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Annual MLK concert blends jazz, classical and folk styles to celebrate a legacy

Jan 14, 2020

By Page Leggett, The Charlotte Observer 

Charlotte's annual "Bridging Musical Worlds" concert started in 2009 to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and to bring together diverse musical styles in the spirit in which the civil rights icon encouraged people of all backgrounds to come together.

The first concert blended jazz and classical -- two wildly different forms of music -- into a seamless union. This year, even more kinds of music will be stitched into the fabric.

The Charlotte Folk Society and Tosco Music will join the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra String Ensemble, the Sign of the Times of the Carolinas jazz group and musicians from UNC Charlotte to pay musical tribute to King's legacy.

The concert makes a musical point. If Barry White's "Love Theme" and Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" can be played on the same stage, then people of all races and creeds can surely find common ground.

Meg Freeman Whalen helped create the concert 11 years ago, when she was working in PR at the Charlotte Symphony.

The inaugural concert was especially poignant for her -- and for many in the audience -- because it was within days of President Barack Obama's first inauguration. Today, as the director of communications and external relations for UNC Charlotte's College of Arts + Architecture, she's still involved.

Back in 2008, Whalen applied for a N.C. Humanities Council grant to produce a one-time concert that combined music often thought of as white and European with a distinctly American musical form that's rooted in African-American culture. She got the grant.

The first concert was held at The Excelsior Club, the now-closed westside institution slated for redevelopment.

"The musical event concluded with a joint performance of [the strings section and jazz group] performing a jazz or classic R&B composition that befits the occasion," Toni Tupponce, program director for A Sign of the Times of the Carolinas, said in an email. "This represents the 'bridge' between our musical, social and cultural worlds."

The audience grew each year, and in 2015, the concert moved to Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Conference Center (capacity: 450) to accommodate the growing audience and allow more musicians to perform.

Whalen didn't invent a link between King and jazz to win a grant. There really is a connection. King gave the opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. "Jazz speaks for life," he said.

"Modern jazz has continued in (the Blues) tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence," King's speech 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."

King also told his audience in Berlin that music was more than a backdrop to the civil rights movement: "Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. 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."

Music has that much power. "Jazz is an expression of freedom," Whalen said.


As is tradition, A Sign of the Times jazz ensemble will perform. A Sign of the Times, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve the legacy of the African diaspora through performing arts, has helped spearhead this concert since the beginning.

In addition to jazz -- the music that spoke to King so powerfully -- a 14-piece strings section from the Charlotte Symphony will perform selections from two African-American composers: Adolphus Hailstork and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Sequina DuBose, lyric soprano and assistant professor of classical and contemporary music at UNCC, will perform contemporary renditions of two traditional spirituals. DuBose recently shared the Metropolitan Opera stage with Kathleen Battle in "Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey."

The Charlotte Folk Society, in collaboration with Tosco Music, brings Jamie Laval, a former U.S. National Scottish Fiddle champion, to the stage. Laval will perform original arrangements of two traditional songs accompanied by Adama Dembele, a drummer from Mali.

"Jamie's original arrangements (are) designed to highlight the synergy of Celtic and African influences that form the roots of the traditional music of the Carolina Piedmont," said Mark Clemens, a UNC Charlotte biology professor and president of the Charlotte Folk Society.

Audience members will get the chance to sing along, if they're moved to join in. John Tosco will lead everyone in "Stand by Me," an old hymn made famous in the 1960s, when Ben E. King, along with Lieber and Stoller, adapted it into a love ballad. The song was brought to glorious worldwide attention again when the Kingdom Choir performed it at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

The lyrics could have been written by King himself: When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see. No, I won't be afraid. Oh, I won't be afraid. Just as long as you stand, stand by me.

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