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MLK Day Commemoration to Feature Duke Ellington Music

Composer, arranger, and Ellington champion Randall Keith Horton to conduct

Randall Keith Horton grew up singing doo-wop on Boston street corners, hanging out in pool halls, and sneaking into jazz clubs like Wally’s Café and the Hi-Hat. He got in so many fights as a teenager that he ended up serving 90 days in the Charles Street Jail for juvenile delinquency.

Back then, no one—least of all Horton himself—could have imagined that he’d be headlining BU’s annual Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Now a noted music scholar, arranger, and conductor, Horton will conduct the Boston University Big Band and the Inner Strength Gospel Choir in a performance of music from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. Cosponsored by the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground, and the Dean of Students office, the event will take place at 2 p.m. Monday at Metcalf Hall in the George Sherman Union, and will also feature remarks by Kirsten Greenidge, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of playwriting and theatre arts, actor Harry Lennix (Harold Cooper on the NBC drama The Blacklist), University President Robert A. Brown, University Provost and Chief Academic Officer Jean Morrison, and Thurman Center director Katherine Kennedy. The event is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, and space is limited. (Other BU events commemorating MLK Day are listed at the end of this story).

Horton’s life—a remarkable story of transformation, rooted in music and faith—fits the theme of this year’s commemoration honoring King (GRS’55, Hon.’59), “Hope, Despair and the Blues.”

“This is the most meaningful thing to me that you can imagine, coming home and bringing the great gift of Maestro Ellington’s music and the calling that led me to be with him,” Horton says.

A transformative power

Horton, now 74, grew up in the South End’s Lenox Street projects, and later in Dorchester’s Grove Hall neighborhood. He quit school following his parents’ divorce and fell in with the wrong crowd—“My life was sad,” he says— but he was introduced to the city’s jazz clubs, of which Wally’s Café on Mass Ave is the only one surviving.

“Wally’s was THE place,” Horton recalls. “I’d stay out too late and wander around the neighborhood and go by Wally’s, and the music coming out of that front door! Sabby Lewis had the greatest band in Boston, he was a killer, he was amazing!”

“A light like a laser beam came from above me, went down inside of me, and said, ‘Go to San Francisco and study music.’”

Horton turned his life around with the help of the late John D. O’Bryant (SED’52, SED’56), who became a mentor. He sang baritone with friends in groups called the Supreme Tones and the Aladdins. They were good enough to be asked to sing at assemblies at Hyde Park High School, from which Horton graduated in 1961 before entering the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Drawn to the civil rights movement, Horton left after a year, and by 1964 was back in Boston working as an orderly at what’s now Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was then, he says, that he had a spiritual experience that changed his life.

“A light like a laser beam came from above me, went down inside of me, and said, ‘Go to San Francisco and study music.’ And then it left,” Horton says, adding that it was only after years of service and ministry that he came to understand the source of the calling as the Holy Spirit.

To the bafflement of his family, Horton jumped aboard a Greyhound bus and set off for the Bay Area, despite the fact that he knew no one there and had almost no money. Soon after he arrived, he found his way to the Community Music Center in San Francisco and enrolled in in piano, cello, voice, and music theory classes. Soon he was hired as the live-in janitor—while also conducting a string ensemble and other groups.

Meeting—and working for—Duke Ellington

On September 16, 1965—a day he still recalls vividly—Horton attended the world premiere of renowned composer and performer Duke Ellington’s first Concert of Sacred Music at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. He found himself spellbound. The music was very different from what Ellington was best known for; this music blended his rollicking jazz style with his deep religious faith.

The next time Ellington came to San Francisco, Horton met his bus and talked his way into a post-show meeting. The great man kept him jumping through hoops for days—Horton had to borrow airfare from the neighborhood liquor store owner in order to get to Anaheim in a matter of hours—but it paid off: he suddenly found himself playing piano onstage at Disneyland while Ellington’s band took a break. And then he led the band in his own “Song for Jennifer,” a melody he had written for his sister. Soon Horton was hired as composing and conducting assistant for Ellington and traveled briefly with the band.

“He was a great master of American music,” Horton says. “He prioritized his music first in his life, but he truly, truly cared about humanity. His music was an expression of the culture from which he evolved.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) (left) and Duke Ellington (right) in 1963. The man in the middle is Alton Davis, head of the Century of Negro Progress exposition, where Ellington’s musical, My People, was staged the same year. Photo by James M. Hall/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

After Ellington died in 1974, Horton was commissioned by Ellington’s son Mercer to write a concerto grosso version of Ellington’s “Black, Brown & Beige,” and by Ellington’s sister Ruth to keep alive the legacy of his Sacred Concerts through performance. Horton has dedicated more than three decades to that undertaking, all while earning graduate degrees, hosting a music series on a California PBS station, and embarking on a scholarly study of Gustav Mahler.

