Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jazz and the Freedom Movement

By Tom Reney, New England Public Radio

Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington; Mahalia Jackson wearing corsage at lower right

In the speech he gave before the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the refrain, “Now is the time.” Was he inspired by Charlie Parker’s, “Now’s the Time,” the bop classic that Parker recorded in 1945? Bebop’s urgency had implications stretching beyond music, and many found among the leading figures in modern jazz the embodiment of a new African American consciousness. As evidenced by his introductory remarks prepared for the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, King loved the music and had a profound appreciation of jazz’s cultural significance.

In September 1964, as the guest of Mayor Willy Brandt, King spent two days in (West) Berlin.  During the whirlwind visit, he gave a sermon to a crowd of 20,000, visited the Berlin Wall, and attended a memorial concert for President Kennedy.  It’s also long been reported that he gave the keynote address to the inaugural Berlin Jazz Festival, but in recent years that’s been disputed by Bruce Jackson and Professor David Demsey of William Patterson University.  Whether spoken or merely written for the festival’s program, King offers genuine insight about the role that jazz musicians played as they “championed” the search for identity among African Americans. “Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of ‘racial identity’ as a problem for a multi-racial world,” wrote King, “musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.”  (Read the complete text below.)

Duke Ellington composed “King Fit the Battle of Alabam,” for his 1963 musical, My People. It was staged in Chicago for the Century of Negro Progress Exhibition that celebrated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Alas, it never got to Broadway, but some of the music was later incorporated into the Sacred Concerts. “King Fit the Battle…” celebrates Martin, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom riders, and satirizes the notorious Birmingham, Alabama, Sheriff Bull Connors. While he was in Chicago, Ellington met King in a meeting that was arranged by Marian Logan, who was the only female member of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As Marian Bruce, she had sung on Clark Terry’s album, Duke With a Difference, and had performed in New York cabarets. She was the wife of Dr. Arthur Logan, a friend and physician to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn whose practice was commemorated in their tune, “Upper Manhattan Medical Group.”

One senses that Dr. King would have understood what Stanley Crouch meant in his 2009 Daily News column lamenting the absence of jazz in the public rituals of the Obama administration. “Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America…Jazz was always an art, but because of the race of its creators, it was always more than music. Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one’s individual ability.” Or, as King famously put it, “Judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Speaking of Birmingham, here’s the John Coltrane Quartet playing “Alabama” on Ralph J. Gleason’s public television series, Jazz Casual. Coltrane composed the elegy in commemoration of the four girls murdered in the fire-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. Trane first recorded the piece on November 18; this was taped on December 7, 1963.

Here's the text of Dr. King's dedication to the Berlin Jazz Festival.

“God has brought many things out of oppression. He has endowed hi s

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

multi-racial 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.”

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