MLK, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and the Freedom Movement

Jan 21, 2019

Notwithstanding the bold and daring recordings made by Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, and other musicians who found common cause with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, jazz was absent from the musical proceedings at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Josh White, Bernice Reagan (later a founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock), and Peter, Paul & Mary were accorded the musical honors.  However, no less a figure than the event's headliner, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was that rare man of the cloth who enjoyed jazz and attributed "much of the power of our Freedom Movement" to the music, so it would have been fitting to hear "Fables of Faubus" or "The Freedom Suite" or "Prayer for Passive Resistance" at the gathering on August 28, 1963.  And while everyone may have agreed with what Max Roach meant in calling an album Deeds Not Words, the Movement, like society itself, was in thrall to words, not only in stirring oratory, but in song.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington, with Mahalia Jackson wearing corsage at lower right

While jazz was missing, there were, nonetheless, critical elements of improvisation in play at  the march.  (I don't mean the hastily toned-down drafts of what dissenters called John Lewis's "incendiary" speech.)  Jazz may be the most celebrated form of American music characterized by improvisation, but it’s intrinsic to gospel music, spirituals, and the blues too.  Mahalia Jackson was hailed as "The Queen of Gospel," and was easily the idiom's best-known exponent.  Harry Belafonte called her "the single most powerful black woman in the United States."  She was a close friend and colleague of Dr. King’s in the National Baptist Convention, and she preceded him on the program singing, “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” and (as seen in this footage) “How I Got Over.” 

Jackson was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall, and in 1954 signed with Columbia Records and began hosting her own weekly CBS radio program.  Her frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show made her a household name, and seeing her on television was as formative as anything I experienced in my early appreciation of African American music; Mahalia simply moved me beyond youthful comprehension.  But gospel purists faulted her hand-clapping and foot-stomping for "bringing jazz into the church," and she made headlines in 1958 when she appeared with Duke Ellington at the Newport Jazz Festival.  Of her performance at the march, Taylor Branch, King’s biographer, said that her “first notes were a cry from the deepest wellsprings of culture…a spiritual born of the slave experience [that] managed to stir emotions irresistible to whites,” as well. 

By the time King was introduced by A. Philip Randolph as the “moral leader of our nation,” all three major television networks were providing coverage of his speech, which was formal and recited verbatim.  But when he read, “We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” the crowd stirred and King felt compelled to discard his text.  When he began to improvise in the determined cadence of a preacher, Jackson exhorted him to “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”  Jackson, who hosted King on his visits to Chicago, had heard him riff on the “I Have a Dream” theme at a speech earlier that year at McCormack Place where performers included Jackson, Dinah Washington, and the 20-year-old Aretha Franklin.  Then in June, King moved the crowd at Cobi Hall in Detroit when he intoned, “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.”

On the Washington Mall, Martin followed Mahalia’s lead and delivered what Branch said “went beyond the limitations of language and culture to express something that was neither pure rage nor pure joy, but a universal transport of the kind that makes the blues sweet. Seven times he threw the extremities of black and white against each other, and each time he came back with a riveting, ecstatic dignity.”

In the speech before the Lincoln Memorial, King also used a familiar refrain, “Now is the time.”  Was he inspired by Charlie Parker’s, “Now’s the Time”? As evidenced by his introductory remarks for the Berlin Jazz Festival the following year, King had a profound appreciation of jazz.  In September 1964, as the guest of Mayor Willy Brandt, King spent two days in Berlin.  During this whirlwind visit, he gave a sermon to a crowd of 20,000, visited the Berlin Wall, and attended a memorial concert for President Kennedy.  It's also long been reported that he gave the keynote address to the inaugural Berlin Jazz Festival, but in recent years that's been disputed by Bruce Jackson and Professor David Demsey of William Patterson University.  Whether spoken or merely written for the festival's program, King offers genuine insight about the role that jazz musicians played as they “championed” the search for identity among African Americans. “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,” King wrote. (Read the complete text below.)

Duke Ellington composed "King Fit the Battle of Alabam," for his 1963 musical, My People. It was staged in Chicago for the Century of Negro Progress Exhibition, which commemmorated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Alas, the show never got to Broadway, but some of the music was later incorporated into the Sacred Concerts. "King Fit the Battle..." celebrates MLK, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom riders, and satirizes the notorious Birmingham, Alabama, Sheriff Bull Connors. In his comprehensive biographical portrait, Duke Ellington's America, Harvey G. Cohen hailed the work as "the most outwardly political statement and song of Ellington's life."

While in Chicago, Ellington met King in a hastily arranged meeting by their mutual friend Marian Logan.  As Marian Bruce, she had sung on trumpeter Clark Terry's Ellingtonian album, Duke With a Difference, and had performed in New York cabarets. She was the wife of Dr. Arthur Logan, a friend and physician to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn whose Harlem-based practice was commemorated in Strayhorn's tune, "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." In the early '60s, she was the only female member of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Logans were liaisons for King to major sources of financial support among prosperous black New Yorkers; Strayhorn was a regular at fund-raisers they hosted at their apartment, and in his 1996 publication, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, David Hajdu recounts that "Strays" would sit at the piano and play the refrain, "Get me some money too," from the classic blues, "Why Don't You Do Right," as King gave "a short inspirational speech...[and] Marian Logan collected donations." Strayhorn also played a pivotal role in inspiring his friend Lena Horne to become involved in the movement; together they attended a strategy meeting with Julian Bond in Atlanta on June 5, 1963, and on June 7, a local NAACP rally in Jackson, Mississippi, where Horne sang. 

One senses that Dr. King would have understood what Stanley Crouch meant in his 2009 Daily News column lamenting the absence of jazz in the public rituals of the Obama administration. "Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America...Jazz was always an art, but because of the race of its creators, it was always more than music. Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one's individual ability." Or, as King famously put it, "Judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Speaking of Birmingham, here's the John Coltrane Quartet playing "Alabama" on Ralph J. Gleason's public television series, Jazz Casual. Coltrane composed the elegy in commemoration of the four girls murdered in the fire-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. Trane first recorded the piece on November 18; this was taped on December 7, 1963.

Max Roach, whose 1960 recording, We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite, was the most daring and controversial of jazz albums that embraced the freedom movement in the U.S. and independence movements in Africa, recorded a duet with Dr. King's speech on his 1981 release, Chattahoochie Red.

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 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
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."