MLK Day was first observed as a federal holiday precisely 34 years ago.
The occasion provides a welcome prompt to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy — as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, as an emblem of resistance, and as a voice of unwavering conscience in American life.
For some of us, it’s also a moment to celebrate Dr. King’s warm and reciprocal relationship with jazz. “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music,” he famously said in his opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. “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.”
In that spirit, here is an array of songs selected by our announcers — expressing determination, sorrow, hope and uplift, in memory of Dr. King.
Grant Green, “The Selma March”
Blue Mitchell, “March on Selma”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were well versed in the use of peaceful, non-violent protests by the time of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965. Their efforts quickly spread beyond the local community and into the national spotlight via the growing medium of television news. Many Americans had their first exposure to the images of bloodshed and brutality inflicted by law enforcement on peaceful protestors.
Dr. King and the Council’s struggles and ultimate triumph during Selma greatly helped to secure the Federal Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in Aug. 1965. Two of the era’s most soulful and prolific band leaders called attention to the struggle, providing their commentaries on the Selma incident: guitarist Grant Green, whose “The Selma March” was recorded in May, and trumpeter Blue Mitchell, who made “March on Selma” that July. — Greg Bryant
Christian McBride with Wendell Pierce, “Soldiers (I Have a Dream)”
The drum has always been more than just an instrument; it’s the heartbeat of souls from the past telling the stories of our ancestors. So I find it appropriate that bassist Christian McBride chose to lead this song — a selection from The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons, due out on Mack Avenue on Feb. 7 — with the drum beat of a soldiers’ march, courtesy of Terreon Gully. And while it’s not the soldier you expect, this song is about one of the finest and bravest soldiers our country has ever seen, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
As the drum plays, actor Wendell Pierce recites the powerful words of Dr. King, without resorting to imitation. Once the horns start to creep their way into the song, it adds a boost of power that has always been felt in Dr. King’s speeches, reminding you of what his life, and this day, truly means. McBride finds a way to have each note mirror every letter of every word in the speeches Pierce recites. The drums and horns become a voice of their own, echoing the blood, sweat, and tears of a movement many are still fighting today. — Nicole Sweeney
Herbie Hancock, “I Have a Dream”
Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream” was released in 1969 on his album The Prisoner. Its contemplative vibe reflects the message of peace that Dr. King sacrificed his existence pursuing. The driving drum line provided by Tootie Heath invokes the persistence of the Civil Rights Movement; Hubert Laws’ flute, coupled with Tony Studd’s bass trombone, illustrates the sentiment of Dr. King’s credo while simultaneously summoning the pain of his assassination. — Keanna Faircloth
Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King”
Poet and civil rights activist Sonia Sanchez penned Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King on the occasion of what would have been Dr. King’s 58th birthday, in 1987, just one year after the first federal observance of MLK Day. Later that year, the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock delivered the poem live at Carnegie Hall. The power of this performance was only sharpened by its lineage: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, who led the group, is a founding member of the Freedom Singers, whose music Dr. King called the soul of the Civil Rights Movement. — Lezlie Harrison
Ray Barretto, “Together”
“Together” was recorded in 1969 during the vortex of the Civil Rights Movement. Ray Barretto’s lyrics echo Dr. King’s sentiments from the perspective of the Nuyorican experience, all in two minutes and 40 seconds. “I know a beautiful truth, and it’s helped me be free / I know I’m black and I’m white and I’m red, yeah / The blood of mankind flows through me. / And so in every, in every face I see, I see a part, I see a part of you and me / Together.” — Bobby Sanabria