In his quest for social justice, Bryan Stevenson taps the power of music

Here’s how Bryan Stevenson’s official bio begins: “Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

And for his decades of often emotionally taxing work with the Equal Justice Initiative, the Montgomery, Alabama, organization he founded in 1989, the Harvard-educated lawyer has earned awards and honors galore. Among them: the ACLU National Medal of Liberty, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a spot on Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2015. His best-selling 2014 memoir, Just Mercy, was made into a critically acclaimed film starring Michael B. Jordan (as Stevenson) and Jamie Foxx.

What’s not mentioned in his bio and rarely noted elsewhere is that Stevenson also is a skilled jazz pianist. So skilled, in fact, that on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. he’ll appear at Symphony Center with Grammy-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Their program, a blend of music and narration titled “Freedom, Justice and Hope,” is billed as “an immersive concert of familiar and newly commissioned works that pay tribute to important moments and figures in Black history.” They debuted a virtual version of it last May, from Lincoln Center in New York City, so this is their first outing before a live audience. They’ll follow it up with a free post-concert conversation.

“When I was a law student and he was making his first recordings, I thought he had such a unique, thoughtful and innovative sound that I became an instant fan,” Stevenson says of Marsalis, whom he met only a few years ago. “I’ve always deeply admired his music and his playing, and then he became a jazz educator in ways that I thought were extraordinary. When he took on the role he has at Lincoln Center, I was really impressed at the effort he was making to educate young people about not just jazz music and jazz playing, but the history of jazz.”

That history, Stevenson says, is inextricably intertwined with the history of civil rights and equal justice. Since its birth, in part, as an outgrowth of the blues, jazz has been a way for countless Black artists to express themselves with a freedom they were deprived of in everyday life. Stevenson says it was also a way, whether through John Coltrane’s sophisticated sax riffs or Nina Simone’s otherworldly vocals, to disprove the widespread notion that Black people were somehow less than equal.

“Music is healing, it is affirming, it’s energizing, it’s sustaining,” he says. “I’ve always believed that justice work requires a soundtrack. In Alabama, the community of people who pushed this nation to break down the architecture of segregation and legalized racial hierarchy sang as they marched. Music was key to their capacity to make a difference. Mahalia Jackson came to Montgomery and energized people during the boycott. The Freedom Singers were a vital part of how people stayed engaged when they had to confront such brutality. They as musicians had long pushed people in this country to think differently about what it means to be an American, to be committed to the power and the beauty of music while living in spaces where the ugliness of injustice and bigotry can reside. And many of the pieces that we are playing [in the program] are a reaction to this quest for justice, this push for a full humanity for everyone.”

Growing up in rural Delaware, Stevenson played piano at his church. There were some paid gigs in college, too, and occasional ones during law school at Harvard, where many of his friends attended the nearby Berklee School of Music. Above all, music in general and jazz piano specifically have been sources of great personal comfort. Because Stevenson has stood next to condemned people who faced execution, because he has been in places that were roiling with anger and animosity, pain and suffering, music has long been a welcome refuge. The main reason he moved from a small apartment to a house years ago, he says, was so he could fit in a piano.

I’ve relied on music and musical expression to allow me to keep doing the work that I do. Without music, it would be very hard for me to do it. I’m grateful that there are musicians in the world like Wynton who are creating music that is healing and energizing and affirming. That is such a gift. I try to do other things, like exercise, but music is the only thing that completely pulls me out of whatever the crisis is for a few minutes or hours.”

Before the Lincoln Center concert last May, Stevenson hadn’t performed for a long time due to work demands — and never with an orchestra. This union with Marsalis, he says, is a welcome return to the stage.

“You never walk away from an opportunity to create great music with great people. It’s very affirming and exciting, and I’m really thrilled about this opportunity.”