MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
If you’re curious about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thoughts on jazz, you’re not alone. For decades, people have speculated as to his affections for the music, especially given that during the mid-1960s, jazz was becoming increasingly aligned with the Civil Rights Movement in the hands of artists like Nina Simone and drummer Max Roach. But as for King’s own thoughts on jazz? Well, you’ll find just a few short, but potent, paragraphs. The text below, which appeared in the program to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, offers up King’s only public commentary on the value of the music:
“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.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s above remarks on jazz have often been misidentified as being from a speech King supposedly gave at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. However, in 2011, Professor David Demsey and alumnus Bruce Jackson of William Patterson University discovered that King was never at the festival; these remarks appeared in the foreword to the festival’s program.