Jan. 9 2018 09:38 AM

Annual Martin Luther King concert wades into healing waters

    Rodney Whitaker, Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of Jazz Bass and Director of Jazz Studies.


    TUESDAY, Jan. 9 —The annual concert honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. presented by MSU’s Jazz Studies department has taken a winding journey through various venues and formats, but musical excellence and communal healing have always been at the heart of the event.

    This year’s concert will put the MSU Professors of Jazz and the powerhouse student jazz orchestras, conducted by Rodney Whitaker, front and center.

    “It’s a collective vision, a conversation, and a celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy,” Whitaker said. “Living in times like this only makes us even more creative.”

    In the Obama years, the concert was mostly celebratory, peppered with reminders that civil rights battles are far from over.

    Now, the event also serves as a healing salve amid relentless, bruising political and cultural wars.

    “It’s so overwhelming from day to day,” Whitaker said. “You’ve got to keep pushing on and the music is a way of encouraging people to keep going.”

    “Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer & Protest” has proven again and again that the bittersweet root of the MLK holiday and the still-unspooling DNA of jazz are a perfect match. Jazz improvisation responds to the mood of the moment, but the ring of the old spirituals, sung with eyes on a farther horizon than today’s news crawl, suddenly have more than ever to teach us.

    “We may have realized we may have more work than we counted on at this point,” Whitaker said. “So many people are looking at all this stuff in a different way. We need to talk, and we need a dialogue. For me, the concert is about creating a way of coming together and talking.”

    The evening will begin and end with two different arrangements of “We Shall Overcome” — an anthem Whitaker confesses he didn’t like for a long time.

    “I kind of avoided that tune because it depressed me,” Whitaker. “It’s a heavy song, but we have two different takes on it.”

    One is an arrangement by trumpeter Etienne Charles that Whitaker described as “not really avant-garde, but on the edge of out” and another, gospel-flavored arrangement by saxophonist Diego Rivera.

    “In jazz, we re-harmonize everything and we extend forms,” Whitaker said. “We have a way of opening things up. There will be some respect for all those things, but we’re going to do our thing on all of them. It will be a jazz treat for sure.”

    The concert will also feature spoken word commentary from MSU literature prof Jeff Wray, a master of gentle, humorous provocation, along with guest appearances from the MSU College of Music’s vast talent reserves.

    Favorites from past MLK concerts will also include a slashing arrangement of drummer Max Roach’s “Freedom Now” suite, a landmark post-bop protest piece; an arrangement of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black National Anthem; and “I Wish I Knew What it Meant to be Free” by Nina Simone, a trombone feature for MSU professor Michael Dease.

    Healing will be the central emotion among many.

    “Most of us started playing music as a way of healing ourselves from something, whether it’s our upbringing, our environment or whatever,” Whitaker said. “That’s really our role in society, not only to point out things, but provide the soundtrack for the times, and perhaps write something that might touch someone’s heart and change them.”

    The concerts are part of a campus wide celebration of Martin Luther King Day and marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death April 4, 1968.

    Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer and Protest

    3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14

    MSU Auditorium Fairchild Theatre

    Free event but tickets are required.

    Call: (517) 353-5340

    Or pick up at Room 102, Music Building

    333 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing