Let us rejoice today with music honoring and celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Oliver Nelson, a saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, was born in the same era as Dr. King, in 1932. His life was cut short when he died at the age of 43 from a heart attack.

Mr. Nelson, who had achieved major credit as a jazz saxophonist with several groups, including those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, had written the scores for several films, among them “Death of a Gunfighter” and “Skullduggery,” and had composed music for a number of television programs, ‘among them “Ironside,” “It ‘Takes a Thief,” “The Name of the Game,” “Night Gallery” and I“The Six‐Million Dollar Man.”

Oliver Edward Nelson was born in St. Louis on June 4, 1932, and was a professional musician before he had finished grade school. He played the piano at 5 and the saxophone before he was 10.

His serious compositions included a woodwind quintet in 1960, a song cycle for contralto and piano in 1961, “Dirge for ‘Chamber Orchestra,” 1962, and “Soundpiece for String Quartet and Contralto,” in 1963.

Only one year after MLK’s assassination, Nelson released his epic jazz tribute to Dr. King, “Black, Brown, and Beautiful.” 

From the liner notes:

MARTIN WAS A MAN, A REAL MAN was intended to be for Male Voice and Orchestra. I envisaged a Black Voice of the Paul Robeson or William Warfield variety but somehow I couldn’t find a lyricist in time, so the vocal line is played rather than sung. The piece is derived from the intervals C, F, A, C, which are identical with the note steps used when Taps are played. This is my final salute to a Great Man, a Great American.  

Another jazz composer from Dr. King’s era was Cal Massey, born in Philadelphia in 1927. Though he was a trumpet player, he is mostly known for his compositions. In 1969, along with Archie Shepp, Massey traveled to Algeria to the Pan African Cultural Festival, where he met Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information in Exile of the Black Panther Party. Cleaver commissioned Massey to write a Black Liberation Movement Suite, dedicated to Black leaders, including Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Marcus Garvey, and Dr. King.   

Movement 5:  The Peaceful Warrior (For Martin Luther King Jr.) is a composition dedicated to the most profound spiritual leader in American History, whose combination of liberation theology and militant pacifism was born out of Gandhi’s own struggle, and inspired the world in turn.

“The Peaceful Warrior” is a duet between Shepp on tenor sax and Massey on electric keyboard, evoking a hauntingly spiritual feeling. 

International affairs and history scholar Fidan Baycora, writing for Historic America, recently reviewed the history of the MLK Jr. Day celebration that many younger folks may now take for granted in “The Decades Long Battle for Martin Luther King Jr. Day”:

The calls for a day in King’s honor begin only four days after his April 4, 1968 assassination when Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) alongside Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) introduced a bill to Congress to create a federal holiday honoring the late activist. Although initially unnoticed, Rep. Conyers did not waver in his efforts and was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus in his push to establish a federal holiday recognizing King. In fact, three years following Rep. Conyers’ first attempt to establish a King holiday, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King has famously led from the moment of its founding to the day he died, handed Congress a petition with around 3 million signatures in favor of a federal King holiday.

However, despite the setbacks being faced at the federal level, many cities and states honored King around the anniversaries of his birth and death with their own celebrations. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, founded the King Memorial Center in his hometown of Atlanta and would go onto sponsor the first observation of MLK Day in January 1969 — nearly a year after his assassination. The following year, St. Louis became one of the first cities in the country to establish a city holiday honoring King. Additionally during the 1970s, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut became the first states to establish statewide holidays to celebrate King.

Washington D.C. was also among the cities that joined the early fight to honor King. As the location of King’s famous “I have a dream” speech and a majority black city, Washington D.C. was one of many American cities faced with extreme trauma, shock, and betrayal at the murder of Dr. King. Merely days before his assassination, King spoke at the Washington National Cathedral to raise awareness for the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington, D.C. to demand justice and resources for those affected by poverty in the United States. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of King’s murder, the residents of Washington D.C. called upon their local officials to honor King with a city wide holiday on April 4th — the anniversary of his death. Although this issue was not resolved within the years following King’s death: unofficial celebrations and commemorations took place throughout the city as local activists encouraged Washingtonians to stay home and not go to work on April 4th in honor of King.

