• 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

  • An Interview With Odetta

    December 3, 2008. Posted by Joshua Jackson.


    A voice of the Civil Rights Era has been hushed.
    Odetta, a champion of the real folk blues, died. She was 77.
    In 2001, WBGO's Michael Bourne spoke with Odetta during the Blues Hour. She had recently released a tribute record to folk singer Leadbelly.
    Click here to listen to some of that interview.