Author: Becca Vaclavik

Kronos brings the years that changed America to Boulder

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 2020 in advance of the Kronos Quartet’s March 2020 concert. The concert, canceled due to COVID-19, has been rescheduled for Jan. 13, 2022.

During the height of the civil rights movement, scholar Clarence B. Jones served as personal attorney, adviser, and speech writer to Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Jones helped draft the original notes that would become King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

What many don’t know, however, is that the most memorable parts of that speech were completely impromptu. Mahalia Jackson, King’s favorite gospel singer, stood with him on stage. Near the middle of his speech she called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about your dream.”

King set Jones’ notes aside, grabbed the lectern and didn’t look down at the prepared speech again. Recalling that pivotal moment years later in interviews, Jones said he turned to the person next to him and said, “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.”

Just a few years ago, David Harrington, violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet, had the honor of hearing Jones share this anecdote. The story, he says, moved him deeply.

“It’s so inspiring. It’s not only that these amazing people surrounded Martin Luther King, but they were both musicians: Clarence himself was a Julliard-schooled musician in his teens. And of course then there was Mahalia Jackson. Here I am hearing this story, and I just couldn’t believe that I never knew this! And that two musicians made this moment happen. And I thought, we’ve got to find a way to celebrate this.”

Harrington discovered that Jones lives in Palo Alto, California (not far from Kronos’ San Francisco base). Harrington got in touch, and Jones recounted the entire story to both him and composer Zachary Watkins.

“Jones doesn’t claim to have literally written the speech,” confesses Harrington. “What he says is that he heard Martin Luther King’s voice inside of him—the cadence, and the rhythm, and the intonation of the words. And so he basically recorded what he heard Martin Luther King saying inside of himself.

“And I’ve worked with enough composers over the last 46 years to know that many composers speak about hearing their music that same way.”

That conversation would inspire “Peace Be Till,” Watkins’ work about those moments before King’s speech and now the first part of the Kronos Quartet concert, “Music for Change: The 60s, The Years That Changed America.”

Coincidentally, at the same time that Harrington and Jones connected, Kronos was working on another piece, a work by Chicago-based composer Stacy Garrop that featured interviews by broadcaster Studs Terkel with none other than Mahalia Jackson.

The connections kept colliding. Not long after, Kronos was performing for a third-grade class in San Francisco’s public schools. The students had memorized the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger and Kronos played along for them. Seeger’s song, of course, was something of an anthem for the Civil Rights movement.

“And so we began to have something that felt like it belongs together,” says Harrington. “We are amassing a body of work that I think brings together not only interests that we have, but I think that kind of belong together in concerts and in public events, especially at this time.”

Harrington and the rest of Kronos—John Sherba, violin; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang, cello—hope the performance leaves Boulder audiences feeling energized by the apt message.

“I want audiences to be able to separate fact from fiction and understand that each of us has more power than we think. And that everybody’s energy is really important and can be useful.

“If we gather together and use our best thinking, our best ideas, and our most charitable and wide-ranging visions for making the world a better place—a safer place for our kids, and grandkids, and great-grandkids—then we’re doing something.”

The Kronos Quartet will perform “Music for Change” Jan. 13 in Macky Auditorium. Tickets start at $16.