On February 1, 1968, a malfunctioning garbage truck fatally crushed two black Memphis sanitation workers – Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Their passing was in many ways directly the fault of Henry Loeb, the city’s white supremacist mayor. Loeb previously served as the Memphis’ Public Works Commissioner, a role in which he undertook several steps to impose unduly harsh conditions on the Department’s primarily black staff. This ranged from refusing to retire inadequate and unsafe equipment, vehicles, and materials, to requiring employees to work excessive hours with almost no benefit from their doing so. Garbage collectors often toiled up to eighteen hours a day without overtime pay, time off, sick pay, or even time to access restrooms. Many laborers were so poorly paid they needed welfare and food stamps to support themselves. They were also subject to firing without warning by white supervisors and completely deprived of any ability to file grievances. Cole and Walker’s death ultimately became a breaking point in calling for change and caused 1,375 sanitation workers to go on strike and undertake peaceful protests. As part of their organized efforts, Reverend James Lawson expressed that “at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person” and that as the workers are human beings, they deserve dignity. This message led to protestors’ use of iconic placards reading “I AM A MAN”, the inspiration behind bassist Ben Williams‘ newest album.
Williams builds off of this simple yet powerful statement and extends it to movements today demanding that individuals be treated with respect – specifically Black Lives Matters and Me Too. To do so, he eschews all musical labels. This includes recording for a less mainstream brand, Jose James’ Rainbow Blonde Records, than Concord Records as he did for his first two albums. Additionally, Williams sheds the description of him as a bassist. While he plays bass throughout – both acoustic and electric – he now also takes on a new role as a vocalist.
Stream “If You Hear Me” from Ben Williams’ I AM A MAN
Perhaps most importantly, I AM A MAN abandons strict definitions of “jazz”. While Williams’ preceding works State of Art (2011) and Coming of Age (2015), drew influence from other musical forms, specifically hip hop, they were jazz recordings at their core. The newest release still utilizes jazz concepts but solely as one color on a sonic palate. Hip hop, R&B, soul, blues, and even gospel are largely given equal weight with jazz to create a more holistic music. The end result is most analogous to the late 1990s output of the Soulquarians, the collective featuring J Dilla, Common, Bilal, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Questlove, J Dilla and Roy Hargrove, who have significantly inspired much of the past decade’s jazz-hip hop hybrids. To create this new sound, Williams assembled an exemplary group of musicians, many of whom have themselves explored genre-melding in their own solo efforts, including saxophonist and clarinetist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist David Rosenthal, flautist Anne Drummond, percussionist Bendji Allonce, and drummers Jamire Williams and Justin Brown. Some of the tracks also feature a string quartet.
Just as the message of “I AM A MAN” is applied to struggles, both past and present, the songs create a sound that draws from musical predecessors while shaping it to fit the modern era. The unique timelessness of the tracks also renders them very sonically ensnaring. Meanwhile, the lyrics ensure that the artists’ call for treating all with dignity remains a primary focus. The first few tracks emphasize the phrase “[h]e paid the cost to be the boss…. [a]t this game, he still lost” to quickly showcase that without an individual obtaining their deserved respect as a human being, they are likely to fail despite their own best efforts. This is not to say, however, that I AM A MAN is overall mournful. Instead, the album follows a clear path from disappointment to cautious optimism as it concludes with a very contemporary version of the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome”, a song long used by the oppressed to push for substantial and lasting change. A listener steadfast in its definition of jazz may not fully appreciate the sonic qualities of Ben Williams’ latest. However, an open-minded follower is presented with a bold experiment, one which overwhelmingly pays off.
I AM A MAN, the upcoming album by bassist and vocalist Ben Williams drops February 7th, 2020, via Rainbow Blonde Records. Pre-order it today on vinyl, CD or MP3.
Ben Williams Tour Dates
12/2: Budapest, Hungary @MOMkuit
12/3: Vienne, Austria @ Porgy & Bess
12/26: Washington, DC @ The Hamilton Live (Holiday Musical Extravaganza)
I AM A MAN Track Listing
1. Intro: “I Am A Man”
2. If You Hear Me
3. March On (feat. Wes Felton)
4. Promised Land (feat. Kendra Foster)
5. High Road (feat. Muhsinah)
6. Take It From Me (feat. Niles)
7. Come Home (feat. Kendra Foster)
8. The Death of Emmett Till
9. High Road pt. 2
10. We Shall Overcome
Rob Shepherd is a Tax and Estate Planning Attorney and CPA in Austin, Texas. He is obsessed with music, especially jazz. Rob also plays a number of musical instruments, focusing primarily on the saxophone. One of his horns includes his self-restored 1920s Buescher C-Melody sax.