Lois Lemkey sat nestled in her chair at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, her eyes transfixed on the Reginald Buckner Memorial Ensemble. Her head nodded in rhythm to the nine-member jazz band as it performed music composed by the late University music professor Reginald Buckner.
The ensemble opened the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Concert Sunday, in what University Vice Provost Robert J. Jones called “Minnesota’s oldest-continuing celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Following the ensemble was the traveling section of the award-winning St. Paul-based band, Sounds of Blackness.
The memorial concert commenced in 1981 under the direction of Buckner, a believer in the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. He initiated the concert as a commemoration of Kings’ teachings of world peace and equality among humanity.
Buckner, a well-known and honored music professor, musician and scholar until his death in 1989 at age 50, sought to teach Americans.
Representing the Board of Regents at the concert, Regent William E. Hogan II said Buckner, like Martin Luther King Jr., “was also a dreamer.”
Buckner’s dream, according to a 1980s interview in The Minnesota Daily, was to teach Americans about life — to get people in touch with themselves through his jazz music.
“Black history, I think, is probably one of the most profound movements in the Americas, and I must emphasize that again and again,” he said in the interview. “And where is the best place to listen? Jazz.”
Buckner and his jazz ensemble, the Reginald Buckner Quartet, had played at each of the memorial concerts since their commencement. Since his death, the remaining members formed the Reginald Buckner Memorial Ensemble.
The ensemble’s flutist, Frank Wharton, an original member of the Reginald Buckner Quartet, remembers Buckner as “a very special individual.”
Buckner’s death, Wharton said, “was a big loss to the whole community, the academic and the music community. And so we wanted to keep his memory alive by performing the music that he wrote.”
Sounds of Blackness
Following the Reginald Buckner Memorial Ensemble was Sounds of Blackness, which filled the auditorium with its pulsating energy.
The 16-member traveling section of the band further commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. with songs from their newly released CD, “Reconciliation.” The CD, the group’s fifth, was recently nominated for two National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Awards, adding its nomination to the long list of awards granted to the ensemble.
Yet none of the awards and nominations mean as much as the reaction the group receives from its audience, said Gary Hines, the ensemble’s music director.
“We’ve had people say that they were going through a really tough time in their lives or were contemplating suicide, and they heard our music, and that enabled them to get through,” Hines said. “That’s even more rewarding than Grammies and all those other wonderful things.”
Sounds of Blackness commenced in 1969 under the name Macalester of Black Voices. The ensemble consisted of 50 vocalists and three musicians, all students from Macalester College in St. Paul.
Then in 1971, under Hines’ direction, the ensemble changed both its name and its repertoire. Broadening its membership to the community and surrounding colleges, the group became Sounds of Blackness and plays not only jazz, but also rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll, gospel and hip-hop.
“We bring, hopefully, the message and the spirit of the family of African-American music to people of all backgrounds and nationalities with lyrics and messages of motivation and inspiration,” Hines said.
Expanding on King’s theme of equality, the ensemble’s CD, “Reconciliation,” is a message for its listeners to move forward to a better humanity.
After the two-and-a-half hour concert, Lemky said, “You couldn’t help but feel the energy. I don’t care what color you are. I had tears in my eyes.”