The Best Songs In Life Are Free, With Kim Nalley

Kim Nalley. performing Sunday at Berkeley's Jazzschool. Photo: Leotyeve Tatyana
Kim Nalley. performing Sunday at Berkeley’s Jazzschool. Photo: Leotyeve Tatyana

By aesthetic, academic and cultural inclination, Kim Nalley is ideally suited for presenting “Freedom Songs,” a program at the Jazzschool on Sunday afternoon tracing the role of music in the long African-American struggle for liberty and human rights. A supremely soulful jazz singer who’s equally versed in the blues, Nalley is also a doctoral student in history at U.C. Berkeley focusing on American ex-pat musicians in post-war West Germany.

As landmark anniversaries of events in Civil Rights movement arise, she’s often been asked to offer musical insight, like at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute’s commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington last year, where she also served as musical director. For Sunday’s Jazzschool program, Nalley is taking an encompassing view, drawing connections between familiar Civil Rights anthems and earlier resistance movements.

“I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t confined to the civil rights struggle,” Nalley said between classes. “I also wanted to acknowledge that many songs from the civil right movements are rooted in negro spirituals and the slave experience, which a lot of people don’t recognize. In the movement they wanted to pick songs that people knew, that people could sing easily.”

The death of Pete Seeger last month offered a reminder that he and fellow folk singers adapted “We Shall Overcome” from the seminal gospel song “I’ll Overcome Someday” by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley, a Methodist minister whose father was a slave. Nalley has designed the presentation to encourage participation on songs that were intended to bring people together in solidarity.


“So many of these tune revolve around the voice and the voice as a collective, things that you could sing in a march or a jail cell, or when you were working in the fields or a prison gang,” she says. “The voice is one of the most important instruments of the black cultural experience, and I want to make sure part of this concert is getting the audience to participate, to join in and sing together regardless of vocal ability. That’s  not important for the beauty of the music come through.”

Kim Nalley. Photo: Scott Chernis
Kim Nalley. Photo: Scott Chernis

Largely following a chronological path, the show also highlights the way that the Biblical plight of the Hebrews resonated with enslaved African-Americans. From the antebellum period through the brief flowering of Reconstruction and the dark night of Jim Crow, the Bible provided a rich trove of metaphors and coded messages that could be communicated through song. She probably won’t have time to touch on jazz material inspired by the civil rights struggle, like Mingus’s furious denunciation of Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, “Fables of Faubus” and Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Freedom Now Suite.”

“But I do want to sing some songs that are more art pieces,” Nalley says. “For example, ‘Strange Fruit’ has to be included, and Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ There’s definitely far more material than I can get to in one afternoon, but all in all in all it’s a whole picture of what’s going on.  I also want to concentrate on the feel good tunes. ‘This Little Light of Mine’ is as powerful as ‘Strange Fruit,’ though just looking at the lyrics you might not see that.”

Nalley continues to perform around the region, while balancing the demands of school and motherhood. She is a headliner at San Jose Jazz’s Winter Fest at San Pedro Square on Feb. 28, and plays a series of gigs next month with tenor sax great Houston Person, including March 28 at Biscuits & Blues.

In many ways her academic studies have deepened her perspective as an artist. With less than one semester of course work to go, Nalley has traced the way that African-American music and culture continues to influence people around the world.


“Wherever you go people listen to African-American music and identify with the themes in their own experience, whether it’s hip hop, R&B, blues or jazz,” Nalley says. “You can go to Germany and Turkish people call themselves black, identifying as the other. During the Egyptian revolution I was watching TV and they’re singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ This is the global language of the oppressed, and those who are trying to better their circumstances and situation.”

Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express. He lives in West Berkeley.

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