Dr. King Was A Jazz Head!

On January 16th, this nation will celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  His sermons will no doubt be re-examined, certain individuals will rehash the time they met him, and others with long memories, will recount the time they marched with Dr. King.  Many more,  will express, with deep emotion, what his life’s work has meant to them.  The media will again flood the public with a collage of iconic images of Dr. King (including this blog); from his birth to his death all while his sermons of “I have a Dream” and “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” provide the sonic tapestry of verse and chorus in the background.

The Obamas visit the MLK Monument in D.C.

I imagine droves of people will visit King’s burial site at the King Center in Atlanta.  I also imagine an unprecedented amount of people will visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in D.C. . . . if it’s open . . . ???  After all, it is a national holiday.  No matter, Dr. King’s holiday is indeed a great American cultural event and one we Americans are proud to celebrate.

To celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his day, I want to write something cool on my blog.  I didn’t want to write just anything. I want to somehow connect Dr. King directly to music.  I’ve seen videos and listened to plenty audio of events, which were lead by Dr. King or featured Dr. King inundated with music; gospel music to be specific.  We’ve all heard emotional renditions of “We Shall Overcome” and jubilant versions of  “This Little Light of Mine,” as Dr. King readied himself and made his way to the pulpits, stages, and across bridges during the struggle for Civil Rights.  But did he demand songs such as these to be part of his sermons, lectures, and oratory performances?  No, this was a fundamental music element rooted in the Black church meant to ready ones soul to receive the “good news”; a culture from which Dr. King comes.  I wanted to find that perfect blend of music, King, and purpose.

I perused the Internet for that elusive music connection to Dr. King.  After some time, I was ready to end it when I came upon a quote from Dr. King concerning the importance of Jazz.  Jazz? Yes, Jazz.  I was reinvigorated! I searched for the source of this quote and soon found it. Now, I thought, I can write something really cool for my blog.  Turns out this quote came from a forward written by Dr. King for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. (IKR) His speech was included in the program for the event.  People thought Dr. King personally delivered the speech at the opening of the festival, which began September 24th and ended on the 27th of 1964 however, he did not attend the opening of the festival.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy at the Berlin Wall in West Berlin in September 1964.

[Did you know he was in East and West Berlin from the 12th to the 14th of September 1964? You can read all about it here. It’s amazing!]

How did Dr. King come to write the forward for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival? Here is the short of it: essentially the director of the event asked Dr. King in July of 1964 if he could, in his spare time, take a moment and write a few words about Jazz to be included in the program.  Dr. King obliged!  Why would he ask Dr. King to do this?  Well, I believe the director of the festival may have asked him for the following reasons: Dr. King was in fact, Times Magazine “Man Of The Year” in 1964; he was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed and was there when it was signed: he was a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize in July ‘64, which was awarded to him later that year. In 1964, Dr. King was the global symbol for peace.  In much the same way as Jazz, Dr. King life’s work had transcended far beyond the boundaries of the South to take root on fertile ground elsewhere.  For this very reason I can understand why the director of the festival appealed to Dr. King.  Still, to be asked to write something specifically on Jazz for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival is peculiar.  Did the director of the event know something more about King than the rest of us?  Was Dr. King a Jazz head?!!!  Would he come home from his long marches and fiery speeches, fix himself a scotch on the rocks, light a cigarette (yes he did), plop down on the couch, and ask Coretta to hold all calls while he mellowed out to Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” or would he hype himself up to go out on the road by listening to Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite.”  Yep, I think Dr. King was a Jazz head!  I believe he listened to jazz all the time, snapping his fingers and bobbing his head.  Moreover, Dr. King not only listened to it but he connected Jazz to the struggles and victories of Black folk as well as similar human experiences throughout the world.  So when asked if he could take a few moments of his time to write some words about Jazz, he went all in . . . deep!

This is what Dr. King wrote:

 God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

It’s too bad Dr. King didn’t make it to the festival because the line up was off the chain.  Amid the mostly European talent were giants of the jazz genre, i.e.: Miles Davis’ quintet, George Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Dave Brubeck, Joe Turner and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all their accompanying band members. Wow! What a show!

Dr. King and Jazz in 1964 came together to further the cause of peace and acceptance on a global stage.  Combined, they voiced the struggle of the oppressed with penetrating melody, harmony, riffs, glissando, tempo changes, solos, and vamps. On MLK day I plan on listening to some of my favorite Jazz recordings, most likely some ‘Trane and Kirk in memory and in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday and life’s work.  I think, however, Dr. King if he were alive today, may not be so nostalgic in his Jazz selection, I feel he’d rather listen to new cats like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, or bassist Esperanza Spalding, and certainly any recording with drummer Brian Blade.

So, did Dr. King have a direct connection to music? Yep! And it was Jazz.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Jazz head! LOL! Nice!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had he survived, would have reached his 83rd year of life on this day.

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2 thoughts on “Dr. King Was A Jazz Head!

  1. And I sincerely believed that I would never be surprised nor learn anything truly new and interesting about Dr. King. I stand corrected and am repentant.

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