Many Bostonians may not be aware that Martin Luther King Jr. has a history with the city having received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955. In fact, his papers are housed at the university to this day. After King was assassinated in 1968, BU instituted a program in his name that admitted minority students to the university.
The MLK commemoration at BU has evolved into a celebration concert that includes music, poetry and performances. Now in it's 45th year, today's concert theme is “Hope, Despair, and the Blues." It features Dorchester native and a composer who worked with Duke Ellington, Randall Keith Horton.
Horton told me why he's always had an affinity for Ellington's three Sacred Concerts. “The choral music that is drawn from the Bible is definitely what distinguishes what is known Ellington… known by the populace… you know by the public… and the sacred music has gorgeous choral music in it,” says Horton.
WGBH’s Eric Jackson, host of the jazz program, “Eric In The Evening,” was a recipient of BU’s MLK scholarship and attended the university's first commemoration after King's death. And he says that Ellington and King crossed paths at least once.
“ I know that there is at least one picture of them meeting together. That may be the only time they met,” says Jackson.
But what Ellington and King had in common was a philosophy of love, tolerance, and healing. While King spread his message through impassioned speeches and civil disobedience during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, Jackson says Ellington did so through his music.
“ Ellington, as long as I can think back in his career, always made a point of shining a positive light on African-American culture… even in the titles of the songs that he would make," says Jackson.
Ellington himself considered his sacred music concerts the most important music he ever composed. But Randall Keith Horton says not everyone embraced the jazz greats foray into the spiritual realm.
“Folks in the religious community especially in the African-American community…. not all but there were some… who said that this man… who has been in nightclubs all his life …. doing music in no way edifies God… has no business…all of a sudden turning to religious or sacred music. So, he was rejected by a lot of the black churches,” according to Horton.
Horton says Ellington was hurt by the backlash because he considered himself a man of deep faith.
“The way Ellington got through all of the confusion and the madness that was in the jazz world was his faith. He had a firm faith but he wasn't able to express it because of the realities of his performance venues and the genre in which he presented his music," says Horton.
Horton hopes that by performing Ellington’s Sacred Music at Boston University Martin Luther King Jr. concert…it'll bring alive the shared experience of two men dedicated to breaking down barriers.
To listen to the MLK Story click on the audio file above.
To listen to extended interviews with WGBH ME host Bob Seay and Conductor Randall Keith Horton click on the audio.
To listen to extended interviews with WGBH ME host Bob Seay and WGBH Jazz host Eric Jackson click on the audio file.