• Songs of the Civil Rights Movement - Monifa Brown

    January 11, 2016. Posted by Brandy Wood.

    "Jazz speaks for life," said Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. "The blues tell the story of life's difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you 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."

    As WBGO gets ready for the Jazz & Civil Rights Panel Discussion this MLK weekend, we wanted to share some of our cherished tunes inspired by Dr. King and the movement.   Saturday Afternoon Jazz host Monifa Brown picked the following songs...


    The High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone once declared, “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” Simone committed whole-heartedly to boldly accomplish this task every time she took the stage. She owned every song she sung often shedding light into darkness with her haunting contralto. Weaving jazz with gospel roots and classical overtures, Simone transfixed audiences with her potent anthems and riveting performances. She fueled the blues with rage and soothed hymn laced ballads with salty tears…each note crystallized with intention.

    Nina Simone’s bassist, Calvin Eugene "Gene" Taylor, wrote the song “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” just days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is almost impossible to listen and not be moved to tears.


    “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break All the chains holding me…”

    The incomparable pianist, educator and broadcaster Dr. Billy Taylor penned, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free" in the mid 50s. However, it was not until Nina Simon’s rendition nearly a decade later, that the song garnered widespread attention. Dr. Taylor’s own soulful and spellbinding version with Les McCann is as liberating as music can be.

    “I wish I could be like a bird in the sky, how sweet it would be if I found out I could fly. I'd soar to the sun and look down at the sea and I’d sing 'cause I’d know….”



    The brilliant, outspoken and prolific bassist/composer Charles Mingus once said “In my music, I'm trying to play the truth of what I am.” This transparency is the beauty of Mingus’ music. His composition “Fables of Faubus," was a protest song in direct response to Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus’ directive to the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. As the country witnessed this horrifying standoff, the divide been American citizens grew deeper. Mingus was able to convey this rage, despair and hope through his music. The instrumental version was preceded by a version with lyrics that his record label thought to be too controversial to release at the time.


    To be in the presence of Pharoah Sanders is to stand before greatness. His gentle and quiet strength along with his humble is both captivating and arresting. Sanders’ aura as a person and player are a lot alike. His playing beautifully embodies the Yin and Yang and eb and flow of life. In a matter of minutes his fire breathing tenor can transform into an ethereal tender ballad. Listening to Pharoah is like embarking on a spiritual journey. The tenor titan once confessed, “I try and pray all the time. The day’s like one big prayer to me..” This spirit permeates every note that passes through his horn. His music is a healing music. Here is in Germany 2004 with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Mathew Garrison and drummer Will Calhoun.


    Charlie Haden along with Carla Bley in the late 60s formed his Liberation Music Orchestra in response to President Nixon’s administration, the Vietnam War and social injustice around the globe. Haden once said, “When you’re a sensitive human being and you see the things that are going on around you that aren’t human…you have to speak out and do something about it.” His ensemble was sound in activism in motion in power. “We’re here to bring beauty to the world and make a difference in this planet,” declared Haden. That’s just what he did. Here is Haden & his Liberation Music Orchestra and Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home.”


    Rachelle Ferrell composed the poignant composition “Peace on Earth.” Alone at the piano at the 1994 Newport Jazz Festival, Ferrell demonstrates why she is one of the greatest voices of our time. Her prayer is timeless and her performance is flawless.

    As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival: “Jazz speaks for life…This is triumphant music.” In the struggle may we all truly see and hear one another and move forward in PEACE.

    Monifa Brown Follow on twitter @globaljazzqueen

  • Dr. King 40 Years Later

    April 4, 2008. Posted by Angelika Beener.



    Today marks 40 years since one of the greatest civil rights leaders and humanitarians was gunned down and taken away from us.
    Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a march of sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions.

    I wasn't even born when Dr. King was assassinated, but I can only imagine the heartbreak that people felt upon first getting that worst piece of news.
    It breaks my heart to think about it as I write this post. Time flies, and many people I talk to can hardly believe its been 40 years.

    For me, it's important to really think about and help others to realize that King was not a man who was a dreamer as the media loves to portray. Yes, he was a man of unparalleled vision, and hope. But he was also a leader through action, and the hardest of hard workers. I would ask that on this day, you would read or listen to Dr. King speak about opposition to war, or why it is important to vote, for example. Not only was he ahead of his time but he is timeless. Take the time to really dig into King - the man, not just the dream.

  • A Change is Gonna Come (I still believe it will...)

    January 21, 2008. Posted by Angelika Beener.

    This year will mark the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. On this day - Martin Luther King Day - I reflect longer than usual on the times we're living in. I ponder on how much has changed since his being snatched away from us on that spring day in April. And I wonder what the real possibilities are for our nation to come together. There are still so many who believe that we should not even be honoring the civil rights leader and that his legacy is not worthy of a national holiday. In 2008, you would think we would have come a lot further than this. Then again, at 30 years old, I have older siblings who were alive when Dr. King and others were still fighting for the rights of Blacks to sit in the front of the bus. That always puts things into perspective for me. It's been a long time, but then again...not so much.

    With the presidential race and the mantra of change in the forefront of our minds, I can say that I am still hopeful. Many are actually tired of hearing the word change, and want to hear tangible-type strategies for real problems that we are facing at this very fragile time in American and world history. I am one of those people. But if we are already tired of hearing about change, then we've got a long way to go...and so we do. Change is what it took for Dr. King to realize the dreams of so many Americans in this country. Change is what it's going to take to get us out of the deep trouble we're in as a nation four decades later. As I listen to one of my favorite singers, Bilal, sing "A Change Is Gonna Come", it is extremely haunting. Sam Cooke made this civil rights ballad in the heart of the movement, and the meaning is extremely apparent, when you look at the times. When I listen to Bilal - a singer of my generation, sing it here - I listen with a different ear. The fact that the lyrics are still so relevant...and the song is still so haunting let's me know that a CHANGE still needs to come. And I believe it will. Thank you, Dr. King.