Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was first observed in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, and its observance on June 19 has spread across the United States and beyond. Juneteenth has a particular resonance in the jazz community. Jazz, after all, is a music that has historically carried a message of liberation, providing a voice for artists to speak against racial injustice from the Civil Rights Movement to today. Today, we recognize the legacy of those voices and the solemnity of Juneteenth through this rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The song was originally written by poet, activist and NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900.
A ballad from his 1989 album In My Prime I, Blakey’s version of “Lift Every Voice” begins with a poignant piano introduction from James Williams, soulful and ceremonious yet infused with the blues. Before long, the rest of the Jazz Messengers — Blakey, trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, trombonist Curtis Fuller, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, tenor saxophonist David Schnitter and bassist Dennis Irwin — enter to buoy the melody with a chorus of harmony.