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McCord to sing tribute in annual MLK event

At first glance, there is little to link the melancholy hopelessness of blues singer Billy Holiday and the pragmatic optimism of civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King.

But Semenya McCord, a jazz singer who has produced programs on Ms. Holiday and Dr. King--both of whom have made a significant impact on her view of the world--makes the connection without missing a beat.

"They offered similar messages," said Ms. McCord, who will close MIT's 23rd annual celebration of the ideals of Dr. King for the fourth consecutive year with "Journey Into a Dream," a musical tribute. The performance is on Saturday, Feb. 8 at 8pm in Kresge Auditorium. Admission is free.

Ms. McCord, who has been producing musical tributes to Dr. King for 15 years, sees a glimmer of optimism in Holiday's blues classic "Gold Bless the Child" that supports Dr. King's philosophy of hope, despite the opening refrain: "Them that's got shall get/Them that's not shall lose." She has used the song in previous tributes to Dr. King.

"I sing 'God Bless the Child' as an affirmation of what we should be about," she said. "We have to aspire, to go beyond blues. The message is: go get your own. Depend upon yourself."

While doing research over the years, Ms. McCord found Dr. King's work rich in musical references and believes he could have heard Billy Holiday sing in a jazz club when he was a divinity student at Boston University.

Last year, "Journey Into a Dream" was an all-male production, presented as an extension of the Million Man March in Washington, DC. Ms. McCord returns to her musical roots this year, with classical baritone Robert Honeysucker joining DeAma Battle's Art of Black Dance and Music troupe, Ms. McCord and her partner, drummer Herb King, and five other musicians who have worked with her through the years.

"I think I've coerced Robert into singing 'Stormy Weather,'" Ms. McCord said.

In shaping the program, Ms. McCord reaches into Dr. King's sermons for quotations that support the theme. This year the theme for the celebration is "'The Strength to Love:' Facing the Crisis of the Underclass."

"It's always a work in progress," said Ms. McCord, who will be honored along with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma by the Massachusetts Cultural Council on March 4. Both will receive Commonwealth Awards for artistic achievement.

One element in the tribute has been repeated each year for all 15 years: Herb King's drum counterpoint to punctuate quotations from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

"It's a powerful moment," said Ms. McCord, a New Bedford resident whose CD "Good for Me!" was released by WeJazz records last year. Bass player Dave Zinno, pianist Frank J. Wilkins, and saxophone flutist Bobby Tynes, all of whom will perform at the tribute to Dr. King, joined Mr. King in accompanying her during the recording session. They will be joined by Bill Lowe on the trombone and tuba and Sam Strickland on reed instruments and the flute.

The recording features two songs written by Ms. McCord, "Mama's Lullaby" and "Don't Ever Doubt It." The album received its name from the response people would invariably offer when Ms. McCord told them she was planning to make a CD. "Good for you," they'd say. Good for us.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 5, 1997.

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