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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 37: MLK

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, officially observed every third Monday in January since 1986…although it was actually singed into law three years earlier. MLK, as we all know, was the chief nonviolent figure of the Civil Rights Movement until his tragic assassination in 1968.


King enjoyed singing hymns, listening to classical music (especially opera) and jazz, and playing piano and violin. As a jazz fan, his friendship with Duke Ellington was certainly one of his most treasured, and it’s obvious that both men greatly admired one another. So, it should come as no surprise that Ellington’s final work was Three Black Kings, a sort of musical eulogy for MLK.


Each movement of Three Black Kings corresponds to a historically significant black king/King: King Balthazar, King Solomon…and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Sadly, Ellington died shortly before completing the work, leaving his son Mercer to finish it for him. The completed work was orchestrated by Luther Henderson, and later scored for symphony orchestra by Maurice Peress—the same gentlemen that produced the orchestrations of Ellington’s Harlem, which we covered way back in Music that doesn't suck, No. 8.


Here’s an excellent program note written by Douglas Shadle for the Los Angeles Philharmonic…


Three Black Kings continues Ellington’s series of narrative pieces on a grand symphonic scale – a series that includes Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), Harlem (1950), and Night Creature (1955). Traversing centuries, each movement captures the psychological depth of its respective subject. The first, depicting King Balthazar (the black king of the Nativity), features propulsive percussion sounds that explode into ravishing, exotic melodies in the strings. The episodic second, which fluctuates between sultry strings accompanied by harp and upbeat passages reminiscent of Ellington’s jazz orchestra, evokes King Solomon’s taste for love more than his fabled wisdom. The gospel-inflected third, complete with subtle tambourine backbeats, is a fitting tribute to the Reverend Doctor King himself – a man who, as Nina Simone put it in her own music eulogy, “had seen the mountaintop, and knew he could not stop, always living with the threat of death ahead.”


The recording features the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by JoAnn Falletta, a pairing with a longstanding commitment to the outstanding performance of American music. Enjoy!




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