Martin Luther King Jr. was a jazz fan who wrote eloquently about the music he loved, as well as how jazz and the artists who created it influenced and shaped the dialogue of the civil rights movement. We celebrate King’s life on Monday with a special program dedicated to his appreciation for and influence on the genre.
President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Nov. 2, 1983. It was observed for the first time Jan. 20 three years later. Today, it remains a symbol of the progress made to overcome inequality and the continued struggle for equity.
Music often plays a role in that effort.
King’s friend, the Rev. Sampson Alexander, has recalled debating with the civil rights leader over the merits of jazz trumpeters Clifford Brown and Miles Davis: “King preferred Miles Davis on that instrument. But he thought the absolute greatest jazz artist was Charlie 'Bird' Parker.”
In King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, according to Alexander, King used the refrain “now is the time,” referencing the title of Parker’s classic 1945 tune, “Now’s The Time.”
Other black jazz artists who were part of the civil rights dialogue at the time included James Reese Europe and Will Marion Cook — who were leaders of black ragtime and creators of black orchestras in the 1910s and 1920s — as well as pianist and band leader Duke Ellington, whose “Black, Blue and Beige” album was about black history, black aspirations and black history in the midst of World War II.
Another notable black artist is trumpeter Clark Terry, who recorded “Serenade to a Bus Seat” in 1957 — about the Montgomery struggle and Rosa Parks.
Listen to music from these and other artists on our Monday special, starting at noon, as well as King’s opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, where he spread the word about the healing power of jazz music in the face of a divided America:
“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.”