The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929, and his birthday is celebrated as a nationally observed holiday—Martin Luther King Jr. Day—on the third Monday of January each year. While school children learn about Dr. King and the role he played in advancing the cause of civil rights, and though he has taken on iconic status in the eyes of so many of us as a warrior for justice after his assassination on April 4, 1968, we should also remember that during his lifetime he exhibited a love and deep appreciation for Black music, and in turn, many of our musical artists paid him tribute.
Join with me this #BlackMusicSunday in honoring his words and the music he inspired.
When you hear “MLK,” I doubt whether the word “jazz” immediately pops into your head. When you think of his speeches and writings, the first one named is almost always his “I Have a Dream” speech, which was given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This is perhaps followed by “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or “Beyond Vietnam,” which was delivered at the Riverside Church.
Yet Dr. King wrote eloquently and passionately about Black music, including blues and jazz in 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr. Quote on Jazz Documented by William Paterson University Professor and Former Student
The origin of a famous quote on the significance and beauty of jazz attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., his only known commentary on the subject, has been uncovered by David Demsey, William Paterson University professor of music and coordinator of jazz studies, and Bruce Jackson, William Paterson master's degree alumnus and a jazz drummer. The research appears in the January 2011 issue of DownBeat magazine.
The quote is universally misattributed as being from a speech given by King at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Demsey’s and Jackson’s research reveals that King was never actually at the festival, but provided his thoughts on jazz as a foreword for the event’s printed program, at the invitation of the Berlin Festival organizers.
Since his words were not delivered as a speech at the festival, there is no audio recording. However, we now have this wonderful performance of them to savor.
The Essay by Martin Luther King, Jr. That Lives Large In Jazz
Had King been in Berlin personally for the 1964 jazz festival, he would have seen the likes of Miles Davis Quintet, George Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Dave Brubeck, Joe Turner, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Certainly, a line up of jazz musicians, at this moment in time in jazz history, Dr. King would have enjoyed!
What follows below is a production by Jazz In Pop Culture and SF Jazz. A reading by multiple jazz artist participants of Dr. King’s essay on the significance of jazz. This article closes with the full transcript of one of the most magnificent essays about jazz.
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.
I discussed musician activist Max Roach’s tribute to Dr. King in “Drumming down the walls of racism: Remembering Max Roach,” and it is well worth replaying his drum duet with King’s dream speech here today.
I’ve also explored songs and music that became civil rights anthems. I was not familiar with Duke Ellington’s “My People,” which he wrote as a stage show, though I was aware that Ellington had faced criticism from activists for not being one, and for not participating in the March on Washington. However, I agree with what Chris Mosey wrote about the show, and “King Fit the Battle” for All About Jazz:
"King Fit The Battle of Alabam." The song is, of course, based on the old spiritual, with King taking the role of Joshua. It is a stunning highlight of the show, a firecracker of a song that makes you wish Ellington had gotten angry more often.
"King Fit The Battle Of Alabam'" sung by The Irving Bunton Singers.
Recorded at Universal Studios in Chicago. August 20, 1963. Duke composed My People for Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Celebration 'A Century of Negro Progress Exposition' and the elaborate production ran from August 16 to September 2, 1963 in the Arie Crown Theater at Chicago's McCormick Place. In 1963, Robert Morris was a young undergraduate music major at DePaul University's School of Music and a member of the Irving Bunton Singers. Duke appointed him arranger for all of the choral music for My People.My People was being performed in Chicago...when the historic March on Washington took place August 28, 1963 during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.
While Dr. King was organizing in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), music was always part of the mobilization. In this video clip, Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers talks with CNN reporter Chris Morrow about how she first met Dr. King and identifies his favorite tune.
According to Mavis, it was “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” Pop Staples introduces the song by talking about schoolchildren facing segregation.
This song is about the Little Rock Nine, the first black students to attend the segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. In 1957, after in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation, the nine students enrolled at the school. On the first day of school, they were met with angry protests and blocked by the Arkansas National Guard, as ordered by the governor. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by sending federal troops to escort the students into the school three weeks later.
The vitriol the students faced for simply trying to attend an all-white school was shocking, and made national headlines. The incident galvanized the civil rights movement, which drew support from across the nation.
"Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)" was written by the Staple Singers patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples in reaction to the protests.
Two months before his assassination, Dr. King delivered the sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ironically, he spoke of what he wanted said at his funeral. From this segment comes the phrase “tell him not to talk too long.”
Feb. 4, 1968: If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell him not to talk too long. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention on that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day, that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams, whose birth centennial was celebrated on Jan. 12, used that phrase from his speech for “Mary Lou’s Mass; Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long.” According to the liner notes, the vocals are the choir from the North American College in Rome.
After Dr. King’s assassination, the music world responded immediately and tributes poured in. One of my favorites is a blues piece from Otis Spann. Alex Deley, writing for DJ D-Mac & Associates, had this to say about it in their “Song for the Day” back in 2018.
The great blues piano man, Otis Spann, captures the horror and desolation of the loss of King in his deep and moving song “Blues for Martin Luther King”. While Spann (who is probably best known as a sideman to Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters) was not known as a singer, this song was so personally important to him that he opted to sing it himself. As an African American who grew up in the Jim Crow South before moving to Chicago, one can only imagine what King‘s actions (and the wider Civil Rights Movement) meant to Spann and how personally he must have felt the loss.
Nina Simone, who was fiercely militant in her support for civil rights and was stunned and angered by the murder of Reverend King, asked “Why?”
Three days after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, performer Nina Simone and her band played at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, N.Y. They performed "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)," a song they had just learned, written by their bass player Gene Taylor in reaction to King's death.
Simone's brother, Samuel Waymon, who was on stage playing the organ, talks with Lynn Neary about that day and his reaction to the civil rights leader's assassination.
"We learned that song that (same) day," says Waymon. "We didn't have a chance to have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you're feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling, we did it because that's what we felt."
Singer-songwriter folk and jazz guitarist Terry Callier recorded this hauntingly beautiful tribute to Dr. King, which deserves to be heard more often.
Last but certainly not least, it is important to note that we would probably not be celebrating Dr. King’s birthday as a federal holiday were it not for the Herculean efforts of one musician: Stevie Wonder.
Marcus Baram detailed the 15-year struggle to make it happen in “How Stevie Wonder Helped Create Martin Luther King Day.”
[...] Wonder flew to Atlanta for the slain civil rights hero’s funeral, as riots erupted in several cities, the country still reeling. He joined Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross and a long list of politicians and pastors who mourned King, prayed for a nation in which all men are created equal and vowed to continue the fight for freedom.
Wonder was still in shock—he remembered how, when he was five, he first heard about King as he listened to coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott on the radio. “I asked, ‘Why don’t they like colored people? What’s the difference?’ I still can’t see the difference.” As a young teenager, when Wonder was performing with the Motown Revue in Alabama, he experienced first-hand the evils of segregation—he remembers someone shooting at their tour bus, just missing the gas tank. When he was 15, Wonder finally met King, shaking his hand at a freedom rally in Chicago.
At the funeral, Wonder was joined by his local representative, young African-American Congressman John Conyers, who had just introduced a bill to honor King’s legacy by making his birthday a national holiday. Thus began an epic crusade, led by Wonder and some of the biggest names in music—from Bob Marley to Michael Jackson—to create Martin Luther King Day.
This video featurette from Biography gives more detail.
I think there are very few people who have never heard the song that drove the movement for the holiday, but I never get tired of it, so here it is.
Thank you Stevie Wonder. Thank you to all the musicians past and present who continue Dr. King’s legacy.
Thank you Dr. King. Your spirit lives on in us all.