Kirk Whalum

Just moments before an assassin’s bullet cut his life tragically short and changed the course of history, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had music on his mind. He spotted famed saxophonist Ben Branch on the motel parking lot and asked him to play “Precious Lord” at an upcoming rally where King was set to speak.

“Play it real nice,” King reportedly told Branch after issuing the request.

Sadly, the song would instead be sung by Mahalia Jackson at King’s funeral.

The song, like several others, is forever tied to the Civil Rights Movement as evidence of the impact music had on the movement.

On Saturday, January 11 at Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum will be in St. Louis to continue that connection at the 34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Statewide Celebration Kickoff Program for Missouri hosted by Harris-Stowe State University.

This year’s theme is “Music…A Universal Stepping Stone Toward Peace” and will also feature the talents of St. Louis’ own Denise Thimes.

Distinguished honorees for this year’s event include former Harris-Stowe president Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack, Dr. Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, Enterprise Bank and Trust, Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, the Hon. Betty J. Thompson, and James Clark of Better Family Life.

Whalum was 9 years old when King was assassinated and grew up 14 blocks from the Lorraine Motel.

“For a black person, the killing of Dr. King was traumatic no matter where you were living in this country,” Whalum told Faithfully Magazine. “But to be in Memphis in that moment, our city was at the center of the world. We knew the world was not well and that spiritual earthquake happened right here [in Memphis].”

“His latest album, “Humanité” is a tribute to a critical element of Dr. King’s dream.

“What Dr. King talked about the year or so before he was killed lifted off into the stratosphere of the beloved community,” Whalum said ahead of the October 2019 release of the album. “‘Humanité’ is about identifying that beautiful thing that draws us all together and causes us to not be afraid.”

The album features musicians and sounds from all over the world – Kenya, Japan, U.K. and South Africa, to name a few. The musical interpretation of Dr. King is the primary message through selections like “Wake Up Everybody,” “Peace,” “Everybody Ought to be Free,” and the song most synonymous to the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

The primary message of the album is to promote the message that “the greater good in global humanity will lead to a society based on justice, civil rights and love of one’s fellow humans, and an insatiable curiosity about the exquisitely unique musical offerings from each and every corner of our global common-unity.”

The album also inspired a documentary that was released last month and featured footage from the recording sessions that saw Whalum travel the world to record tracks for the album with the likes of South African superstar Zahara, Japanese jazz pianist Keiko Matsui, British jazz singer Liane Carroll among others.

“We live in that world where we’re not afraid of each other. We’re, in fact, curious about each other’s faith traditions and food traditions and cultures – everything. And obviously about the music.”

Whalum is optimistic about the Dr. King’s message that he hopes to help deliver through his music.

“We as a people will get to the mountaintop and I believe that Martin, at the time of his death, was talking about the beloved community and the beloved community is more than just minorities – it`s everybody,” Whalum told Memphis CBS affiliate NewsChannel 3 when he appeared on the network to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. “The people of God and the only race there really is [the human race]. We will get to that mountaintop.” 

The 34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Statewide Celebration Kick-Off Program for Missouri featuring Kirk Whalum and Denise Thimes will take place from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at Harris-Stowe State University’s Dr. Henry Givens Jr. Main Auditorium, 3026 Laclede. For more information, call (314) 340-3366 or visit

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