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The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir Performs Live In Studio


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir was founded in 1990. The group, whose members range in age from 18 to 80, raises funds for educational grants through a series of concerts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Today is the day we remember the dream. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the holiday that not only honors Dr. King, but all the people who've struggled to make America live up to its promise of freedom and justice for all. Music has always been a big part of America's civil rights movement and that tradition continues in San Diego through the talents of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir. Members of this gospel choir are here to perform for us this morning. Joining me, I’d like to welcome my guests, Pastor Ken Anderson. He’s been the director Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir since 1996. Members of the choir are here. Welcome to you all. And let’s start out with some music. This is “Worthy To Be Praised,” performed by San Diego’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir.

(audio of “Worthy To Be Praised” performed by the choir)

CAVANAUGH: Whoo! That’ll get our circulation going on this Monday morning. Thank you all. We’ve just heard “Worthy To Be Praised,” solo Mia Garrett, performed by San Diego’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir. Thank you all. That was great. And Pastor Ken Anderson was on piano. I want to talk to Pastor Anderson, Ken, if I can for just a minute or two. Tell us a little bit about this community choir. How did this choir come to be?

KEN ANDERSON (Leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir): Well, several years ago and actually I think it was in ’95, I became the guest conductor for what was then called the Martin Luther King Commemorative Choir under the leadership of the Ministerial Alliance of San Diego. And after that season, there were a few members of the choir who expressed I guess it was the desire of the entire choir to become a choir and an entity unto themselves. And so after a little bit of thought and consideration, we decided to do that. We formed and we’re incorporated. We – you can – Your donations are tax deductible, 100% volunteer group.


ANDERSON: Some of the members are from Temecula even.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. And what is the vision for the choir?

ANDERSON: Well, we kept the original theme. Commemorative choirs raise monies for scholarships and so we kept that but we made them exclusively for graduating high school seniors in the visual and performing arts.

CAVANAUGH: Now can anybody become a member of this choir? How do you join?

ANDERSON: All you have to do is be breathing at regular intervals. If you can sing in tune we’ll take care of the training. We’re happy to have you.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a little bit more about what the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir gives back. Your whole purpose is to raise money to give money. Where do you give that money to?

ANDERSON: We give this money – and our very last concert of the year is usually the second Sunday night in June and you can find out about that on our website. We give these to these graduating high school seniors. They’re from dance to production and singing and instruments, anything creative in the performing arts. And that’s our – we get to sing, of course. We love singing this music. We love being together. We love singing these praises but it’s a privilege also to be able to help these young people realize their educational goals and dreams.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know you must have some wonderful success stories of former and maybe current choir members. Can you share one of those with us?

ANDERSON: Well, there’s a young man who is – he was here for dance and he has since then been in productions in New York, and he’s in shows that are kind of going around the country…


ANDERSON: …and you can find out about him and a few other success stories on our website as well.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Well, we really want to hear some more. I mean, it’s lovely talking with you, Pastor Anderson, but I just want to hear some more music.

ANDERSON: Sure, we can do that.

CAVANAUGH: We have another performance coming up. I believe this one is “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”

ANDERSON: “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” that’s right.

CAVANAUGH: And this is the San Diego’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir.

ANDERSON: Just a quick word about the spirituals that we do. They’re – most of them are code songs. These are the songs the slaves used to plan their escape away from slavery, and the one we’re going to do for you right now is “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”

(audio of performance of “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by the choir)

CAVANAUGH: We’re celebrating Martin Luther King Day here on KPBS with the beautiful, inspirational voices of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir. And that was “Ain’t Got Time to Die” with soloist Ken Anderson. And thank you so much for that. That was fabulous. I want to ask you, Ken, there are eight people here today performing. How many people are in the choir?

ANDERSON: In the choir itself, there’s between 95 and 100, somewhere right in that neighborhood.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Wow, that must be something to hear all of the people. We have eight members here and they’re shaking down the house. Let me ask a choir member, if you would, I believe Joe Pettigrew is your name. How long have you been with the choir?

JOE PETTIGREW (Choir Member): I’ve been with the choir almost eleven years now.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And what brought you to it?

PETTIGREW: Well, I sang in college, spirituals and some gospel, and when I came back to San Diego, I – I’m from here originally, I just fell into the group somehow and it was my good fortune because this is a – it’s a tremendous group of singers, musicians, and people.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how do you try out for a group like this? I mean, you’ve been singing before, right? And so are there auditions and stuff like that?

PETTIGREW: This group is about the easiest group you could ever join.


