For the past eight years, Michigan State University’s Jazz Studies program has held an annual Sunday concert honoring Martin Luther King Jr. under the title “Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer and Protest.” Those eight years happened to coincide, almost to the day, with the administration of George W. Bush.
From the start, the community rubbed its hands in front of the event, as if it were a blazing hearth, and it stayed that way for eight deep winters — partly because of the world-class jazz program built by head man Rodney Whitaker, partly because of the political gloom outside the concert hall.
But Sunday afternoon, for the first time, the hothouse vibe was gone.
“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,” sang the Voices of Total Praise, a student gospel group directed by Cookey Whitaker, as they beamed out the program’s first tune, “This Little Light of Mine.”
Something was lost, but something was gained. This time around, the MLK event was less like an exorcism and more like a party.
“On Tuesday, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.” The speaker was Paulette Granberry-Russell, diversity adviser to the president of MSU. “Clearly, at least this aspect of Dr. King’s dream has become a reality. Clearly, change has come.”
Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, the music and speeches kept bouncing off Obama.
The afternoon’s last tune, another gospel hymn from the Voices of Total Praise, gave the event its theme: “The Best Is Yet to Come.” In any other year, the lines “Hold on, change is coming,” would have seemed cruelly absurd, but in this context they drew relieved laughter.
Two days? I think I can make that. Snicker. Under the circumstances, solemnity had no choice but to yield to giddiness.
Over the years, packed Pasant Theater crowds (often with hundreds turned away from the doors) swayed and sang “We Shall Overcome” with tears in their eyes. The Professors and their students ripped through hot-button jazz tracks like Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now,” with its explicit evocations of the slavemaster’s whip. Marvin Gaye’s sweet and anxious plea for sanity, “What’s Goin’ On,” was among the gentler statements.
This time around, the music was all about hope, hope and more hope.
Even the incendiary passions of Herbie Hancock’s “Riot,” superbly played by the MSU Jazz Orchestra I, were cooled into bebop shadowboxing, the abstract punch and thrust of horns, reeds and piano.
Earlier this month, Whitaker made it clear that even before Obama was elected, he wanted to make the King tribute more affirmative. He chose to focus the music on two men who came of age during the civil rights movement, but could never be pinned down as “angry.” These were Hancock, the protean jazz giant who recently won a Grammy for his Joni Mitchell tribute CD, and Stevie Wonder, who is simply a demigod to music lovers of every color.
The students, not the Professors, played and sang all the music, save for a deep-background appearance by Whitaker near the end. Did it make for slightly more ragged music-making? Maybe. But you could see the torch — more like a soothing ember — pass in front of your eyes.
The past was acknowledged, to be sure. Jeff Wray, an English professor at MSU, compared King and other fallen civil rights leaders to the 12 stones Joshua set up at Gilgal — eternal markers for those who carry on the journey to the promised land.
During Wonder’s “Too High,” Whitaker sat unobtrusively in the back row of his student band, hands on his lap. He listened, uncharacteristically passive, like a jazz Joshua stone.
It was a night for the students, although Whitaker later played electric bass on Wonder’s “As” and stepped up front to conduct the tricky “Eye of the Hurricane,” another Hancock tune that recalled Obama’s coolness under fire.
The students returned his trust, and not only with a night of soulful, complex music. Ethno-musical give and take seemed completely natural to them. Whenever a young white singer stepped up for a solo, you realized how thoroughly African-American blues and gospel inflections have penetrated all of pop. When tight arrangements cramped the raw soul, everyone kept smiling and held together, even if it meant holding back.
Some eyes rolled in the audience when the MSU Vocal Ensemble, directed by Sunny Wilkinson, sliced up some very white bread: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But the group greased it up to such a soulful fever pitch the tune got one of the night’s biggest ovations.
Amid such a lovefest, it was left to King himself to wring the only tears of the night.
Pamela Bellamy, director of MSU’s King/ Chavez/Parks program, read King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Rooted to the stage like another Joshua stone, she orated in the old school church cadence of towering roars and sudden whispers. In the light ozone of the day’s optimism, King’s letter, with its litany of lunch counters and lynchings, sounded like ancient history, as remote as the epistles of Paul — until the last line:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities.”
Hairs on the backs of necks were beginning to stand up. “And in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
The tears were unexpected. No, the work of equality and justice isn’t done. It probably never will be. But everyone seemed as surprised as the next person to snag a piece, however small, of that tomorrow.