Dr. King and The Spirit of Jazz

We honor Dr. King (January 15, 1929 — April 4, 1968) today and every day for his sacrifice and leadership. His work and dedication touched us all and his message continues to ring loud and clear.

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

Those of us old enough to have been there in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 with over 200,00 people marching for jobs and freedom are forever touched by that event and we know that the struggle continues as young people pick up the torch and march in protest against the killing of young black men and women and all social injustice. Dr. King had a vision for the future that included an end to the War in Vietnam and dignity and justice for working people. At the time of his death, he was marching with the garbage workers in Memphis for a living wage and decent working conditions. 

Jazz has always stood for freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom of art, freedom of expression. 
Those who were there that day in Washington, D.C. have never forgotten the message of Dr. King, nor what it means for musicians. Of the many jazz musicians present that day, I recall being in the huge crowd of people only to look over and see a very dear friend of mine, someone who personified the very sentiments that Dr. King expressed that day. That friend was none other than drum-legend Elvin Jones. To this day, whenever we celebrate Dr. King's birthday, we also celebrate the legacy of jazz and the many musicians who gave their lives to the cause of humanity. Elvin was one among countless musicians who I knew that championed the cause both in his life and in his playing. And we must keep this essential sprit of our music alive, because the struggle continues.

In the words of Dr. King:

Humanity and the Importance of Jazz

“God has brought 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 copewith 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.”

The King and The Duke

On this day when we honor the memory of Dr. King, I particularly love this documentary clip on Duke Ellington meeting Dr. King. The woman speaking is Marian Logan (1920-1993), Duke's long-time friend. She was a cabaret singer in her youth and, as an adult, a civil rights advocate and New York City Commissioner of Human Rights.

King Fit De Battle of Bam from Duke Ellington's My People

Thank you, Dr. King.

Maxine Gordon