Freedom First began in 2020 as a concert series with dozens of musicians on the streets of New York, playing the jazz standards that helped LaMar survive these long decades in solitary, including him speaking live by telephone between songs.
Freedom First is also the title of LaMar’s album, released in February 2022. Conceived of and produced by Brooklyn-based, Catalan pianist Albert Marques, Freedom First is a collaboration between an international group of jazz musicians playing both new compositions and standards, and LaMar, who recites poetry via phone and video from the Ohio State Penitentiary.
Freedom First is the first album in history by an artist in death row. Keith LaMar is scheduled to be executed by the State of Ohio in November of 2023.
LaMar was sentenced to death in the aftermath of the 11-day 1993 Lucasville Prison Uprising, when the State of Ohio found themselves under public pressure to clean up the multi-million dollar mess. The State Highway Patrol had contaminated all the evidence by trampling through the crime scene, and thus prosecutors developed a strategy to reward jailhouse informants to implicate LaMar for the deaths of fellow inmates. To secure his conviction, they withheld the statements that would have proven his innocence, including confessions from the actual perpetrators. LaMar’s trial took place in a remote Ohio community with an all-white jury, who swiftly sentenced him to death. More info on his case can be found at keithlamar.org.
It was jazz that kept LaMar from losing his mind in prison. “John Coltrane saved my life,” LaMar said. “Had it not been for A LOVE SUPREME I’m sure I would have lost myself. I listened to it every day, and it rewired something in me, changed the circuitry of my brain and opened me up in a way that allowed me to view things (most especially myself) through a broader lens. I needed that, to free my mind, in order to keep living and breathing.” And it is jazz that has connected LaMar to an ever-growing group of supporters who through music advocate passionately for him to be granted a new trial so that he can prove his innocence.
Albert Marques – piano
Keith LaMar – spoken word
Joshua Thurston-Milgrom – bass
Kazemde George – saxophone
Zack O’farrill – drums