Dr. Martin Luther King on the Importance of Jazz Music

Minister, activist, civil rights leader, visionary — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was many things during his all-too-short life. In addition to being all these things, Dr. King was also a huge admirer of jazz music; so much so, in fact, that he was invited to write the forward for the first annual Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964.

That year was a momentous one for Dr. King; Times Magazine named Dr. King “Man of the Year,” he was a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed and was there when it was signed. In July 1964, the director of inaugural Berlin Jazz Festival asked Dr. King to write a few words about jazz to be included in the program for the event program to be held that September, to which he readily obliged.

Foreword written by MLK for the first Berlin Jazz Festival, 1964:

“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.

“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.

“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.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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