“I have been laboring with this music, the Sacred Music, for years and years and years,” Horton says, often wondering when it was “going to get any kind of wings and really take off.” The BU concert affirms his work to keep the music alive.

To prepare for Monday’s concert, Horton has traveled several times over the past month to BU from his home in Queens, New York, to rehearse with the student performers. He praises BU athletic bands director Aaron Goldberg and the student musicians. “These young people who are majoring in physics, engineering, whatever, they sit down and play their instruments like angels! They’re amazing.”

“Thanks to [Horton], our Boston University staff and students have not only been introduced to Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music, we have been immersed in the actual hopes, dreams, and history behind Ellington’s pioneering compositions,” says Victor Coelho, a College of Fine Arts professor of music and chair of musicology and ethnomusicology. “As the world’s leading expert on Ellington’s Sacred Music, he is uniquely qualified to bring the music and its healing message to life.”

“This is the most meaningful thing to me that you can imagine, coming home and bringing the great gift of Maestro Ellington’s music and the calling that led me to be with him.”

“Hope, Despair and the Blues,” the title of this year’s MLK Day commemoration, “may be about age-old human tensions, but it seems to sum up the tensions of the times,” says Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), associate provost and dean of students. “Many of us may feel—for the first time—as though we are inescapably caught in conversations, discussions, dialogues, and reflections” about the looming transition of power in Washington.

“This is happening four days before the inauguration of the next president of the United States and everything that has led up to that,” says Horton. “For me to come back to Boston on Martin Luther King Day, having marched in civil rights marches, and been arrested for that, and now to come back for this? And Howard Thurman [Hon.’67] was King’s mentor? It just means a lot to me, brother.”

The Martin Luther King Day Commemoration, titled “Hope, Despair and the Blues,” featuring music of the Sacred Concerts of Duke Ellington performed by BU’s Big Band and the Inner Strength Gospel Choir and conducted by Randall Keith Horton, takes place on Monday, January 16, in the GSU Metcalf Ballroom, 775 Commonwealth Ave., from 2 to 4 p.m. The event will include remarks by Kirsten Greenidge, a College of Fine Arts assistant professor of playwriting and theater arts, and actor Harry Lennix of The Blacklist; a performance by the Allegrettos and Chloe Swindler (CFA’17); and remarks by Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer, and Victor Coelho, a College of Fine Arts professor of music.

Marsh Chapel’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. worship service, at 11 a.m. on Sunday, January 15, will feature special liturgy, hymns, and prayers for the day, including this year’s sermon offered by the Rev. Ms. Jennifer Quigley ( (UNI’08, STH’11).  All are warmly welcome to attend the Chapel service, led by Dean Robert Hill and the Chapel Choir, or to listen on WBUR, 90.9fm.

A Medical Campus Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday celebration will begin at noon on Thursday, January 19, in the Hiebert Lounge, 14th Floor, School of Medicine Instructional Building. Associate Provost and Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore will deliver remarks titled “On the Way We Go: Chaos or Community?” The event will also feature a musical interlude and refreshments at 12:40 p.m., followed by a town hall meeting at 1 p.m. (also in the Hiebert Lounge) focused on the current national political climate and its implications for diversity, inclusion, health care, and other areas.

On Monday, January 23, at 6:00 p.m., the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground will host “King’s America or Obama’s Post-Racial America: a discussion with Dr. Barbara Reynolds.” Dr. Reynolds is the author of the just-released “My Life, My Love, My Legacy: Coretta Scott King.” The event will take place at the Thurman Center, 775 Commonwealth Ave., lower level. A reception and book signing will follow. RSVP here.

On Thursday, Jan. 26, at 6 p.m., the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center will host a Student Discovery Seminar, “Why We Can’t Wait: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Call for Resistance,” with Prof. Theodore Hickman-Maynard, visiting assistant professor of evangelism and church renewal at the School of Theology, and Ryan Hendrickson, assistant director for manuscripts at the Gotlieb Center. They will examine materials from King’s archive, with a special focus on his commitment to nonviolent resistance in bringing about social change, and consider the different ways King’s forms of peaceful protest may still be relevant today. The event at the Gotlieb’s Reading Room, 771 Comm Ave., 5th Floor, is free and open to students with BU ID.

All events are free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-4126.

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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