynamite planted by white racists early that late summer Sunday morning.
But Coltrane’s inspiration also included the eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair three days later in the church’s sanctuary by a mournful, but resolute Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
Listening to “Alabama” and reading King’s words together is an incredibly moving experience. Coltrane’s plaintive tenor begins a slow cry as King says, “This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God.
“They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came.”
Coltrane, who by this point is in full cry, is accompanied on “Alabama” by members of his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. After Coltrane’s opening statement, Tyner joins in with sad, heavy chords before a muted rim shot by Jones and Garrison’s precise bass line.
As King continues, “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” the song reaches a heartbreaking intensity.
“And yet they died nobly,” King continues in his unmistakable baritone. “They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death.
“They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows,” he adds in a rising voice. “They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans.
“They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.”
To me, the most astonishing thing about “Alabama,” and, indeed, King’s eulogy, is the almost total lack of bitterness, of hatred, of anger. Most of the song and eulogy are steeped only in a profound sense of sorrow.
That is, until King – and Coltrane – move from the murder of the children at the hands of what turned out to be members of the Klu Klux Klan to what those deaths should mean for the future of the Movement, for which the bombing became a pivotal event.
“They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution,” King says to a packed sanctuary. “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”
At this point, the incredibly powerful Jones, dripping with sweat, explodes with a passionate solo that, until I learned the history of the song, I had interpreted as the only anger in the piece.
But as noted jazz critic Martin Smith wrote, “mirroring the point where King transforms his mourning into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism, Elvin Jones’s drumming rises from a whisper to a pounding rage. He wanted this crescendo to signify the rising of the civil rights movement.”
And so it does in one of the most poignant statement of both mourning and resoluteness to be heard anywhere.
Coltrane, of course, wrote many spiritual pieces (one could argue all of his later recordings were such) that reach for the ineffable and eternal, like “Dear Lord,” and his monumental and symphonic “A Love Supreme,” one of the masterpieces of the 20th century.
Coltrane recorded “Alabama” on October 8, 1963, less than a month after the bombing and King’s eulogy, one of the key turning points of the Civil Rights Movement. After the Birmingham church bombing 50 years ago this year President John F. Kennedy’s “federal government” and those hypocritical “northern Republicans” King spoke of could no longer sit idly by as the war for equality raged in the South.
“Alabama” was first released in January, 1964, as part of the album Live at Birdland, but like a couple of other tunes on that classic record was actually recorded in an Englewood, New Jersey studio.
There are several fine examples of the quartet playing “Alabama,” which turns tragedy into triumph in a little more than five minutes. The best is from a television show of the time, Jazz Casual, in front of a spellbound national audience.