Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jazz, 1964

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, I am reminded of a speech that Dr. King wrote for the opening of the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Although apparently he wasn't in attendance at the festival, Dr. King composed a memorable text for the event in which he discusses the social and spiritual role of jazz, as well as its role within the Civil Rights Movement. The speech was shrouded in mystery for a long time because no images or recordings of it are extant, but researchers David Demsey and Bruce Jackson have recently established that Dr. King never actually gave the speech, which was written to be printed in the program of the festival. Fortunately, the text of the speech has survived and is stunning for its beauty and poetic value, as well as for its social and historical significance. The following is an excerpt, which is good proof of the high esteem in which Dr. King held jazz as both artistic expression and catalyst for social change.

"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." 
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.

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