Keith LaMar has said that listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” helped save his life. Yet for all its power and magnificence, Coltrane’s music cannot literally save LaMar’s life, which is scheduled to end Nov. 16 when he is to be executed for murders he says he did not commit.
Even if music can’t bring justice for LaMar, it can help keep his case in the public eye and perhaps forestall his execution. That is the purpose behind two concerts this week by a project called Freedom First that has attracted some of New York’s finest musicians.
The long road to Freedom First began 30 years ago today, April 11, 1993, when 450 incarcerated men began an uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville. When the standoff at the maximum-security prison ended 11 days later, nine of them and one corrections officer were dead.
LaMar was one of five men charged with murders during the uprising and was convicted by all-white jury. The Cleveland native says he was not present where the murders occurred and he has witnesses who will testify on his behalf, but the State of Ohio has refused to consider his evidence.
During his 30 years of solitary confinement, music, especially Coltrane’s music, helped to keep LaMar, “still intact,” as he has said. So have other pursuits, including writing a book, “Condemned,” that he dictated from the cell at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown where he spends 22 hours of every day.
“Condemned” found its way to Brian Jackson, the keyboard player whose collaboration with the late vocalist Gil Scott-Heron on such recordings as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” ignited a genre of jazz-influenced protest anthems 50 years ago.
Jackson’s neighbor, pianist Albert Marquès, played on the streets of Brooklyn during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “We had this discussion about why do we always protest after,” Marquès said on a video call from his Brooklyn home. “What if we protest before the government kills somebody? And that idea triggered something.”
Marqués, 38, was born in an industrial town outside Barcelona (“like Youngstown except that the factories are still there”) and participated in the struggle for Catalan independence.
He got the idea to document the street protests on a recording, Freedom First (Say It Loud Records, 2022) that would incorporate recordings of LaMar from his cell. “There are two or three albums made from prison with rappers,” Marqués said, “but this is the first time in history that somebody participated from Death Row.”
Many of the album’s musicians are scheduled to join Marqués in Northeast Ohio, including drummer Zack O’Farrill and saxophonists Caroline Davis, Roy Nathanson and Salim Washington. Akron’s Jordan McBride will play bass and if circumstances permit, Keith LaMar will be heard from his cell.
“We can never promise 100% that [LaMar] will be live because he’s on death row,” Marqués said, “but the goal is always to have him live addressing the topics that he talks about directly, live with the audience.”
As for the music, Marqués said, “We play original music [and] we play a repertoire that is extremely meaningful for Keith,” especially the music of Coltrane. Responding to an email request I sent to him, LaMar wrote “’A Love Supreme’ . . . had a huge impact on me. Learning how to ‘listen’ to this music, which is based on improvisation, has allowed me to navigate the difficulties of my life without surrendering my humanity, has allowed me ‘to do, with dignity and grace, the thing that needs to be done.’”
“We are finally going to the most important state for this project: Ohio. We cannot stop Keith’s execution and gather the support he needs . . . so his lawyers can fight for him to have a new trial if the people from Ohio do not get involved,” Marqués continued. “Any money that you spend going to one of those concerts is directly helping Keith and his costs.”
From the perspective of his cell on death row, Keith LaMar sees a higher purpose for Freedom First. “I think the critical thing for this country, as a whole, to learn is the truth about our collective history, which, quite frankly, consist of some pretty terrible things,” he wrote in an email. “ . . . unless (or until) we, as a country, see and seek to deal diligently with our past, it will out of necessity keep repeating itself. People shouldn’t allow their perception of these things (disparate as they may seem on the surface) to cloud their judgment, because the past is the future when we don’t address ourselves to the reality of what is: Black people are still being lynched in America.
There’s never a bad time to get out and commune in the same room with creative musicians. Below are four musical events of interest in the coming week that you might want to check out.
Aimée Allen Trio with Tony Romano and François Moutin
Thursday, April 13, 7 p.m.
BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave, Cleveland. $20 (tickets)
Vocalist Aimée (pronounced like M.A.) Allen (not the Interrupters singer) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but a post-graduation interval in Paris brought her into contact with Brazilian music and led to the formation of Les Bossa Novices. It’s a cute name, but Allen’s singing and songwriting is no joke–and it had better be since she’s sharing the stage with powerful bassist Moutin. Tony Romero’s acoustic guitar should add a Mediterranean warmth to this intriguing midweek gig.
Friday, April 14, 7 p.m.
The Treelawn Social Club, 15355 Waterloo Rd., Cleveland. $15 or $10 for students (tickets)
There’s not much one can count on these days, but a Howie Smith gig will always deliver the unexpected. Friday’s at The Treelawn Social Club in Collinwood – with drummers/percussionists/ Carmen Castaldi, Haddad and Joe Tomino will also deliver The Uninvited. That’s the name of the unconventional quartet that the intrepid and inquiring saxophonist/tinkerer/tone scientist occasionally convenes. They may be not be “invited,” but you are.
Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble
Saturday, April 15, 2 p.m.
Gartner Auditorium, Cleveland Museum Of Art, 11150 East Blvd, Cleveland (free)
Berklee has a Charles Mingus Ensemble, a Wayne Shorter Ensemble and even a Yellowjackets Ensemble, so it seems only fitting that Oberlin should honor our greatest living improvisor with a Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble. DIrector Bobby Ferrazza will be heading out east in the company of student musicians Jacob Clements (guitar), Kamran Curlin (bass), Mitchell Galligan (piano), Jody Goldman (trumpet), Noah Nelson (drums), Melvin Nimtz (trombone), Gillian Piper (voice) and stepping into some size 92 shoes, saxophonist George Free Rogers. It’s the first event in what CMA director of performing arts Gabe Pollack (and Oberlin alum and newly minted Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Hero) hopes will be a series of collabs between town and gown
Maria Jacobs Quartet
Sunday, April 16, 7 p.m.
BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave, Cleveland. (tickets)
Vocalist Jacobs rather quietly released a live album in February where she was joined by pianist Rock Wehrmann, bassist Bryan Thomas and Jamey Haddad on drums. It’s called Back At The Bop Stop, and since those four musicians will be onstage again, maybe this Sunday gig should be called “Back At The Back At The Bop Stop.” Either way, it should be a nice way to unwind after finishing your taxes. You have finished your taxes, haven’t you?
Information for this section came from Jim Szabo’s essential, weekly Northeast Ohio jazz calendar , NEO’s most complete list of jazz and jazz-adjacent events.