The Race Riot Suite
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: The Race Riot Suite
Rather than simply evoking Greenwood’s destruction, however, the suite encompasses the region’s creative ferment. Composed and arranged by Jacob Fred steel guitarist Chris Combs, the score captures the energy of Greenwood’s fervent churchgoers and the rollicking territory dance bands that crisscrossed the Southwest. -LA Times
“a beautifully orchestrated, melodically rich piece that celebrates Greenwood as much as it laments the wanton violence that destroyed the neighborhood” -Boston Globe
“Both musically and spiritually, The Race Riot Suite is a significant, important work” -JazzIz
“And the jazz gods were pleased…” -Huffington Post
Featuring: Brian Haas (piano), Chris Combs (lap steel guitar), Jeff Harshbarger (upright bass), Josh Raymer (drums) plus special guests Steven Bernstein (Trumpet, Slide Trumpet), Peter Apfelbaum (tenor & baritone saxophone), Jeff Coffin (tenor saxophone), Mark Southerland (tenor saxophone), Matt Leland (Trombone)
For its 21st album, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey reaches into the dark annals of its hometown’s history and emerges with a masterwork: The Race Riot Suite. Written, arranged and orchestrated by Chris Combs, the album is a long-form conceptual piece that tells the devastating story of the 1921 Tulsa race riot– a real estate-driven ethnocide occurring under the guise of citizen-dispensed justice. The oil-elite, civic government and local press colluded to take advantage of a racially tense climate in Jim Crow-era Oklahoma, resulting in the death of hundreds of black Tulsans and the destruction of an entire city district.
“At the time, there were a lot of African-American Tulsans who were wealthier than the white citizens,” says Combs. “So there was a lot of tension, and a lot of jealousy and anger.”
Through jittery, propulsive rhythms and melodies, the album reflects an onlooker’s journey through the night that changed Tulsa’s landscape and nearly destroyed the country’s most thriving black community. The music is at times nostalgic, bombastic, anguished and mournful, yet ultimately a celebration of the Greenwood community and its unflinching resiliency.
In addition to the permanent line-up of Combs (lap steel), Brian Haas (piano), Josh Raymer (drums) and Jeff Harshbarger (bass), the quartet enlisted the assistance of world class horn players Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck, Dave Matthews Band), Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob, Levon Helm), Peter Apfelbaum (Hieroglyphics, Don Cherry), Mark Southerland (Snuff Jazz) and Matt Leland (a founding JFJO member).
“The first half of the album was written as we were preparing for ‘Ludwig’,” Combs says, referencing the quartet’s recent interpretation of Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies. The grandiose performance was held last year at the renowned OK Mozart Festival in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in collaboration with the 50-piece Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra. “That was a massive classical undertaking, and it made a huge impact on the suite, just being that deep in Beethoven’s music on such a large scale. It definitely planted a lot of seeds and influenced a lot of the compositions.”
Conceived as a baroque suite, Riot moves and sways with beauty and violence; first movement “Black Wall Street” glides through a night of dancing and celebration, conveying the bustle, excitement and independence of Tulsa’s all-black Greenwood District pre-riot. On “The Burning,” the guest quintet’s horns sizzle and shriek with explosive fury as the white mob descends on Greenwood and the riot begins. “Grandfather’s Gun” and “Cover Up” articulate the fear-and-greed-driven racism that both fueled the riot itself and allowed for its eventual marginalization as a historical footnote. The seven movements are punctuated with free-form improvisational interludes, “Prayers”, allowing for quiet moments of mourning and introspection. The cathartic final movement—“Eye of the Dove”—expresses the hope and victory of a rebuilding community that refused to be permanently destroyed.
Civic leaders and KKK-infiltrated local press worked to erase the event from the city’s collective consciousness, and to this day, very little literature exists on the subject. Two vital texts—“Death in a Promised Land” by Scott Ellsworth and “The Burning” by Tim Madigin—as well as the National Parks Service Final 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconnaissance Survey served as direct inspiration for Combs, who, like many other Tulsans, didn’t learn of the riot until his late ‘teens when his curiosity drove him to the library. Soon, his self-education was informing his songwriting, and The Race Riot Suite was born. Free from the loftiness of lyrical didacticism, the album instead serves as a simple emotional monument, a reverential acknowledgment of a dark moment in history and the role that moment has played in shaping the city of JFJO.
Producer Costa Stasinopoulos and Engineer Chad Copelin helmed the sessions for The Race Riot Suite, which was recorded at Tulsa’s legendary Church Studio on 3rd and Trenton Avenue, less than a mile from where the riot occurred.
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The band cites influences as diverse as iconic jazz and classical artists like Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler, as well as, modern artists, including Radiohead, The Dirty Projectors, Fight the Big Bull and Animal Collective in the conception of the recording. In its broader context, the album can be viewed in a long lineage of jazz recordings that call attention to civil rights issues, such as those by Max Roach, Billie Holiday and Charlie Haden.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was founded in 1994. The band has garnered respect and recognition around the world, receiving praise from critics and routinely selling out shows across the U.S. and Europe. Its fluid, ever-evolving brand of progressive jazz frequently reaches into disparate genres for inspiration—elements of ragtime, Americana, classical, funk and ambient electronica are all evident in the versatile group’s body of work.
The Race Riot Suite debuted live on May 20th, 2011 with two sets performed by the album’s complete line-up (JFJO and guest horns) to a packed house at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The album was released on August 30th through the band’s imprint, Kinnara Records, in conjunction with Brooklyn-based label The Royal Potato Family.
Starting on February 19, 2012 Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey began releasing a special series of A & B sides. These lo-fi unmastered tracks capture a raw, distilled, and reconstructed version of The Race Riot Suite material. The A Side consists of a short & condensed solo piano version of a song from The Race Riot Suite as interpreted by Brian Haas. The B Side has a remixed version of the A Side as produced by The Race Riot Suite producer, Costa Stasinopoulos.
For more information on the event please visit the following resources:
Click here to visit the Greenwood Cultural Center’s website
Click here for a PDF of a somewhat extensive report from the Department of the Interior
Click here for a report from the Oklahoma Historical Society
Click here to visit the Wikipedia on the event