THE CANNONBALL ADDERLEY QUINTET COUNTRY PREACHER "LIVE" AT OPERATION BREADBASKET, 1969, Capitol
Everybody has his own Barack Obama moment. Mine came the day before the election sitting in a sterile wing of JFK airport, exhausted and weary from a packed long-weekend in Brooklyn, emotional, fighting a bad cold. I looked up at the TV screen above me and watched Obama wind down his galvanic campaign with a final speech to supporters in Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the poignant incident of his grandmother’s death, which loomed as a bittersweet punctuation, there was a decisive feeling of victory at hand. His speech that morning was charged, vital and assuring, his demeanor sincere, energetic, full of earnest gravitas. There stood an American Caesar ready to be handed his laurel.
All I could think was how amazing and unlikely it all seemed, nothing a childhood in Tennessee had ever encouraged me to believe. I thought of my ignorant, casually racist grandfather and his jokes; my country-reared grandmother who forbade us picking up nickels for fear they'd been handled by germy black men; my kind-hearted mother who smiles innocently from stage risers in an old black-and-white picture--the cast photograph of a grade-school minstrel show; my freshman father walking across the campus of Vanderbilt University and learning of JFK’s assassination from the cafeteria workers weeping outside the dining hall; our maid, Evelyn, who gave my sister black dolls at Christmas and called herself her "black mama"; the country club we quit because it still wouldn’t allow black members in the early nineties; Alvin, its maitre’d, and his son, Renard. There was never a time in my childhood when black and white wasn’t some source of confusion or pain. I put on my sunglasses and cried all the way down the jetway.
After that, the following day’s jubilation proved a mildly anti-climactic fait accompli, and I was sick as a dog, besides. But the thing that impressed me the most in all the hoopla of victory was the sight of Jesse Jackson shedding tears of joy. What that moment must’ve been like for him... Jesse the heir apparent, Jesse the grieving apostle, Jesse the favorite son; the liberal organizer, the self-serving manipulator, the charismatic candidate, the articulate negotiator, the passionate spokesman, the voice of fairness and self-promotion; Jesse who stood at the head of the Rainbow, shooting himself in the foot. Was it faulty times or the man himself who seemed to promise so much and deliver so relatively little?
In 1969, Jesse Jackson was heading Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, handpicked to the post by Martin Luther King. The organization was an offshoot of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which sought to influence and author fair hiring and employment practices through the practice of “selective buying” or boycotts by inner-city blacks. One year after King’s murder, with the world, the country and the black community, in particular, mired in doubt, despair and a gathering bleakness, Jackson brought alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and his band to Chicago for a live concert fundraiser. Luckily for everyone, the event was captured on record.
It begins with a short speech by Jackson, his Southern drawl both laconic and urgent, folksy and knowing. We sense what a dynamic leader he could be: a stirrer of souls, if not a soulful man outright. He rouses the crowd to “walk tall,” his command building in repetition to a mantra that leads straight into Cannonball’s first number, familiar to rap fans as the break for Brand Nubians’ “Concerto in X Minor” from their classic All For One. Then follows an introduction by Cannonball Adderley about Jackson, and the song written for him, “Country Preacher,” the most soulful groove of the set, with a reflective organ solo broken by silence, then a sudden crescendo of horns. Each time the melody returns we hear the crowd burst into a louder round of moaning applause, as if teased into a slow orgasm. “Humming,” written by Cannonball’s brother, Nat Adderley, is another tight funk groove, it’s opening bass riff familiar from countless hip-hop samples. Then comes perhaps the most famous track from the set, the bluesy rocker “Oh Babe,” in which Cannonball hollers out the lyrics in a maniacal yelp, clearly enjoying himself. Side B comprises one long suite in four parts, "Afro-Spanish Omelet"--each "ingredient" of the omelet featuring a prominent solo by one of the instruments in the group--that explores the roots and winding history of African American music.
Throughout the record we hear the crowd noisily devouring the music, feeding their souls and their broken hearts on it. But this is no elegy or funereal dirge. It’s a remarkably joyous set of music, the sound of a people whose spirit soars. In the pictures we get inside the gatefold cover, Jackson is captured in various postures: talking seriously with the band in their green room holding a heaping plate of food ; laughing backstage behind Joe Zawinul's organ; standing before the crowd, inspiring them with his dedication and his purpose, a youthful leader with all the promise in the world and all the time in the world in which to fulfill it. But perhaps he’s simply the messenger for another leader from Chicago who would arrive three decades later.
I can’t speak with any authority on Jesse Jackson’s legacy, but it’s my opinion his career and life bears a needed reappraisal. Just take one look at the campaign platform he ran on in the '84 and '88 Democratic primary campaigns (both of which were closer than most people care to remember). Despite his faults, his disappointments, his real or perceived missteps, there could be no President Obama without the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He deserves some thanks for his efforts regardless of their results, and he deserves the hard-won satisfaction he no doubt feels today.