• Editor’s note: Rev. Zelda Kennedy passed away on December 29, 2017. This article is a reprint from previous years. She wrote it as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we are humbled to rerun it as a special tribute to Rev. Kennedy and Dr. King.


      MLK and JazzIn an article entitled MLK, Jr. On the Humanity of Jazz, Tom Reney wrote, “In the speech he gave before the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., employed the refrain, ‘Now is the time.’  Was he inspired by Charlie Parker’s, ‘Now’s the Time,’ the original blues that Bird recorded on his Savoy Jazz debut in 1945?  As evidenced by his introductory remarks for the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival the following year, King had a profound appreciation of jazz.”

      By Zelda M. Kennedy

      King’s love of jazz wasn’t nearly as well known as his oratory. And yet, King’s life and work were profoundly connected to music. If you had the opportunity to see the movie Selma, there was a scene in Selma in which Dr. King calls Mahalia Jackson and asks her to sing because his soul was troubled.

      Dr. King once wrote, Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from [Jazz]. 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.”[1]

      Stanley Crouch once wrote in his 2009 Daily News column lamenting the absence of jazz in the public rituals of the Obama administration.  “Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America…Jazz was always an art, but because of the race of its creators, it was always more than music. Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one’s individual ability.” Or, as King famously put it, “Judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[2]

      King also said at the Berlin Jazz festival:

      Modern jazz has continued in its 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.

      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.[3]

      We have evidence that Dr. King understood the need and importance of jazz in his life and those of others. It is also evident that he understood he could not do anything without the love of God, as he wrote, “Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door, which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. If we love one another God dwells in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”[4]

      “Let us hope that this spirit,” will once again, “become the order of the day.” It is King’s last dimension of life – our relationship with God that most impacts my life. It is through his legacy that I realized the love of God is a gift not just for me and my race. It is for all humanity. Dr. King may have begun his journey seeking justice for African Americans; however, he soon realized that injustice to one race means injustice to every race – all of us. We are all in this together!

      I didn’t get the opportunity to meet Dr. King, and I wished I did. I didn’t get the opportunity to participate in the freedom fighting, and I wished I did. I didn’t get the chance to participate in the “I have a Dream” march on Washington, and I wished I did.

      Today, however, wishing is not the answer. You see, while I believe it’s wonderful to have both a national holiday and feast day honoring Dr. King – these are not enough! I also think it’s honorable that we recall the contributions of this Prophet of the People, but this, too, is not enough. As long as economic, environmental, and institutional injustices continue, we can never consider all that we have or all that we do enough. If we look around us, we find Dr. King’s influence everywhere, and the dream and work must continue. I know it doesn’t seem that way, considering the state of the world. However, the work must and can continue if we accept the call to be God’s love to each other.

      Dr. King measured humanity by three dimensions, the length, breadth and height of life. He said:

      These are the three dimensions of life, and without the due development of all, no life becomes complete. Life at its best is a great triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stands the other person, and at the tiptop stands God. Unless these three are [linked], working harmoniously together in a single life, that life is incomplete.[5]

      So, let us, then, be willing to take the dream to another level. Let us have the faith that will transform this place into the dream of Dr. King; let us all pledge “to march ahead….and not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[6]  

      The late Rev. Zelda Kennedy was a Senior Associate for Pastoral Care at All Saints Church in Pasadena. She was a graduate of Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Seminary, where she received a Masters of Divinity degree.


      [1] Excerpt from the introductory remarks at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.
      [2] Article by Tom Reney entitled Martin Luther King, Jr. On the Humanity of Jazz, January, 2014.
      [3] Excerpt from opening remarks at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.
      [4] “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”; a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.
      [5]“The Three Dimensions of a complete life.” Delivered at New Covenant Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 1967.
      [6] “I Have a Dream” delivered in Washington, DC August 28, 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr.

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