PETTIGREW: You just walk in the door. And we do have a cutoff now because the choir has grown so large.

CAVANAUGH: So big, yeah.

PETTIGREW: But there’s no cutoff for male tenors and basses.

CAVANAUGH: Hint, hint.

PETTIGREW: Hint, hint, yeah. So it’s really just if you have a love of singing and are moderately on key, you can sing with us.

CAVANAUGH: What has the experience been like for you being part of this choir?

PETTIGREW: It’s been a tremendous experience. The music is so powerful and moving and the camaraderie of the group, it’s really a second family.

CAVANAUGH: And how often do you guys get together and practice? What is the schedule like?

PETTIGREW: We sing on Monday nights from September to about May or June. And then we have our concert season, which can start anytime after the rehearsals start and finishes up usually with our scholarship educational grant concert in June.

CAVANAUGH: Ken Anderson, this is such an important factor in the whole idea of this choir, to get money in order to be able to give it to people who are then going to go on and expand their arts education. Tell us a little bit more about that.

ANDERSON: Well, that’s exactly true. We’re a 100% volunteer organization from the governing board on to the musicians to everyone, including myself. And after any expenses we have, which are very minimal, thanks to the graciousness of the church that hosts our rehearsals, most of our monies go straight to help these young people realize their dreams.

CAVANAUGH: Do you perform every Sunday at a church?

ANDERSON: No, that’s not necessarily so. There are high points like January and February, those are heavy times, Black history and Martin Luther King, but we perform all over the place, from churches to schools to open court to weddings, hello, and Europe and just any kind of event.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been to Europe.

ANDERSON: We’ve been to Europe twice.

CAVANAUGH: And what was that – was it a tour?

ANDERSON: It was a tour. We sang in – We’ve been in Denmark and Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Rome and the Vatican.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. That’s – And are you planning another one of those anytime soon?

ANDERSON: We are. They take a little bit, as you can imagine, to raise money for. And so we try not to do them no more than every other year or maybe every three years.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. Well, will you sing for us again?

ANDERSON: Certainly.

CAVANAUGH: Because I know that’s what everybody’s waiting for. This selection, I believe, is “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” And this is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir.

(audio of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” performed by the choir)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Pastor Ken Anderson and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir. I want to ask you, Ken, how – what is the relevance of Martin Luther King, the name, in – for the choir?

ANDERSON: Well, several things. First of all, we took that name because – before we formed the choir, they were – some of – a few of the members were a part of what was the Martin Luther King Commemorative Choir.


ANDERSON: Having Martin’s name with us, I love it, because he had this – you know his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” where he expressed the desire to see the different races singing together, we live that dream in the Martin Luther King Choir, with people from different cultures and backgrounds, socioeconomic and all over the place and singing in unity. And Martin wasn’t fighting for black rights or for the rights of blacks so much as he was fighting for the rights of humans so it is apropos that everyone observes and celebrates this man’s life and what he stood for because he stood for the dignity of all human life.

CAVANAUGH: I have the pleasure of talking to another one of the choir members right now, Dale Fleming. How long have you been in the choir?

DALE FLEMING (Choir Member): I’ve been in the choir for I think since its beginning, since the beginning season in ’95 when it was the Commemorative Choir.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us what the experience has been like for you.

FLEMING: It’s been awesome. I love the mission of the choir because not only do we get to sing and nourish each other with this music but it’s taking it to the people so that they understand and appreciate the purpose and the history behind spiritual music and just experience the fullness of gospel music. It’s really a rewarding experience. And then to be able to raise funds to help young people is just icing.

CAVANAUGH: How difficult is it to sing a capella when you’re in a big choir like this one?

FLEMING: I find it great because you have lots of people to blend with and support you with, and we do lots of practicing so that we blend our voices and get used to the sound of one another and we can kind of correct one another on the spot.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Now when you – Have you been singing all your life?

FLEMING: Since – Yeah, pretty much. You can’t shut me up, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Is that true for many members of the choir, that people have just wanted to sing, want to be involved in this so much?

FLEMING: Absolutely. I find both. I find people that haven’t thought they could sing and then they come in and they’re a part of the group, and then folks that have been raised in church and sung all the time, all their lives, and some people who frankly could go off and be professional, they’re so great. So it’s – we’re just blessed to have everybody there on a volunteer basis.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’re blessed to have you here today. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

FLEMING: Sure. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Ken, tell us a little bit about the grant program that the choir has for high school seniors.

