Frost Amphitheater

By Yoshi Kato

On November 12 and 13, Bay Area–raised educator and percussionist Jaz Sawyer will explore the Civil Rights era Freedom Now Suite, followed the next evening by the premiere of his new composition The Message Forward

When it comes to presenting Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Oscar Brown Jr.'s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, Jaz Sawyer is a natural choice.

The charismatic drummer, bandleader, educator, and broadcaster performs the seminal Civil Rights Movement jazz work from 1960 in Bing Studio on Friday, November 12, with an all-star collection of locally based musicians and artists and special guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. He'll follow the next night with the world premiere of his own The Message Forward Suite alongside an augmented version of Friday's ensemble featuring longtime San Francisco vocal icon Kim Nalley

A San Francisco native who grew up in a household of social activists, Sawyer's first gig was with Lincoln (1930–2010), who was one of her generation's notable jazz vocalists. "I used to go down to the old Yoshi's (in Oakland's Claremont neighborhood) when she was in town and hit it off with her musicians like [pianist] Marc Cary and [drummer] Alvester Garnett," Sawyer says, by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

He looked Lincoln up when he arrived in New York City to attend the New School in the mid-'90s and ended up being hired as her drummer at age 19 when Garnett left to play with pianist Cyrus Chestnut a couple of years later.

"I'd never heard of Freedom Now when I first met Abbey," he admits. "It was too heavy, and I didn't understand all the issues it addresses back when I was a teenager. So it was really interesting, tying it back to my upbringing in the Bay Area with Glide Church and discovering my parents volunteered with the Black Panthers in the early days and how I might consider advocacy and community engagement in my generation. A full circle no doubt.”

Sawyer took advantage of being on the road with Lincoln to ask her about We Insist! and also about Roach (1924–2007), a pioneering bebop drummer and later a percussion innovator to whom she was married from 1962 to 1970.

"It was a lot to absorb, since I was in my late teens going on my twenties when I first started playing with her. Abbey didn't go into what their relationship was, but she always put him in a good light," he recalls. "She gave us little stories here and there of how he'd do things, which I always appreciated as a drummer."

Jaz Sawyer, whose first gig was with the notable jazz vocalist and activist Abbey Lincoln (right), also had the opportunity to speak with Max Roach (left) several times before Roach's death in 2007. Sawyer served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral celebration that year. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

"I've been doing research into Freedom Now. And especially with the pandemic, I've had an extra year to dive into it," he continues.

While vocalist Oscar Brown Jr. ("Work Song," "Dat Dere") had originally partnered with Roach as the lyricist, the pair had an artistic disagreement over the project, Sawyer explains. "So Max ended up finishing the piece. But I think that Abbey was really an un-credited third creator on that.”

The album, which was released in December 1960, also featured tenor saxophone titan Coleman Hawkins on the song "Driva Man." Along with Lester Young, Hawkins was one of the founding fathers of the tenor sax in jazz.

"You would think Max would have brought in a younger, more progressive player" than Hawkins, who came out of the 40s Swing Era of jazz,” he notes. "But Hawk was an early mentor to Max, and he needed him on there."

In addition to Horn on lead vocals at Stanford Live, the band will also feature Howard Wiley on saxophones; Geechi Taylor on trumpet and backing vocals; Ajayi Jackson on bassoon, congas, and percussion; David Ewell on bass; and spoken word artist Tongo Eisen-Martin.

Grammy-nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn returns to Bing Studio to perform the Freedom Now Suite. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

"Jazzmeia is super-talented and super-sharp," Sawyer says of the two-time GRAMMY nominee and winner of the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition and the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Vocal Jazz Competition. Citing Lincoln as well as Bobby McFerrin and the late Betty Carter as mentors, "she also understands the significance of what this album is," he points out.

Sawyer, too, is reflecting on mentorship. He recalls the lessons offered by Lincoln during their time together.

"I'd go over and visit Abbey and she would always be writing music," Sawyer recalls, with a tone of fondness in his voice. "She probably had a stack of 250 compositions, lead sheets and lyrics that she'd written out and hadn't recorded yet. And she always told me and her other musicians 'Write your own music. Publish your own music. Own your own music. And always keep things moving.'"

He's doing just that with his new composition The Message Forward, which features all of Friday's performers, with Nalley taking over lead vocal duties from Horn and Melecio Magdaluyo instead of Wiley on saxophones, as well as rapper RyanNicole and pianist/keyboardist Cava Menzies.

"The Freedom Now message is something that Abbey lived," Sawyer states. "She and Max toured the albums a few times. But they were also going around speaking to young people, to students at colleges. They were doing rallies and participating in things that they could. Then here I am, and what we're going to do that Saturday night is address what the times are now."

Though The Message Forward is inspired by Freedom Now, Sawyer sees its similar five-part movement structure as more subliminal than intentional.

Vocalist Kim Nalley, who recently earned her Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley, will join Jaz Sawyer on stage for the premiere of The Message Forward. Photo by Ruth Kaiser

"The composition reflects the social climate and challenges we face today, from the murder of George Floyd to the pandemic. And it's about concerning ourselves with building up and strengthening our communities with the power of education," says Sawyer, who earned his master's degree in public administration and public policy from Metropolitan College of New York and a doctorate of education in organizational leadership from Northcentral University.

According to Sawyer, the first movement is about foundation. "That has to do with your upbringing and what you see in your neighborhoods and communities," he says.

The second movement is about one's ancestors, while the third is a drum-vocal duet with Nalley. RyanNicole is featured in the fourth movement, "Assembly," which has an aesthetic inspired by the late producer and rapper J Dilla. "Move to Progress," the final movement, was inspired by the spirit of Black Jazz Records, the famed independent record label that ran out of Oakland from the late '60s to the mid-'70s.

"When I asked Kim to participate, she said, 'You know, singing [someone else's original song], this is a little out of my wheelhouse,'" Sawyer recounts. "But she's extremely talented and can sing anything." 

"Jaz, as a drummer, has a very complex sense of rhythm, of course. So just trying to make sure that I understand what he was thinking as opposed to what's written on the page can be very difficult," Nalley says, by phone from her new home in the Marin Hills. "If you're just recreating something that has already been recorded, it is so much easier. But it's great that people like him are doing something that's original. And it's also something positive in a time we've had so much tragedy and racism and sexism."

Nalley recently earned her doctorate in history from UC Berkeley and, like Sawyer, is an educator as well as an active musician. Like teaching, Sawyer says performing music has the power to heal people.

And on the bandstand as in the classroom, musicians can serve "as mentors and guides,” Nalley says. “But we have to address our community, and that's contained inside of the message of the suite."


A South Bay native and resident, independent journalist Yoshi Kato contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle and DownBeat and has enjoyed Stanford Live concerts from the Modern Jazz Quartet at Memorial Auditorium in the mid-‘90s to Yo-Yo Ma, I’m With Her, and the SFJAZZ Collective at Bing Concert Hall in the 21st Century.

Jaz Sawyer
We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
featuring Jazzmeia Horn

Fri, November 12 
7:00 PM
Bing Studio

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Jaz Sawyer Ensemble ft. Kim Nalley
The Message Forward Suite – World Premiere
Sat, November 13 
7:00 PM
Bing Studio

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