Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

Musical montage celebrates Martin Luther King

The idea to write a musical work honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Ja Jahannes, CHEP '72 PhD, in an unlikely setting. A psychology professor at Savannah State University, Jahannes was in Rio de Janeiro in 1987 on a cultural exchange program when he came upon a street vendor selling photos of the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader.

"It had an impact on me," Jahannes recalls. "I thought, 'This is fantastic. Here they are selling icons of Martin Luther King.' I began to put together how King has influenced not only human rights, but other cultures."

A decade later, the memory of that street vendor inspired him to create Montage for Martin. The piece received its world premiere April 16 in Savannah, presented by the Anasara Symphony Orchestra, on the 30th anniversary of King's landmark "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

Consisting of 26 songs and narration, the work blends classical music with traditional African-American, African and American genres. Jahannes collaborated on the piece with Stephen Michael Newby, a minister of music from Seattle and the national choral director for Promise Keepers, a high-profile Christian group that encourages men to retake their roles as moral and spiritual leaders of the family.

"Because Dr. King's life was so varied in experience, we wanted to make sure we used all the musical forms that would depict that life," Jahannes explains. "We drew from everything- from contemporary gospel, to country and western, to bossa nova. Each song has its own ethnic flavor, yet thematically, they all work together. The meaning in the text is also of multiple dimensions. We're talking not just about King, but of life and the central issues of humanity."

The montage, which took 15 months to compose, draws from the works of philosophers and great thinkers-from ancient and modern times-who influenced King, notably Gandhi, Arthur Schopenhauer and Paul Tillich, as well as the Apostle Paul, Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas and Benjamin E. Mays.

"One of the things I discovered during the research for this project was that King never said he was the great intellectual, activist thinker," Jahannes says. "He always acknowledged the shoulders of those he stood on. That was part of his central humanity. He gives credit to a number of profound thinkers."

King's actual writings, while the inspiration behind the text, are not quoted directly in Montage.

"It's difficult to use King's words because of copyright restrictions," Jahannes says. "Nothing in the montage is a direct quote from King. It is all my interpretations of the ideals which King espoused."

One of the most exciting aspects of the creative process for Jahannes was the involvement of tenor George Shirley, the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, who publicly supported the project and acted as the narrator at the premiere.

The work, now being revised by Jahannes, will be performed next year by the Savannah Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony. He also would like to bring it to the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 2000, which he says he hopes the King family will attend.

Jahannes also has written an oratorio, two symphony librettos and lyrics for more than 100 songs, as well as two books, hundreds of articles, poems and plays and a collection of essays.

His interest in music stems from his undergraduate days at Lincoln University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history and psychology.

"We were all required in those days to be well-rounded," he says. "Everyone had to study music."

He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Humanities and the Georgia Council for the Arts, and he has been honored with the U.S. Air Force Commendation Medal, the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Award, the Joseph J. Malone Fellowship and the Danny Glover Award.

Jahannes recently started work on Balthasar: The Star Prince, a cantata about one of the three Biblical wise men, who was said to be African. He intends to compose the work using a pre-operatic form that originated in such countries as Somalia and Ethiopia, in the horn of Africa.

"Most of the time, we start with classical music in the 1600s, as though there were no other forms for group gatherings before then," Jahannes says. "I want to go back and study the form, and bring the form up to date."

Balthasar will be premiered in December 1999, by the Savannah Civic Opera.

Interestingly, Jahannes says his professional work in psychology is the thread linking his diverse musical interests.

"I use it in all my writing," he explains. "Psychology is really about healing, and music is really about healing. One can work through these themes to talk about the human plight and many of the problems that beset us."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88