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"Jazz Speaks for Life"

MLK and Jazz

Berlin was a divided mess after World War II, split down the middle separated by moral and political views. In 1961, East Germany began construction on the egregious wall that soon became the symbol of segregation during the Cold War. John F. Kennedy's valiant 1963 speech, "Ich bin ein Berliner," was a clear indication as to which side of the wall the Americans proudly stood.


Meanwhile back in America, home of the free and land of the brave, we too were at a divide. We didn't have physical walls, like the ones that were segregating Germany, but there was a civic separation nonetheless. It was at this time that a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. took a stand in the name of equality and began to rattle the wall at its foundation. The reverberations of his unwavering dedication to social justice were heard throughout the world, and while Oslo prepared his December 1964 visit to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King would be opening West Berlin's 14th annual cultural festival.


It was September 13, 1964 and Dr. King was awaiting to make his speech in Germany’s divided capital. Dr. Kings powerful words would touch on the unprecedented parallels between the two Berlins and the two Americas:

“Here in Berlin, one cannot help being aware that you are the hub around which turns the wheel of history. For just as we are proving to be the testing ground of races living together in spite of their differences, you are testing the possibility of coexistence for the  two ideologies which now compete for world dominance. If ever there were a people who should be constantly sensitive to their destiny, the people of Berlin, East and West, should be they.”

Through this visit, Dr. King was invited to write a foreword for the festival’s program. It is still unclear as to how this came about, whether it happened upon his arrival or whether it was arranged earlier in the year, regardless these are the only public words from MLK on the topic of jazz, and they are quite profound. Beginning with the blues and segwaying into jazz, the civil rights leader deconstructs and highlights the power of 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.”

King then moves on to jazz, the “one truly American art form”:

“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.”

Dr. King closes the address with a powerful statement in regards to the importance of music in today’s world:


“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.”

When we think of music and its role in the civil rights movement, our minds often turn to those specific songs labeled "protest music." These songs have been popularized as they’ve echoed through the decades defining the soundtrack of change. However, it is impossible to label just one specific song to embody all the segregation, civil rights, and political issues that have surfaced over the years. Through his speech on that day in Berlin, Dr. King reminded us all that music itself is a protest and it will continue to ignite emotions and the essence of change throughout generations to come.


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