Jun 8, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Jazz duo takes on how US highways hurt Black communities

Jazz duo Concurrence made up of Greg Bryant and Paul Horton

Greg Bryant and Paul Horton of the jazz duo Concurrence. Photo: Courtesy of la reserve records.

A long-time jazz duo is tackling an often-overlooked episode in U.S. history — the destruction of Black communities thanks to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

The big picture: Greg Bryant and Paul Horton of the jazz duo Concurrence released Friday their ambitious "Indivisible" LP that tells the story of how highways like Interstate 40 upended vibrant communities of color in Nashville.

  • The President Eisenhower-era initiative displaced Black businesses and forced residents to leave homes, from the East Coast to the American South to the Southwest, without fair compensation.
  • Experts say the program erased generations of Black wealth in the name of progress and moving possible nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Zoom in: Available for streaming on platforms like Spotify, "Indivisible" takes listeners on a journey through spoken word, joyful beats and reflective vibes to show what was lost and how communities fought back.

  • New York-based la reserve records released the project.
  • Songs like "Groovin at the Del Morroco" elicit images of a busy street of Black businesses and happiness, while "I-40 Was a Razor" invokes terror, confusion and anger.
  • "The Steering Committee Blues (Ain't Lying Down)" is a call to action with a neo-soul tone and influences from the civil rights era of jazz.

The intrigue: Horton, a keyboardist, tells Axios the project came after conversations with Bryant, a bassist and a Nashville native, whose family was forced to relocate because of I-40's construction.

  • "Before the interstate came through, roughly 80 to 85% of all black-owned businesses were concentrated in this area of North Nashville," said Horton, who grew up in North Alabama.
  • Bryant tells Axios that growing up in Nashville during the 1980s, he saw boarded-up buildings and heard Black elders talk about the once-bustling Jefferson Street.
  • "Why was the Black side so rundown? What was the cause of that? I started asking myself these questions when I was 10 years old," Bryant said.

Zoom out: The pair conducted research, interviewed residents during other gigs and finally put it together: What happened in Nashville with I-40 happened to other Black, Latino and Native American communities.

  • The same highway split through Indigenous communities in Oklahoma and Arizona and Mexican American neighborhoods in New Mexico.
  • Bryant played gigs on Jefferson in front of elders.
  • "It's a full circle moment to make this record because it honors our parents, our grandparents," he said. "This happened in so many different cities like Nashville."

Context: Jazz artists have a long history of addressing civil rights and protests through music.

  • "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite" of 1960 focused on Black history from enslavement to the sit-in movement.
  • Charles Mingus's 1959 "Mingus Ah Um" album attacked Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus for defying the Supreme Court's desegregation orders and preventing nine Black students from integrating Little Rock Central High School.
  • Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" was a cry against lynching.

Go deeper: The $1 billion push to remove highways dividing communities

Go deeper