Martin Luther King Jr. Lived On at St. Luke's Church Monday, with Classical Strings and Steel Drums

Other cities may have had stuff like inaugurations and parades, but nothing can overpower Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in New Haven. Especially when you place some open-minded violinists in the midst of steel-drum thumpers.

The MLK holiday in New Haven is most widely, and appropriately, celebrated at local houses of worship, though some major institutions such as Yale also get into the act. Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, for instance, has a weekend-long celebration in King’s honor every year, the scientists finding common ground with the reverend’s interest in the environment.

I spent the evening of this hallowed day, Jan. 21, at St. Luke’s Church. The place was packed with community culture-lovers and peacemongers of all ages, celebrating the life and works of the great 1960s Civil Rights leader through an annual collaborative concert organized by St. Luke’s Whalley Avenue neighbors St. Luke’s Steel Band and Music Haven.

Music Haven brings professional music instruction and other outreach programs to New Haven public schools, through a core group of instructors who also comprise a performing ensemble, The Haven String Quartet.

St. Luke’s Steel Band grew out of a church program; the dozens-strong ensemble performs regularly during services as well as at local festivals and other events.

MH and SLSD are friends and neighbors, and Monday’s program reflected that closeness. There were gospel tunes (some of them sing-alongs, such as the closing number “Lift Every Voice”), a Scott Joplin rag (“Strenuous Life”), and the Michael Jackson cover “Man in the Mirror,” which Music Haven founder Tina Hadari noted had special meaning to the ensemble since it speaks of change and growth and commitment.

(Photos by Kathleen Cei, courtesy of Music Haven)

Some of the selections were performed exclusively by the grown-ups, but Music Haven students figured largely in several numbers. Local actor/director/rapper Aaron Jafferis (whose musical Stuck Elevator was workshopped at the Yale School of Drama’s Music Theater Insitute a couple of summers ago) devised a  “Music Haven Rap” which the kids performed, with the recurring line “The opposite of violence is…” (Answers: Peace, God and Love.)_

The selections which took greatest advantage of the special percussive possibilities of the steel drum in league with the sweet strings of violins, viola and cello were three consecutive compositions by Duke Ellington: the familiar old-school jazz riff “Caravan” and the more modern and spiritual works “Come Sunday” and “Freedom.” The latter two were arranged by Debby Fischer Teason, a formidable composer and arranger who is a pivotal member of the St. Luke’s Steel Band. Teason was performing despite a family tragedy she’d endured that weekend: the death of her brother Carl David Fischer Jr. The concert was dedicated to Carl. 

Special guest performers brought out further permutations of this amazing mix of strings and steel drums, ceremony and free-spiritedness. Ace jazz bassist Jeff Fuller was the backbone of one of the Ellington tunes, “Freedom,” and also could be heard strongly when he switched to an electric bass for a closing jam which resulted from the audience’s cries for “Encore! Encore!”

Mid-show, there was an inspirational address by Ward 27 Alderwoman Angela Russell. But examples of peace and harmony through the decades had already been well demonstrated by these multiple generations of community-conscious musicians.

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