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KAREN MARTIN: Civil rights, set to music

by Karen Martin | February 17, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

Race seems to be the intractable American problem.

Talk about civil rights--well-intentioned and otherwise--has been going on for decades. What's the point? Progress in ending legalized racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in the United States comes in fits and starts. Inevitably the conversation deteriorates into heated arguments, and we don't get anywhere.

Maybe talk isn't the answer. We need to try something else, something more positive, more persuasive. Maybe music will communicate in ways that words won't.

Music is a powerful unifier, according to the master in music education website of Kent State University: "In the early stages of the civil rights movement, social justice groups needed ways to not only spread the message, but also evoke emotion and inspire individuals enough to continue gathering together. To manage, civil rights groups relied heavily on music, so much so that the late great Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait that music was 'the soul of the movement.'"

From hymns ("We Shall Not Be Moved") to spirituals ("Go Tell It on the Mountain"), from folk (think Pete Seeger) to gospel ("This Little Light of Mine"), from soul (Roberta Flack's "Tryin' Times") to country (Brad Paisley's "Welcome to the Future") to jazz (Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, whose wrath over the Little Rock Nine event is expressed in his composition "Fables of Faubus"), music accompanied civil rights efforts every step of the way.

As far back as 1941, according to the website, Louis Armstrong described an inspiring moment in a letter to a jazz critic in which he wrote: "I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I walked on stage and there I saw something I'd never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together naturally. ... When you see things like that, you know you're going forward."

The same website adds this from jazz historian Stanley Crouch: "Once the musicians who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one's individual ability. Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America."

To that end, The Oxford American and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of the No Tears Suite.

Inspired by Little Rock 9 member Melba Patillo Beals' memoir Warriors Don't Cry--concerning the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis--the No Tears Suite honors those dedicated to building a more just and equal society.

It's a reprisal of a 60-minute jazz composition by jazz pianist Chris Parker and vocalist Kelley Hurt written in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis that premiered in September 2017.

The expanded arrangement by composer/bassist Rufus Reid will be performed by Parker, Hurt, drummer Brian Blade (who played in the original 2017 ensemble) and 15 members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. ASO's Geoffrey Robson will conduct.

The concerts, which will run about an hour in length, will take place at 8 p.m. March 2 at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, 501 W. Ninth St., and 3 p.m. March 3 at Central High School auditorium, 1500 S. Park St.

Tickets to the March 2 performance are $40. They're available online at, by calling the Box Office at (501) 666-1761, ext. 1, or at the door of Mosaic Templars Cultural Center beginning 60 minutes before the performance.

Admission to the March 3 performance at 3 p.m. at Central High School auditorium is free.

"We're honored to collaborate with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in creating this music and these events because they foster continued conversations between communities as we all work toward a more cohesive society," says Ryan Harris, executive director of Oxford American.

The performances, he says, "will create a safe space for people to come together in mutual appreciation of each other and the role the arts can play in bridging our cultural divides."

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

Editorial on 02/17/2019

Print Headline: KAREN MARTIN: Civil rights, set to music


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