ANDERSON: Well, this grant program, we try to reach all of the high schools and all the venues as well, if there’s anyone out there who knows a young person who is graduating from high school and has a talent and ability and needs some money, and that should just about cover all of them. We offer that throughout the San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dale, you can tell us a little bit more, too.

FLEMING: I just wanted to mention that we have, since 1998, given out 60 grants for over $112,000. And that’s based on our concertizing and raising funds throughout the community. And so that’s really part of the mission. It’s awesome, being able to see these young people grow and…

CAVANAUGH: And that is the mission of this choir to really fund arts education in San Diego. Tell us a little bit more about that, would you, Ken?

ANDERSON: Well, the reason it’s so important is because the schools, for whatever reason, find it necessary to put more of their resources just into the academics, which is important, don’t get me wrong. We know that. But students need an outlet for expression, actually humans need an outlet for expression and I’d rather they expressed themselves on the palette than on the wall of my house.


ANDERSON: You know, and instead of using their skills in the streets for something that’s detrimental to society, let’s not squelch that talent and ability but let’s nurture it and give them a place where they can use it not only to express themselves but to bless others because we are blessed when people express their artistic talent. It offers something to our spirit and to our heart and to our minds.

CAVANAUGH: Now the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir has a CD, right?

ANDERSON: That, we do. And we’re working on our second one.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the one you have out now, “Unto Him.”

ANDERSON: “Unto Him” is a CD, we have three – there were three, actually four, composers—one had already gone home to be with the Lord—who contributed to our project. And the CD expresses the spirituals, gospels, I mean, you know, it’s just kind of like a mix of what you would expect on a gospel CD. But the beauty of this CD is that the singers, as Dale was expressing, they’re all levels of singing, but the sound that they create together, this community, believe me if you’re with us, you’ll see that the sound that they create is simply an extension of the relationship between them and we hope that that comes out on the CD. And, certainly, the sales of every CD help us to help these young people.

CAVANAUGH: How often does your choir perform?

ANDERSON: Oh, my goodness, anywhere between 20 and 30 concerts a year. There’s no telling. They start contacting our concert manager, Derek Gilliam, a year in advance. Some schedule us right away, some a little later, and some we can’t accommodate because we’ve got so many requests but we try to accommodate every request we can. And if you go to our website, you’ll see our concert schedule.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the highlights of your season is the Martin Luther King Breakfast that just took place.

ANDERSON: Ah, that was awesome. We sang good. We enjoyed that, too, I might – but that wasn’t just why it was awesome. The speaker and the organization of this and just everything that was done, the food, and that it was eight o’clock in the morning on a cold, dark morning and people came out, and it was just wonderful.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell me, when is your next concert? I mean, you have a full roster, right?

ANDERSON: We do. We have quite a few actually coming up. We have the third – on the 3rd we’ll be at one of the local libraries and if you go on our website, that’ll save you a long speech.


ANDERSON: That’s the initials of our choir, I would like to mention one in particular.


ANDERSON: On February 11th, we’re doing one in collaborations with the Fair Housing Council of – in San Diego. And this will be at the Golden Hall downtown, 202 C Street.


ANDERSON: This is the 11th, that’s a Thursday. At 7:00 p.m. is when the concert begins and for ticket information go to our website and you can find out. This is going to be a wonderful thing. It’s not just us but it’s us, the San Diego Ballet, world renowned pianist Cecil Lytle from UCSD.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Umm-hmm.

ANDERSON: Voices of Housing and Civil Rights, Common Ground Theatre, Bill McGee Blues Band, Culture Shop Hip Hop Dance Troupe. It’s going to be a rich, rich culturally filled evening of music. And sort of doing it, I’m going to play some rag myself.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow. Yeah.

ANDERSON: And we’re going to try to present the music kind of historically starting back at the beginning and kind of trace evolution of – from the spirituals to all of the other styles that have been influenced by it.

CAVANAUGH: And I know that you’re going to sing us out of this particular interview but one fast last question, if I can. How can high school seniors apply for a grant if they want to pursue their dreams of a life in music and the arts?

ANDERSON: I would encourage you to go to our website, mlkccsd—Martin Luther King Community Choir San Diego—dot-org. And all of your high school offices because we send out information to all the schools in San Diego about these educational grants, so the information is there. And I sure hope you will avail yourself of it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I know that you’re going to sing us out and I just want to thank you all for coming in the studio today. It’s been great.

ANDERSON: Thank you for inviting us.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s just the thing to have today. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Here with us is Ken Anderson and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir and they’re going to perform “We Shall Overcome.” You’re listening to KPBS.

(audio of “Well Shall Overcome” performed by the choir)

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