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92Y Insider

Christian McBride, music director

Victory Boyd

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me so you can see
What’s going on

May 21 marks 50 years since the release of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, universally regarded as one of the most iconic, enduring and resonant albums in all of music. A concept album centered on Gaye’s protest against racial and social injustices and a call for compassion, few could have imagined how relevant and urgent its messages would remain half a century later. The album continues to be seen as so culture-shaping, that in 2020 Rolling Stone placed it in the Number One spot of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

92Y’s Yana Stotland, who spearheaded our virtual celebrations of music icons Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, leads this new series of events exploring the legacy of Marvin Gaye and his groundbreaking album. “The idea was brought to me by my 92Y colleague, former record producer Laraine Perri. I was immediately interested, and just as immediately thought of involving Christian McBride, who I’d worked with in our Billie Holiday exploration, as the ideal artist to curate the events. People know Christian as a giant of jazz and seven-time Grammy winner. But many don’t know that he grew up listening to Motown, and that alongside jazz icons like Miles Davis and John Coltrane he counts R&B giants Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Bobby Womack among his heroes.” McBride didn’t need to think twice when he got Yana’s call. “He was onboard before I could finish asking him,” says Yana.

McBride grew up in what he calls “a Motown household.” “There’s always been music in my family in some way. I was going to live concerts for as long as I can remember,” he says. “From the time I was four years old, I was very lucky to see people like Marvin Gaye in concert.” The influence stayed with him. In 2008, McBride opened the Detroit Jazz Festival with a big band tribute to Gaye. He recently called “What's Going On” “the new national anthem.”

Our celebration launches 50 years to the day of the release of What’s Going On, on Friday, May 21, with a concert featuring essential songs from the album: its indelible title track, “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues,” and more, led by McBride, who reimagines the music through a soul-jazz lens. His ensemble features leading jazz instrumentalists performing alongside him. “The absence of a vocalist on this concert is very much by design,” says Yana. “What’s Going On is such an iconic album, and its tracks and title song are inextricably tied to Marvin Gaye’s voice. Rather than introduce vocalists, Christian’s vision was for the musicians to capture and expand upon the album’s groove, allowing you to hear its melodies with Marvin’s voice in your ear.”

The anniversary weekend events continue on Sunday, May 23, when McBride hosts a roundtable conversation and deep examination of the legacy of What’s Going On with some of those who knew him best. He talks with Marvin’s widow, Janis Gaye, his biographer David Ritz, author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, legendary music journalist Nelson George, who interviewed Gaye in March of 1983, just a year before his tragic death, and others. Together, they examine the enduring messages and power of What’s Going On, exploring its themes, from racial injustice to civic unrest to environmental threats, and its eerie parallels with what’s going on now. Fifty years later, McBride calls them “disappointingly relevant.”

What’s Going On was central to Marvin Gaye’s legacy, but there was more to his artistry. On Friday, June 4, McBride hosts a free listening party with a playlist celebrating Gaye’s entire discography, from the early duets with his cherished singing partner Tammi Terrell including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” through Motown smashes like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and more. The series closes on Saturday, June 5, with a second concert, Let’s Get It On: The Soul of Marvin Gaye. To fully celebrate Gaye’s R&B artistry, McBride brought in music director and pianist Ray Angry, who assembled a sensational young band including four outstanding vocalists for a concert of classics like “Let’s Get It On,” “You’re All I Need,” “I Want You” and more “It’s an amazing concert,” say Yana. “Ray and the artists explore not only different albums and periods, but the many facets of Marvin Gaye’s artistry. You have the groove … the soulfulness … the human voice crying out … the sweetness … the sensuality … the funk. There’s a reason why he has remained such an influence,” she says. “What’s also striking is how these young artists, whose musical currency is the language of hip hop and urban music, so brilliantly conjure another era. The concert is a gorgeous immersion in the sounds and layers of the music of 1971. It totally brings you back.”

“What Marvin Gaye created in What’s Going On is an extraordinary work of art that speaks of the human need to express, to connect, to inspire, to remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles and our dreams. His music addressed racism and police brutality and social inequity and lack of regard for our planet, and yet it was never preachy,” says Yana. “He spread his messages while also seducing us with music that brought – and still brings – unbelievable joy. As his biographer David Ritz says, ‘Marvin transformed anger into beauty.’ It’s this that I most hope people take away.”

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On — A 50th Anniversary Celebration Starts Fri, May 21, 7 PM ET