Living Jazz's 19th annual MLK Jr. Day celebration will begin Sunday, January 17 at 4 p.m. Credit: Courtesy Living Jazz

In a year like no other, with the nation beset by a pandemic and recovering from an attempted right-wing insurrection, this coming Sunday’s jazz-steeped multi-generational concert celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. arrives like an oasis of soul and sanity in a parched landscape. 

Oakland’s 19th annual “In The Name of Love” concert is more than a musical tribute. Each year, Living Jazz, an arts and education organization that shares African-American cultural heritage throughout Oakland, brings the city together with a message of unity and freedom. This year’s event is entirely virtual.

Taking place just three days before the presidential inauguration where Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn into office, the event is hosted by sculptor and former CBS News anchor Dana King. Performers include the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, rising Oakland soul/jazz singer Tory Teasley and The Teasers, Berkeley jazz and blues matriarch Faye Carol, and jazz pianist Glen Pearson. 

With performances filmed and recorded beforehand, Living Jazz was able to hire musicians who would have otherwise been out of reach, like the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet, which performs a gorgeous arrangement of “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” sung by Ethio-jazz vocalist Meklit.  

Accompanied by drummer, composer and bandleader Allison Miller, artistic director of Living Jazz’s summer program Jazz Camp West, the powerhouse Brooklyn singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon is an apt headliner. Her music expands on the freedom song lexicon established by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the celebrated a cappella ensemble founded by her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon. 

In addition to music, the annual event also awards local leaders for their work advancing human rights and social justice. Congresswoman Barbara Lee will receive the Oakland Citizen Humanitarian Award this year. 

“I reached out to Barbara Lee and Alli Miller reached out to Toshi Reagon, who we felt would bring the concert to the next level,” said Stacey Hoffman, Living Jazz’s executive director. “Toshi embodies a lot of the work we do, standing up for what you believe.”

Toshi Reagon will headline this year’s ‘In the Name of Love’ concert. Credit: Desdemona Burgin

On one of Reagon’s songs combines her resonant, mahogany-rich voice alongside vocalists Branice McKenzie and Bryan Dyer, who are also instructors for the Living Jazz Children’s Project. A program provided by Living Jazz free of charge for OUSD Title One elementary schools, the children’s project managed to keep running over the past year via distance learning. A chorus of LJCP kids will also perform as part of “In the Name of Love.”

“We’ve been meeting virtually,” said Dyer, who works with students at Cleveland and Howard elementary schools. “Even though Zoom is a weird format for singing and a choir, it’s worked pretty well to keep kids engaged. The goal is geared toward performance. It’s musical education, and kids learn about rhythm, and we also cover a lot of civil rights leaders—Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, MLK, Chinese activists. Anybody that has had their focus on human rights.”

Though the pivot to digital teaching was difficult, Living Jazz has managed to stay on mission throughout the pandemic. The organization launched a major fundraising drive last Spring and ended up surpassing its $100,000 goal. The campaign allowed Living Jazz to create a series of online summer programs, including a virtual summer camp and masterclasses. 

More recently, Living Jazz offered “Call & Response,” a free discussion series featuring some of jazz’s most illustrious artists. Hoffman figured there was already an abundance of livestreamed music, so instead, Living Jazz decided to broadcast intimate conversations with artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Regina Carter, T.S. Monk, and Terri Lyne Carrington. 

“This is the silver lining of this whole terrible period,” Hoffman said. “The generosity of the artists and their willingness to support jazz organizations like ours has been so gratifying.”

“In the Name of Love” is a glittering gift to the Bay Area, but Living Jazz is also dedicated to bringing music to overlooked audiences. In the fall the organization started presenting free monthly West Oakland Food Pantry concerts in a parking lot behind St. Patrick’s Parish. The series kicked off in November with a show by Black London, the collective led by Kev Choice, Mike Blankenship, and Howard Wiley.

“As soon as we can we want to start holding more outdoor concerts in West Oakland,” Hoffman said. “Our goal will be to stay in touch, do everything we can in the moment.”
“In the Name of Love” will webcast at 4 p.m. Sunday Jan. 17.