"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."
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., 1964
Read the whole speech here.
One of those jazzmen who, in the words of Dr. King, "were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls" was saxophonist John Coltrane, whose music was growing increasingly experimental around the time that Dr. King wrote this speech and whose work of this period often illustrates the social changes that were occurring in the United States throughout the 1960s. A perfect example of this is Coltrane's composition "Alabama," included in 1963's Live at Birdland, a tune he wrote after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four African American kids were killed. Coltrane's powerful, mournful composition is one of the highlights of the album, and it's inspired precisely by the rhythm and cadences of a speech by Dr. King that Trane had heard following the events in Birmingham. Coltrane is joined by McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, and their passionate cry for freedom, justice, and equality hasn't lost any of its poignancy more than half a century after it was recorded. It is, indeed, the perfect tune to play on a day like today.