Poised at the front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Robert Davis raised his chin, lifting his lips to the microphone.
Voice steady, he read: “We must use our time creatively, in knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise to democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Behind him, members of St. Luke’s Steel Band reached for their drumsticks, ready to launch into “Roll Jordan Roll.” Music Haven students lifted their bows. Audience members and musicians paused a last time to consider the statement.
The words were neither Smith’s nor recently written, but they could have been both. As the statement –– first spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s –– reverberated off the stained glass windows and brick walls, a crowd of around 350 answered it with hearty amens and long, thoughtful sighs. And then, there was an outburst of the most joyful, soul-filling music the Elm City has heard this side of 2014.
Davis’ reading came Monday as part of the fifth annual Dr. Martin Luther King Community Celebration at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, an ongoing collaboration between Music Haven and St. Luke’s Steel Band. As the two joined forces to honor and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the concert became as much as about fostering dialogue through music as making the music itself.
“There’s been so much violence and destruction already in this new year that a celebration through music and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a necessity. Some of the words and the songs that you will hear today are almost 50 years old, but from Ferguson to France, to the legislative assaults on the right to vote, there is a need now more than ever for the nonviolent dialogue that Dr. King started,” said Colin Benn, violist with the Haven String Quartet.
Benn went on to read the first of several King quotations, setting the tone for a concert that mixed bitter and sweet at a time when it has felt like the clock is spinning its thin arms precipitously backwards: “When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the context of democracy is emptied.”
Paired with melodies like “Amazing Grace,” “Siyahamba,” and “We Shall Overcome,” the quotation, still painfully relevant, acted as both a celebration of King’s life and a nonviolent call to arms, reminding audience members how far some segments of society –– in New Haven and beyond –– still have to go.
For instance, before “Siyahamba,” Vashti Burkett read: “It is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like congressmen who spend all their time trying to defeat our civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.” It had the entire audience –– and some of the string section –– clapping in their seats.
Noel Mitchell’s voice was strong and resolute as it wrapped around these words: “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”
The good men and women of whom King spoke are all around New Haven, and an abundance of them filled the church Monday night. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the concert doubled as a sort of love letter to King, a promise to advocate for the underserved, for the downtrodden, for the marginalized, penned with close to 50 musical signatures. Yes, members of the Steel Band, Haven String Quartet and Music Haven students stated resolutely, from the sax bridge in “What’s Going On” to the ebullient finish of Tony Allen’s “Progress.”
Yes, this is something we believe in.
Yes, this is something we so faithfully stand for.
And then there was the music to seal the envelope, to paste the stamp, to post the letter: a version of “Amazing Grace” that, barring closed doors, could have reached the New Haven Green.
There was a great deal of swinging in rhythmic ecstasy to “Progress” ...
And a sharing of sheet music, hymnals, and neighborly smiles that ensured every voice could be lifted and sung.