Martin Smith talks to Denys Baptiste about his new album, the civil rights movement and the struggle for freedom and justice today.
Denys Baptiste is a saxophone player from west London. His first album, Be Where You Are, was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize and won a Music of Black Origin (Mobo) award. His wonderful new album Let Freedom Ring! is a tribute to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
What were your musical influences when you were growing up?
It was a mixture of things. My parents are from St Lucia, so there was a lot of calypso and reggae in the house. By the time I got to secondary school I was playing clarinet. After a bit of a struggle I finally managed to get hold of a saxophone - the instrument I always wanted to play.
It was my music teacher who got me interested in jazz. He introduced me to artists like Tubby Hayes and all the other giants. I was just intrigued by the freedom they had within the music. Every time they played they played something different. I had discovered a world of wonderful, beautiful music. I went on to study at the Guildhall College of Music. From there I joined Gary Crosby's Nu Troop. As they say, the rest is history.
At the age of 11 I bought a copy of soul singer Stevie Wonder's 'Happy Birthday', the theme to a campaign to get Martin Luther King's birthday enshrined as a national holiday. The B-side of the single contained a seven-minute extract of the famous 'I have a dream' speech Martin Luther King made on the march on Washington. I don't think I really understood what he was saying, because I didn't understand the civil rights movement and what had actually happened in the southern states of America and what King had contributed to the dynamic of resistance. But I remember listening to the speech, I found it very compelling. I suppose it was King's presence that I felt was important.
Tell me about the ideas you are trying to express on your new album Let Freedom Ring!
I was trying to take the 'I have a dream' speech out of its context and apply it to a worldview today. I wanted to address some of the situations that are happening now - issues like war, globalisation and poverty. Hopefully it can be part of some kind of healing process for the human race. I believe if everybody read King's speech - if world leaders read it - a few times a day there would be fewer wars. It contains real truths about the world. It seems so simple: all we have to do is respect one another - celebrate our differences instead of using them as a source for conflict.
I know this is an old cliché but I only believe there are two types of music - good and bad. I like lots of different types of music. So on the album I was attempting to marry lots of different music styles together. I was just trying to encompass world music, jazz as well as modern forms. In an abstract way I was trying to show that if different musical styles can come together, why can't different nations and different peoples? I wanted to create one piece of music to create one world.
I believe all music is equal and all kinds are as good as each other. I see this as the positive side of globalisation. Only a few years ago it was very hard to come into contact with music from other regions unless you really went out of your way to look for it. Now the BBC has its own Asian radio channel, which is great. Radio 3 and in particular Charlie Gillet has done a tremendous amount of work to promote world music to everybody. It has really enriched me to be able to listen to music that I would not normally have been exposed to. I think we can learn a lot from different forms of music just like you can learn a lot from different peoples and cultures.
This album is also a tribute to the musicians involved in the civil rights struggle. Duke Ellington recorded Black Brown and Beige, Coltrane recorded 'Alabama' and then there is Sonny Rollins - Freedom Suite. This was one of the first records to openly come out in support of the civil rights movement. The record company deleted the album almost immediately and re-released it under a new title. There were guys in the music scene at that time who were really standing up for what they believed in and were saying it through their music. If I hadn't been listening to John Coltrane's tune 'Alabama' I probably wouldn't have known anything about the bombing. So in that respect music has always been a medium that brings information to people.
Max Roach used a Martin Luther King speech and played drums over the top. I have tried to develop that idea. There is a specific part in 'Let Freedom Ring!', a track from the new album, where you have a drum solo and Ben Okri reading from his epic poem 'Mental Flight'. It's like Ben is giving his view 40 years later.
Your latest album has a very spiritual centre to it. Is religion a big part of your life?
When I was younger I used to go to church - I went to a Roman Catholic school so in some ways I couldn't really avoid it. I do believe in god, but I am not a practising Catholic. I take from the best parts of religions.
Of course the civil rights struggle was a mass movement but religion was a very important part of King's moral centre. He was a preacher, his father was a preacher. That whole Southern preacher approach is contained in all of his speeches - he could quite easily be giving a sermon. I was trying to get that feeling running right through the piece.
I have been going along to the London Jazz Festival for years, but in all those years I have never seen so many young people as I did at your performance of Let Freedom Ring! Why are so many young people coming to your gigs?
I have to be honest, I was just as surprised as you! We were trying as part of this tour to bring an educational element to it. I was going to schools in south London to explain a little about what we do and give those kids an opportunity to create music by themselves. I wanted to give them a window into learning how to write music. Many of them were at the gig. I have also been inspired by the huge cross-section of the public who have been coming along. To keep the music going we need a new generation of musicians and listeners. My aim is to inspire people through the subject matter and the music.
Why did you pay homage to Martin Luther King and not black leaders like Malcolm X or the Black Panthers?
Malcolm X and the Black Panthers have their place in history. They were living in a time when there was so much prejudice. They were representing those people suffering real injustice. Malcolm talked about 'By any means necessary'. But I don't really believe violence solves anything. The freshness Martin brought to the movement was inspirational. He didn't say we are better than you, or we are more powerful than you. He was saying we are not going to cooperate with a system that is unjust. We have seen the same thing happen with the poll tax protests over ten years ago and the recent movement against the war in Iraq. If people stand up and say this is unjust and we are not going to cooperate, what are you going to do about? That political process radicalised people and helped empower them. It's not about people being better than one another, it is about people being equal. It's about demanding justice - King is about dialogue and trying to understand one another.
During your recent London show you showed a series of projected images while you played. Many of them were images of the civil rights movement, but you also showed contemporary images of the anti-war demonstrations, Genoa and a particularly powerful image of a Ku Klux Klan mask turning into George Bush. Were you trying to link up the past with today?
Yes, definitely. As a musician it is very difficult to convey what you are trying to say. The album was written with a visual aspect in mind. I believe it adds a new dimension to the music. It enhanced the whole musical experience.
Peace is not just about 40 years ago, it is very much about now. We can apply the words of Dr Martin Luther King to Iraq, Palestine, China - I could just go on and on. There are so many places where injustices are happening.
I was really lucky in that I was able to go to Sarajevo to perform the show there. That was the highlight of the whole tour, because it helped me really understand what we were trying to say. Just ten years ago to see on the TV what was happening where you had neighbour against neighbour it was horrible - there are still a lot of wounds to be healed but we got a lot of positive reactions.
What future projects have you got lined up?
At the moment I am not 100 percent sure. I don't know whether to carry on with the bigger group or go back to a smaller band. I've got so many ideas. I'm still interested in mixing up different genres - video, drama, art - together with jazz to give a different emphasis to the music.
I dedicated my album to all the people suffering oppression and injustice in all its forms and to those walking the long road to freedom, equality and justice. That to me says it all.