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Annual jazz concert celebrates women composers, Martin Luther King’s legacy

January 16, 2020
<p>Orchestra performance courtesy of MSU College of Music, Jazz Studies.12/5/14 </p>

Orchestra performance courtesy of MSU College of Music, Jazz Studies.12/5/14

The preparation for the Michigan State College of Music’s annual Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer and Protest Concert has been extensive, jazz studies senior Andre Crawford said.

“For normal concerts, we don’t rehearse this much,” he said. “It’s completely different ... because we are in celebration of what Martin Luther King did for the black community.”

The concert is only one of many events a part of MSU’s 40th Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Celebration.

“They approached me with the idea of doing a concert as a way of attracting more people to the MLK celebration,” Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker said. “This is a time to share with the community the hard work that the students have been doing, but also getting folks to reflect and think about what Dr. King did for our society,” 

According to the College of Music’s website, American poet, English Language and Literature professor at the University of Michigan and speaker A. Van Jordan will be a featured guest.- 

This year’s events are inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” shedding light on the accomplishments of those who have fought for women’s rights. 

This concert will focus on these achievements as well as celebrate women composers and musicians in jazz. 

Going along with this theme, the year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote, as well as the 150th anniversary of the first female students  to have enrolled at MSU, Whitaker said in a statement. 

“For us ... over the years there have been so many prominent folks from ... Geri Allen, to Mary Lou Williams — tons of women who really were major contributors at the voice of jazz,” Whitaker said. “And I think Dr. King was a forward thinker, he was always really sort of ahead of us ... He was focusing his shift in on women’s rights.”

Jazz studies graduate student Jordyn Davis — who plays bass in the ensemble — was asked to speak at this concert. Davis graduated from MSU in May with a degree in composition and jazz studies, making her the first African American woman to receive a composition degree from MSU. She was also the first person to ever receive both of these degrees from MSU. 

“The first time I heard ‘Still I Rise,’ pretty much instantly after, I just cried,” Davis said. “That poem really resonates with me a lot because as a woman, (I’m) trying to pursue all of these different avenues in music — (and music) is predominantly male.”

Davis said she interprets the poem as a symbol of herself, and sees a narrative that represents someone like her rather than a “typical sophisticated man.” 

The first time Davis attended the Jazz: Spirituals, Prayer and Protest Concert was the first time she ever heard jazz music, and that is what drove her to pursue it. 

“As a black woman, and having the poem being written by a black woman — it’s not very often (that) we get to hear stories about our history or stories about our people in a way that’s empowering,” Davis said.

Just like Davis, many in the jazz department find that the meaning behind this concert is to connect to the audience in a more personal way and to contribute to MLK’s commemoration through the power of music. 

“To me, it’s one of the most important performances we do all year because ... it attracts people from the community that don’t come to other things,” Whitaker said. “They come to celebrate Dr. King, but it’s also important for our students because they get exposed to people that they would never get to otherwise. Jazz was Dr. King’s favorite music.” 

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