Soundtrack to the Inauguration

Today, Donald Trump transitions from president-elect to president.

I’m struggling here to figure out what to write. I want to write that we elected a valueless misogynistic, race-baiting, xenophobic know-nothing as president, but I confess I’m not sure where to go from there.

I want to decry Mormons’ participation in the Inauguration, only I’m not sure what I can add to what Peter has already said. (Also, what Peter has already said.)

I do know, though, where I’m going to turn musically. Noah Preminger has just released Meditations on Freedom, a protest album, just in time for the new presidency. 

coverJazz has a long history as protest music, albeit a history overshadowed in the popular imagination by the folk/pop/rock protests of the hippie era. Jazz had a distinct, though not exclusive, focus on civil rights movement, ranging from Billie Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” to Mingus’s “Original Faubus Fables” to Max Roach’s free jazz “Freedom Now Suite.” (For a great overview of this history of jazz protest music, you can listen to this wonderful episode of “Night Lights.”

The timing of Preminger’s entry into this genre is not unique: in the wake of Trump’s election, jazz musicians are reasserting their commitment to social justice.

And Preminger’s album may not immediately make you think protest—it’s certainly not in the explicitly absurdist mold of Country Joe and the Fish, and not in the anthemic chant-along mode of Fiona Apple. (That is, don’t expect to hear Preminger’s “Women’s March” this weekend at the women’s march.) But it was written and recorded after the election, and in response to the result.[fn1]

Instead of confrontational protest music, Preminger and his band present nine songs that are all reserved and slightly off-balance. The melodies are tentative, with the tenor and the trumpet floating, just out of time with each other, reminiscent of many of Ornette Coleman’s wonderful sax-trumpet heads.

Preminger’s music fits squarely in the free jazz mold, and he adapts four traditional protest songs to his sensibilities: Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” George Harrison’s “Give Me Love,” and the absolutely spectacular “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. (There are also five originals, including “Women’s March” and “The 99 Percent.”) And the protest is more implied and felt than anything: there are no lyrics, so there’s no didacticism.

The feeling here is neither angry nor triumphant: it’s deeply, deeply melancholic. And I haven’t been able to quit listening for the last week or so, because it strikes the perfect tone for a Trump presidency. It responds to his penchant for Molotov tweets with cerebral introspection, to his glitzy chintz with understated craftsmanship.

Plenty of people have argued that, with the election past, we need to move into a time of healing. I fundamentally disagree: I think we need to maintain some level of pain, some level of disgust. I do not plan to become inured to Trump’s brand of awful.

And the same time, though, I can’t spend the next four years angry, hurt, and disgusted. I’m not arguing that nobody should, but for me, those emotions work in short bursts, but drain meover the long haul. And make no mistake: standing up against Trump will be a too-long haul.

And perhaps this is the biggest strength of Preminger’s protest: it’s slightly off-balance while being exactly what Trump is not—careful, cerebral, virtuosic, situated in a historical context, and deeply, deeply moral. It forces the listener to be slightly uncomfortable, but to think through where that discomfort comes from.

So if you’re looking to trade up from the Piano Guys or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, if you’re looking to expand your repertoire of protest music, or if you’re just looking to be challenged as you challenge the presidency, Meditations on Freedom should be part of your soundtrack.[fn2]

[fn1] It’s probably only fair to let Preminger explain what he meant with the album:

At this time of disruptive and divisive change in our nation, I felt compelled to create these jazz meditations. Working in the tradition of protest compositions by some of our best song writers, I went on to compose my own. We hope this work generates reflection on the fragile and precious freedoms we must fight to preserve and extend to everyone who lives in this country.

[fn2] Also, Eliza Chavez’s “Revenge” should probably be posted on your wall, right next to the Proclamation on the Family.


  1. The Imperial March seems apropos. Or possible “Send In the Clowns.”

  2. Jake Linford says:

    Charles Mingus has some distinguished entries in the Jazz Protest Songbook, including “Fables of Faubus” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” When I first heard it, I didn’t think of “Haitian Fight Song” as a protest song, but apparently Mingus did.

    On “Haitian Fight Song”, Mingus said “My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’” Nat Hentoff liner notes to Charles Mingus – The Clown (1957)

  3. “…valueless, misogynistic, race-baiting, xenophobic know-nothing as president…”

    Salt. Salty salty salty salt.

  4. “Who more than self their country loved.” I listened to the inauguration today. Couldn’t bare to actually watch it. And that is what the MoTab sang: “Who more than self their country loved.” Is that the definition of being American? Is that the standard for being a good citizen? They are going to have to rewrite that song to reflect the new status quo: Who more their-selves than country loved.

    It’s been a very rough day. Everyone seems to be looking out for their own interest. Fear is getting the best of all of us, no doubt. But it has still been a very rough day.

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