On a Memorial Day in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, an encounter between a young black shoe shiner named Dick Rowland and a white elevator operator named Sarah Page—an incident that was reported with hazy details and shocking incompleteness—started one of the most brutal and tragic race riots in American history. Even more tragic, however, was how little the event was discussed by national or even Oklahoman sources. It was an event that Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey's Chris Combs, like many proud Oklahomans, felt needed to be told.
"It was something that people didn't like talking about. They still don't like talking about it," said the lap steel guitarist. "The race riot was ignored for so long that has become one of the strangest and darkest parts of our city's history."
Combs's vision of describing this work in great and impassioned musical detail has already come to fruition. On May 20th 2011, JFJO premiered the Race Riot Suite to a live audience at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. The suite, which will be released on the band's Kinnara Records on August 30, 2011, seeks to bring the events into literal and impressionistic light in the best way the quartet can. The suite's conception was borne out of the guitarist's inquisition into Tulsa's past.
"At the time I was just reading a lot about the Tulsa race riot," says Combs. Some great books have been published about the riot and you can learn so much if you dig a little. Initially I had a group of small musical ideas that were inspired by different historic pieces of the race riot. Separately, JFJO had been planning on doing a larger ensemble album. Gradually the two ideas converged and I began demoing all of the material late at night in our rehearsal space, playing all the parts by recording and overdubbing."
Before the inception of Race Riot, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey was embarking on a very different kind of big project: Ludwig, the band's re-imagining of Beethoven's third and sixth symphonies. The creation, described by pianist Brian Haas as "The Far East Suite meets the Flaming Lips," was typical of JFJO; the melding of many different styles is something the band excels in. However, the scope of the work and getting inside Beethoven's head was a watershed experience.