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MLK Jr. On Jazz: The Soundtrack Of Civil Rights

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties.”

Originally called the “Berliner Jazztage” the now Berlin Jazz Festival was founded in 1964 in West Berlin by the Berliner Festspiele. The festival’s mission has been “to document, support, and validate trends in jazz, and to mirror the diversity of creative musical activity. During the festivals creation, Berlin was divided from East to West; a similar division that many Black people experienced in America during Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. At the request of the organizers of the festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned an essay on the significance of Jazz. While it’s one of Dr. King’s lesser known speeches, it remains as one of the most profound essays about jazz in modern times. In 1964, King rose to prominence on many fronts of the Civil Rights movement and was quickly becoming one of the greatest orators and writers of his generation. Although King was not personally at the 1964 festival, his essay loomed large over the 3 days.

It’s no secret that Dr. King enjoyed a good time — and with a lineup that consisted of Miles Davis Quintet, George Russell, Coleman Hawkins, Roland Kirk, Dave Brubeck, Joe Turner, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dr. King would’ve easily enjoyed that legendary lineup of musicians.

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.