She goes on to point out that It took until the year 2000 for all 50 states to officially recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that there are still areas of resistance. Given the current right-wing supremacist actions to suppress the teaching of history and civil rights, we should expect that there will be actions targeted toward erasing what it took so many years to achieve. 

The Grio has this short video synopsis of the struggle for a federal holiday.

While most people who know the history of Stevie Wonder’s role in achieving the holiday for Dr. King, rarely do I see mention of poet Gil Scott-Heron.

Here is an excerpt from the memoir Heron wrote, published in The Guardian:

Yeah, this piece of legislation to make King’s birthday into a national holiday looked like a long shot, especially with it being raised just after America had elected Ronald Reagan, who would be inaugurated at the other end of the Mall in five days. But if our community was to make valuable contributions, then those who made them had to be recognised as offering something of value. Why would the next one of us feel that he or she should make the effort, marshal the strength and somehow fortify him or herself against the opposition that always seemed stronger, if even a man who won the Nobel peace prize was ignored where those efforts for peace had done the most good?

All holidays should not be set aside for generals. To have the country honour men for doing what they did at a time when difficult personal decisions made their actions worthwhile for the overall good meant the same thing for all citizens. That had been both the point and the ultimate disappointment of what had once been called “the civil rights movement“.

In 1986, efforts were made to reach younger audiences with music about Dr. King and the national holiday by bringing together popular artists like El DeBarge, Fat Boys, Full Force, Grandmaster Melle Mel, J.T. Taylor, Kurtis Blow, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Menudo, New Edition, Run-DMC, Stacy Lattisaw, Stephanie Mills, Teena Marie, Whodini, and Whitney Houston in a “King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew” video produced by Phillip Jones and Kurtis Blow for VH1 Soul.

One thing people may not be aware of is that Prince donated the $90,000 needed to make the video.

Prince’s generosity was felt by a lot of artists before his untimely passing earlier this year, and pioneer rap legend Kurtis Blow spoke to VladTV about the late singer’s generous gift to him.Kurtis explained that he was asked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s son to write a song about his father, which he later titled “King Holiday,” and it featured a host of up and coming artists like Whitney Houston, Run DMC, and more. While the song was a “We Are The World” for a younger generation, Kurtis revealed that he didn’t have the money to do the video, and Prince stepped in to help. The Harlem rapper told VladTV that Prince gave him $90,000 to do the video, and Kurtis pointed out that he wasn’t even on the song.

In 1992, I can remember walking through Harlem in New York City, and every store and boombox was blasting a tune which sampled Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech by a group called Moodswings on their album Moodfood. DJs at dance clubs played it over and over.

I thought this was an interesting comment from Walter P under the video on You Tube:

I first heard this tune at 3am on the dance floor of Tracks nightclub in DC in 1991. As it played out everyone seemed to sway in time to the music. When the MLK speech began, the entire crowd, maybe 2,000 people, came to a virtual standstill, in rapt attention, hanging on every word. When Dr. King finished  with “Free at last…” the entire place erupted into cheers that you could hear outside the building. It was an awesome magical moment in time, and I’m glad I was there to participate.

Fast-forward to Common’s  2006 “A Dream” featuring Will.i.am, from the hip hop film score for the movie Freedom Writers.  

The Freedom Writers Foundation continues the work documented in the film.

I’d like to close with this 2019 India Arie tribute, which is not just about Dr. King and opens with these lyrics:

What if Martin didn’t stand up
What if Rosa didn’t sit down
What if Malcolm didn’t man up
Where would we be now
What if Marley didn’t get up, stand up
What if Dubois didn’t come to advance us
And Mandela didn’t come to teach us
Where would we be now
We are the ones we’ve been waitin’ for
We can change the world
We can change the world

Here’s hoping you will all be pushing for voting rights during tomorrow’s holiday, and in the days ahead. Let the music carry us forward as we fight on. Join me in the comments section below for more music, and I look forward to listening to your selections.



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