Tragedy, triumph in Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s ‘Race Riot Suite’
As a white kid growing up in Tulsa three decades ago, Brian Haas never heard about the 1921 race riot that obliterated Greenwood, a neighborhood that rode the Oklahoma oil boom to become the wealthiest African American community in the United States. That’s not surprising. With information about the pogrom actively suppressed until the late 1990s, most of his black peers didn’t learn about it either.
What’s unusual is that Haas’ band, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, recently released “Race Riot Suite” (The Royal Potato Family), an album-length work that celebrates Greenwood and laments its destruction. An adventurous jazz combo that has won an enviable following among jam band and indie rock fans while maintaining jazz cred as hard-core improvisers, the band isn’t in the habit of making overt political statements. For the Tulsa-based quartet the project is a vehicle for coming to terms with its city’s darkest chapter, which included incendiary bombs dropped by airplane, stoking a fire that burned out some three dozen city blocks..
“I went to kindergarten through 12th grade in a Tulsa suburb and got a four-year college degree in Tulsa, and I never learned about the race riot,” says Haas, 37, who performs with Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey on Thursday at the Mint as part of a three-month national tour.
“I heard something about an incident in Greenwood, but I didn’t discover it was a full-blown riot until my 20s. It blew my mind how well covered up it was. I’ve been researching it ever since.”
At the time of the riot, Greenwood boasted a black population of about 10,000 residents and a prosperous commercial district known as the Negro Wall Street, with a flourishing cultural scene as well as a large and prosperous population of entrepreneurs and professionals. Judging by the disturbing “Race Riot” cover art — a washed-out ink and watercolor montage of Ku Klux Klan hoods, a lynching, a skull and a bloody rose — one might expect to hear an anguished and furious musical outcry.
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.
“I really wanted to make those connections, evoking everything from an overall aesthetic of 1920s jazz to African American spirituals,” Combs says. “We wanted to tie it to the landscape, what would have been going on in Oklahoma. It’s about the riot, but it’s also about benediction and redemption. It’s tragic and triumphant music.”
If the young white musicians of Jacob Fred are an unlikely source for the “Race Riot Suite,” the band’s path to the ambitious work is even more far-fetched. In spring 2010, the quartet was neck-deep in “Ludwig,” a project presented by the OK Mozart festival featuring Jacob Fred’s collaboration with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra playing jazz-tinged arrangements of Beethoven’s Third and Sixth symphonies.
After wrestling with Beethoven for eight to 10 hours a day, hardly the typical fare for a steel guitarist, Combs found himself working through musical ideas in the wee hours, devising melodic fragments and lines. At the same time, he was reading into the history of the 1921 attack, which was finally documented 80 years later in an extensive official report. Combs’ roiling emotional response to the riot infused the music, but the suite didn’t start to coalesce until a European tour.
“We’d been talking about doing a larger ensemble album,” Combs says. “And on the road we were listening to a lot of Mingus and Ellington and Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, groups that redefine what it means to play jazz. Slowly I saw how these little ideas could fit together, how they could be used and reused and reinvented.”
No one named Jacob Fred was ever part of the Jazz Odyssey. As the band’s sound and personnel evolved, they kept the moniker, which started as a goof. The generic nature of the first two names simply amused the young players, while “Jazz Odyssey” is a sly reference to the disastrous fusion number unveiled at a particularly desperate juncture by the fictional band Spinal Tap in Rob Reiner’s classic faux-rockumentary.
The group roared out of Tulsa in 1995 as a horn-laden octet equally enthralled by Prince and Coltrane, and gradually slimmed down to a trio over several years and several hundred gigs. Haas is the only founding member left in the group’s latest incarnation, which includes bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Josh Raymer, though for the suite the group recruited an all-star horn section including trumpeter Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob), and saxophonists Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck), Peter Apfelbaum (Hieroglyphics Ensemble) and Kansas City jazz mainstay Mark Southerland. Apfelbaum and Southerland join the band for the California dates.
They were also on hand in May, when Jacob Fred premiered the seven-part suite at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, just days before the riot’s 90th anniversary. Weeks later, a stripped-down version of the “Race Riot” ensemble returned to perform a concert arranged by members of the city’s African American community.
“After the more private performance, there were people coming up to us crying and holding us,” Haas says. “Some people think it’s the most important piece of art for the city, and some people think we’re grandstanding. It’s definitely provoked a lot of arguments and discussions. I can say it feels like the ancestors gather whenever we play it. There’s the sensation of something much bigger than us going on.”
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