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VocalEssence reunion: Dr. Billy Taylor’s tribute to MLK means more this time around

The last time jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor performed his “Peaceful Warrior” work with VocalEssence, it was 1998 and a white man was president.
“Peaceful Warrior” is Taylor’s tribute to Dr.

The last time jazz legend Dr. Billy Taylor performed his “Peaceful Warrior” work with VocalEssence, it was 1998 and a white man was president.

“Peaceful Warrior” is Taylor’s tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, inspired by words he heard his friend say in the turbulent 1960s. This Sunday (Feb. 15), Taylor will perform “Peaceful Warrior” with VocalEssence — and it’s a particularly meaningful reunion now that Barack Obama is president.

“He is, I’m told, a jazz fan,” Taylor said. “I’m very excited because he’s president. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. … How will I feel? I’ll be happy. A lot happier than I could have been.”

“Peaceful Warrior,” a work in three movements, is the centerpiece of VocalEssence’s annual WITNESS concert.

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Here’s filmmaker Bret Primack’s (“Jazz Video Guy”) interpretation of the second movement, “Heritage: If You Really Are Concerned, Then Show It.”

You can hear all three movements in streaming audio on Taylor’s website.

Though the pianist, composer and jazz educator suffered a stroke in 2002 that crippled his left hand, Taylor exercised and practiced his way back. Taylor, now 87, officially retired from the concert stage in 2005.

Meanwhile, VocalEssence conductor Philip Brunelle wanted to bring back “A Peaceful Warrior” and its composer for the organization’s 40th anniversary season. The energy, the jazz style, and the message had stuck with him. When Brunelle asked, Taylor said yes.

“It was a nice invitation to come back and do something we had done very successfully 10 years ago,” Taylor told MinnPost by phone from his home in New York City. “And I like St. Paul.” (The concert will be at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.)

The inspiration for “Peaceful Warrior” came while Taylor and King were attending a benefit for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s. A teen approached King and asked, “How would you feel about someone like myself who prefers Malcolm X as a hero?” King replied, “Son, you should be proud to choose your hero. It’s a matter of pride.” “Peaceful Warrior’s” first movement is called “It’s a Matter of Pride.”

VocalEssence’s WITNESS program is nationally recognized for its efforts to promote African American choral music to today’s youth. It’s about education. Taylor has been an indefatigable educator for most of his life. He was music director of the first jazz education series on television, part of the National Council for the Arts under President Richard Nixon, host of the NPR program “Jazz Alive,” and arts correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning.” Since the 1990s, he has served as artistic adviser for jazz to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Despite the decline in jazz audiences, Taylor is sanguine about jazz education. “In high schools and colleges alone, we have over 40,000 jazz programs around this country, and I’m probably undercounting. There are a lot of places to study jazz.”

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Also noteworthy: “I have every reason to believe jazz will be part of the White House.”

Dr. Billy Taylor and his trio (Chip Jackson on bass, Winard Harper on drums) perform with VocalEssence on Sunday, Feb. 15, at 4 p.m. at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $20, $30, $40. Student and partial view tickets half-price. Group discounts available. 651-224-4222.