The memory of Martin Luther King Jr., the inspiration for several jazz compositions in the past, was evoked once more last night at the Kennedy Center in the premiere of a suite by saxophonist Nathan Davis.
Davis' "Suite for Martin Luther King Jr.," however, had little of the stature of its subject. Commissioned in 1974 by the Gulf Oil Corp., the work, which ran about 45 minutes, was at best a compositional sketch adorned with narration, songs, and a barrage of instrumental solos.
Davis' piece suffered most from lack of a compositional center from which the music could flow.
Its written parts consisted mostly of high-note staccato brass passages, long-held unison whole notes and rock-like rhythm portions. Interspersed were interminable solos, most of them by Davis, who featured himself on soprano and tenor saxophones at every possible turn.
The suite also was overloaded with a turgid narration by Dr. Donald Henderson and two undistinguished songs, which vocalist Brenda Joyce tried but failed to infuse with life. At times it was hard to tell which was paramount in the composer's mind - the music or the preachy narration, which seemed intended to evoke black pride and point up white guilt.
Much more successful was the first part of the concert, which featured four pieces by a sextet designed to showcase Davis - a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh - and guest soloist Clark Terry. Terry's performance of "Mumbles," a scat vocal piece, successfully broke what had been the staid mood of the near-capacity audience.
The concert was sponsored by the Kennedy Center and the National Commission on Blacks in the Performing Arts, a group set up to increase black people's involvement with the center.