Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a central architect of the movement to end racial segregation in in the U.S., called music “the soul of the movement.”
His reference was to the songs and spirituals that freedom fighters sang during demonstrations and sit-ins for racial equality. Sung with power and conviction, that music helped solidify the indomitable spirit that began to free the country from the bonds of prejudice.
Inspired by King’s legacy, bandleader and acoustic bassist Marcus Shelby has composed a new oratorio titled “MLK.”
Premiering Saturday, as the first of 100 free programs in this year’s annual Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, “MLK” will feature the 15-member Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, Faye Carol, Kenny Washington, Jeannine Anderson and Nicholas Bearde performing jazz-tinged arrangements of freedom songs and spirituals, as well as original music inspired by the freedom struggle.
“The oratorio is an extension of my decade-long project to develop compositions that reflect the fundamental roots of jazz, blues and American music,” Shelby explained by phone. “Jazz evolved from the slave songs, blues shouts, blue hollers, spirituals, work songs, and call and response central to communication among slaves. ‘MLK’ uses the language of jazz to illuminate compelling stories from the freedom movement.”
To prepare for the project, Shelby and his family visited key sites of the civil rights struggle. These included: Money, Miss., where black teenager Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955; Montgomery, Ala., where King was a pastor and where Rosa Parks, spurred by Till’s assassination, refused to give her seat on a bus to a white passenger; Birmingham and Selma, Ala., sites of major civil rights actions and protests; Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated in 1968; and Chicago, New York and other cities.
Out of Shelby’s travels arose a host of original compositions. In “MLK,” they take their place alongside movement-inspired songs by Charles Mingus and Curtis Mayfield, and jazz arrangements of freedom songs and spirituals.
Shelby’s research also inspired him to create a workshop, “MLK and Jazz,” which he teaches everywhere from kindergarten to the university level. The presentation covers musicians, speeches and the musical component of the civil rights era.
After “MLK’s” premiere in Yerba Buena Gardens, the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra takes the oratorio to Pittsburg High. In a small-ensemble arrangement, it heads to Little Rock, Ark., Los Angeles and Chicago.
If you can’t catch it this time around, check it out this fall when it returns courtesy of SF Jazz.
MLK with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra
Presented by Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Where: Yerba Buena Gardens, between Mission and Howard, Third and Fourth streets, San Francisco
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: Free; bring food for a picnic
Contact: (415) 543-1718, www.ybgf.org
Note: The 2010 Yerba Buena Gardens Festival continues through Oct. 31, with 100 free events including music, theater, circus, dance, poetry, family festivals and children’s programs featuring artists from all over the world.