"Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music."
These words come from a statement delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. Music was such an important part of Dr. King's life, both as a source of comfort during troubled times and a vehicle for motivation when inspiration seemed distant.
"Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from the music," King continued. "When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the Earth which flow through his instrument."
It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down."
In the spirit of MLK Day I've assembled this playlist of lesser-known songs that either held an important place in King's life, and the civil rights movement at large, or eulogized King's memory following his assassination in 1968.
The Freedom Singers, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around"
Formed in 1962, The Freedom Singers' were far more than a music group. Referring to themselves as a "singing newspaper" the a cappella quartet was deeply committed to the civil rights movement, often exposing themselves to police brutality and arrest as they performed at sit-ins and protests across the nation - including the iconic 1963 March in Washington where they appeared alongside Bob Dylan and King himself. Freedom Singers' co-founder Bernice Johnson Reagon would go on to form the acclaimed ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973.
John Coltrane, "Alabama"
A major jazz classic, Coltrane composed "Alabama" in memory of four young girls murdered in the notorious Birmingham Baptist church bombing in 1963. There's been speculation that Coltrane modeled the composition on the vocal cadence of a eulogy Dr. King delivered in remembrance of the children.
Max Roach, "Freedom Day"
Jazz drummer Max Roach wrote the majestic "Freedom Day" as an urgent call for black liberation. Taken from his 1960 masterpiece We Insist - Freedom Now Suite, an important musical document of the civil rights movement.
Staple Singers, "Masters of War"
Bob Dylan's classic protest anthem captures the spirit of Dr. King's uncompromising resistance to violence and war. This ominous rendition by the Staple Singers features droning guitars and a dark atmosphere that sounds more in tune with the first Velvet Underground album than the sunny, optimistic soul that later propelled the Staples' to pop stardom.
Otis Spann, "Hotel Lorraine"
Although Spann is best remembered for his work with the Muddy Waters' band, the pianist was a masterful solo artist as well. This is one of two tribute records Spann cut in memory of King - "Hotel Lorraine" being the lesser known, but more powerful track. Spann's mournful performance is deeply moving as he remembers King's death as the moment "the world went up in flames."
Nina Simone, "Why? (Then King of Love is Dead)"
Simone debuted this tribute at the Westbury Music Festival three days after King's murder. Simone's emotional reading of the tune composed by her bassist Gene Taylor stretches over 10 minutes as she articulates the enormous sense of loss and hopelessness King's followers experienced.
Rev. Charlie Jackson, "Something to Think About"
Charlie Jackson was a Louisiana-based guitar-slinging minister who operated on the outer fringes of commercial blues. Jackson celebrates King's pacifism in deeply individualistic and soulful style.
Oliver Nelson, "I Hope in Time a Change Will Come"
From jazz musician and composer Oliver Nelson's intense 1970 tribute album to Dr. King.
Gregory Porter, "1960 What?"
A powerful modern tribute to King's legacy that mixes imagery of King's assignation with the Detroit Riots of 1967.
Gil Scott-Heron, "Winter in America"
Heron's 1975 masterpiece is a painful treatise on the state of confusion and paralysis Americans faced in the wake of the war, turmoil and assassinations of the 1960s. "All our healers have been killed or betrayed. Ain't nobody fighting 'cause nobody knows what to save," Scott laments.
Mahalia Jackson, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"
Mahalia Jackson's gospel masterpiece was one of King's favorite hymns. Some accounts say King played the song moments before before his life ended on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.
1. John Coltrane - Alabama
2. Otis Spann - Hotel Lorraine
3. Big Maybelle - Heaven Will Welcome You Dr. King
4. Max Roach - Freedom Day
5. Rev. Charlie Jackson - Something To Think About
6. Johnie Lewis - I Got to Climb a High Mountain
7. John Fahey - March! For Martin Luther King
8. Staple Singers - Masters of War
9. Bill Spivery & The Sons Of Truth - The Non-Violent Man
10. Curtis Mayfield - We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue
11. The Impressions - Choice of Colors
12. Nina Simone - Why? (Then King of Love is Dead)
13. Oliver Nelson - I Hope in Time a Change Will Come
14. Gregory Porter - 1960 What?
15. Gil Scott-Heron - Winter in America
16. Donny Hathaway - Someday We'll All be Free
17. Mahalia Jackson - Take My Hand, Precious Lord