Martin Luther King Jr. Explains the Importance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Festival (1964)

Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s dream of full inclu­sion for Black Amer­i­cans still seems painful­ly unre­al fifty years after his death. By most sig­nif­i­cant mea­sures, the U.S. has regressed. De fac­to hous­ing and school seg­re­ga­tion are entrenched (and wors­en­ing since the 60s and 70s in many cities); vot­ing rights erode one court rul­ing at a time; the racial wealth gap has widened sig­nif­i­cant­ly; and open dis­plays of racist hate and vio­lence grow more wor­ri­some by the day.

Yet the move­ment was not only about win­ning polit­i­cal vic­to­ries, though these were sure­ly the con­crete basis for its vision of lib­er­a­tion. It was also very much a cul­tur­al strug­gle. Black artists felt forced by cir­cum­stances to choose whether they would keep enter­tain­ing all-white audi­ences and pre­tend­ing all was well. “There were no more side­lines,” writes Ashawn­ta Jack­son at JSTOR Dai­ly. This was cer­tain­ly the case for that most Amer­i­can of art forms, jazz. “Jazz musi­cians, like any oth­er Amer­i­can, had the duty to speak to the world around them, and to oppose the bru­tal con­di­tions for Black Amer­i­cans.”

Many of those musi­cians could not stay silent after the mur­der of Emmett Till, the 16th Street Bap­tist Church bomb­ing in Birm­ing­ham, and a string of oth­er high­ly pub­li­cized and hor­rif­ic attacks. Jazz was chang­ing. As Amiri Bara­ka wrote in a 1962 essay, “the musi­cians who played it were loud­ly out­spo­ken about who they thought they were. ‘If you don’t like it, don’t lis­ten’ was the atti­tude.” That atti­tude came to define post-Civ­il Rights Black Amer­i­can cul­ture, a defi­ant turn away from appeas­ing white audi­ences and ignor­ing racism.

As jazz musi­cians embraced the move­ment, so the move­ment embraced jazz. While King him­self is usu­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the gospel singers he loved, he had a deep respect for jazz as a form that spoke of “some new hope or sense of tri­umph.” Jazz, wrote King in his open­ing address for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val, “is tri­umphant music…. 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.”

Jazz not only gave order to chaot­ic, “com­pli­cat­ed urban exis­tence,” it also pro­vid­ed crit­i­cal emo­tion­al sup­port for the Move­ment.

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.

King’s take on jazz par­al­leled his artic­u­la­tions of the move­men­t’s goals—he always under­stood that the par­tic­u­lar strug­gles of Black Amer­i­cans had spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal roots, and required spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal reme­dies. But ulti­mate­ly, he believed that every­one should be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty and respect, and have access to the same oppor­tu­ni­ties and the same pro­tec­tions under the law.

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.

Jazz music, said King, “is a step­ping stone towards all of these.” Wrought “out of oppres­sion,” it is music, he said, that “speaks for life,” even in the midst of what could seem like death and defeat. Read King’s full address at WCLK 91.9. And at the top of the post, hear the speech read by San Fran­cis­co Bay Area artists for a 2012 cel­e­bra­tion on King’s birth­day.

The 1964 Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (poster above) was the first in the illus­tri­ous annu­al event. See many oth­er stun­ning posters from the series here.

via JSTOR Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.’s Hand­writ­ten Syl­labus & Final Exam for the Phi­los­o­phy Course He Taught at More­house Col­lege (1962)

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

In the 1920s Amer­i­ca, Jazz Music Was Con­sid­ered Harm­ful to Human Health, the Cause of “Neuras­the­nia,” “Per­pet­u­al­ly Jerk­ing Jaws” & More

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Comments (6)
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  • Mandla Zwane says:

    Hi, I just read the arti­cle about how jazz was able to ease the bur­den and and the dis­com­fort black Amer­i­can were endur­ing dur­ing the seg­re­ga­tion peri­od in Amer­i­ca and how Mar­tin Luther King jnr sup­port­ed the Idea, I would like to know about Jazz Please help me with books and Jazz CD such as the likes of Miles Davis, Duke Elling­ton, Dizzy Gille­spy and many more, Please help.

  • Patrick Hinely says:

    King’s words are indeed bril­liant, the best such suc­cinct a sum­ma­tion as I’ve seen about the nature of the music. But this is not the text of a speech. He was not in Berlin at that time. King wrote these words as a pref­ace, fore­word, intro­duc­tion or what­ev­er to the pro­gram book for the first Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val, and that is where they were first pub­lished.

  • Justin says:

    Please find a used copy of the Pen­guin Guide to Jazz and dip in. There are about 8 edi­tions, if I remem­ber cor­rect­ly. It’s a great resource.

    Then look for playlists on your favourite stream­ing ser­vice, or join Jazz Vinyl Lovers on FB (Ken Micalle­f’s group) for more help and learn­ing. Best of luck!

  • Martin Joseph says:

    Here are some sug­ges­tions, with a few more names. These are discs with some of the great­est music of each musi­cian and / or a good entry point into their musis. Louis Arm­strong: Por­trait of the Artist as a young man (3‑CD set); Bil­lie Hol­i­day with Lester Young: A Musi­cal Romance; Duke Elling­ton: Nev­er no lament (3‑CD set); Char­lie Park­er: Best of the com­plete Savoy and Dial stu­i­do record­ings; Dizzy Gille­spie Sure ‘Nuff; Miles Davis: Kind of Blue; Thelo­nious Monk: Thelo­nious Monk trio (Pres­tige); Bill Evans: Por­trait in Jazz; Charles Min­gus: Min­gus Ah Um; John Coltrane: Coltrane plays the blues (Atlantic); Ornette Cole­man: The Change of the Cen­tu­ry (Atlantic); Hen­ry Thread­g­ill: Just the Facts and Pass the Buck­et

    There´S SO MUCH MORE, of course, but thse would make a great start!

    Some books: Ted Gioia: The His­to­ry of Jazz; Mar­tin Williams: The Jazz Tra­di­tion; and from a more mil­i­tant black point of view: Leroy Jones (Amari Bara­ka): Blues Peo­ple

    Good luck!!And a lit­tle sug­ges­tion: if you don’t like some­thing, leave it for a bit, and try it again lat­er!!

  • Martin Joseph says:

    In my reply to Mand­la Zwane’s appeal for help I made a care­less mis­take. The title of a famou Dizzy Gille­spie piece, whichi is also the title of the CD I rec­om­mend­ed, is a play on words; it’s not Sure Nuff, but Shaw Nuff, ded­i­cat­ed to Bil­ly Shaw, a pro­mot­er who orga­nized Gille­spie’s and Park­er’s vis­it to the West Coast in (I think) 1946.

  • Cat Anderson says:

    I’m curi­ous to know if Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. met jazz musi­cian “Cat” Ander­son while he was in Greenville, SC. about a year before Dr. MLK Jr. was mur­dered or if he knew “Cat” Ander­son at all, as I have read much about Dr. MLK Jr.’s love for jazz music. “Cat” Ander­son the jazz musi­cian died April 29, 1981. My nick­name (from Cather­ine) is “Cat” Ander­son. I was born April 30th, 1981. Dr. MLK Jr. vis­it­ed and spoke in Greenville, SC in the 1960’s (can’t remem­ber the year), but the day was April 30th.

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