Gale’s big break came in ’62, when he appeared on “Space Aura,” the third track on Sun Ra & His Solar Arkestra’s Secrets of the Sun LP. Three years later, Gale scored a bigger placement when he played on Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, the pianist’s first album for Blue Note, now a linchpin record in the annals of free jazz. Then, after a star turn on organist Lee Young’s Of Love and Peace, Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff asked Gale if he wanted to record his own music. He assembled a sextet that included drummers Thomas Holman and Richard Hackett; bassists Judah Samuel and James “Tokio” Reid; and flutist/tenor saxophonist Russell Lyle; along with an 11-person choir called the Noble Gale Singers. They convened at the famed Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on September 20, 1968, and recorded Ghetto Music in one day.
The album title itself was an act of rebellion. When people conjure the term “ghetto,” they think poor, dangerous, and Black, coating it in broad, racist strokes. Doing so ignores the community existing there, the togetherness spurred by the dearth of resources afforded to it. Instead, Ghetto Music was meant to celebrate Gale’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and others like it. “It comes from all of us that lived in that area of the city,” he once said. “That lived this life of music, going to school, learning and growing up. It was all-encompassing.”
Ghetto Music was written as a dramatic presentation accentuated by costumes and acting; between its choral chants and prayerful aura, it was an album that could’ve worked just as well in the Theater District and The East, the famed Black cultural center and venue in Bed-Stuy. Anxious moments were met with equally calm ones, offering a nuanced portrayal of Black life beyond how its depiction in the news. Simply put: Black people weren’t taking any more shit from white people; the tenants of nonviolence were giving way to militant-minded retaliation. As the thinking went, brutality would be met in kind; the days of “We Shall Overcome” gave way to James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” Along with that thinking came a new, unflinching pride; the tenor was less about what whites have done wrong and more about looking within for the unification and construction of an isolated Black world.
Where other music jabbed its finger in the chest of the oppressor, Ghetto Music felt like a comforting hug for the oppressed. This is what “The Rain” does when Gale’s sister Joann sings of finding the resilience to move on from distress. “I must leave, so so long,” she coos sweetly, her voice tearful and despondent. “Wipe the tears away from your eyes.” Conversely, “Fulton Street,” a break-neck arrangement with thunderous drum rolls and blistering trumpet wails, is twitchy and nervous, the sense of speeding down the road and beating the yellow signals. The song stops and starts at various intervals, only heightening the intensity; in its silent moments, Gale blasts into his upper register; when followed by cascading drum fills, it’s the sound of a fully pressurized Brooklyn summer day.