Jan. 16 2013 12:00 AM

MSU's annual musical King tribute stretches a big tent bigger

Michigan State University’s annual musical and spoken word tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. is still known by its original name, “Jazz: Spirituals, Prayers and Protest” — a big tent to begin with — but MSU Jazz Studies chief Rodney Whitaker keeps stretching it bigger and bigger.

This year, the stage that’s already brimming with student big bands and soloists will be joined by the MSU Children’s Chorus, the Earle Nelson Singers, the MSU Gospel Choir and faculty baritone powerhouse Peter Lightfoot.

The free event has always been a hot ticket, but this time it will be just plain hot. For the first time, tickets won’t be distributed, so seating will be first come, first served.

Previous MLK tributes at MSU have centered on socially conscious jazz from giants like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Dave Brubeck, but in recent years Whitaker has welcomed R&B, pop and folk to the banquet, including last year’s delirious Stevie Wonder blowout and a memorable roar through the music of Marvin Gaye.

Whitaker found that when his student orchestras dove into familiar, inspirational music like Gaye’s and Wonder’s, the audience swayed, stomped, sang along and lost its Sunday inhibitions. The music also opened people up to the message of the day. 

“King said, “Let love prevail,’ and that changes hearts,” Whitaker said. “We get so caught up on the issue of the moment, we forget that it’s all about taking care of people and showing love.”

This year, the massed Jazz Orchestras will tackle a suite of pop-based tunes, including the electrifying grooves of seminal pop-funk wizards Earth, Wind & Fire.

“Their thing was peace, love and harmony, but they masked what they were trying to say to humanity in love songs,” Whitaker said.

Stentorian opera star Lightfoot, who joined the MSU voice faculty in 2011, is likely to become a staple of the yearly King tribute. Lightfoot’s baritone is so arresting he couldn’t order curly fries at Applebee’s without making everyone in Ingham County sit up straighter. Sunday, he’ll contribute a set of stirring gospel tunes, including “Deep River” and “Amazing Grace,” arranged by grad student pianist Paul Blanchard.

Lessons in history and politics will be implicit in the music and explicit in some of the spoken segments, but leaning on love this year makes sense to Whitaker. He senses general weariness with politics, even the positive kind. Past MLK concerts reflected righteous outrage over Bush-era excesses and jubilation over Barack Obama’s first inauguration, but this year Whitaker senses a subdued mood.

“We re-elected the guy, but we’re more divided than we’ve ever been,” Whitaker said. “My vision for the concert is inspiring people that we have to look at this thing a little bit different. We have to put love first.”

“Jazz: Spirituals, Prayers and Protest”
3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20
Wharton Center Pasant Theatre
Free – no tickets needed
First come, first served

More Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Events

MLK Celebration Luncheon. Keynote speaker, journalist Jacque Reid. Jan. 21. 10:30 a.m. $35, $280/table of eight. Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing. (517) 483-7637. lansingcenter.com.

MLK Day Healthy Choices Expo. Activities & food. Jan. 21. Noon-3 p.m. FREE. Grace Lutheran Church, 528 N. M.L.K. Jr. Blvd., Lansing. (517) 999-2894. 

MLK’s Legacy & The Future of Affirmative Action. Panel discussion. Moderator Ken Harrow. Jan. 21. 7-9 p.m. FREE. South Kedzie Hall, MSU Campus, East Lansing. 

Commemorative March to Beaumont Tower. Celebrate the legacy of Dr. King and other Civil Rights activists. 3 p.m. FREE. MSU Union, MSU Campus, East Lansing.

Social Justice Film Series. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Promises Betrayed (1865 - 1896).” Discussion. Noon. FREE. MSU Main Library, MSU Campus, East Lansing.