Imagine an entire community being systematically wiped out by rioters motivated by hatred for another race. It'd be all over the news, right? (Well, maybe not on Fox…) In the case of the Tulsa, OK race riots of 1921, the African-American community of Greenwood was almost completely destroyed by raging mobs of whites, some of them dropping firebombs from biplanes… and in the spirit of the cover-up that followed, the incident was summarily erased from the state history books. Greenwood needs a storyteller, and you can't find better storytellers than Oklahoma's own Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Race Riot Suite is a brilliant (and horrific) exercise in bringing Greenwood back to light.
The second track "Black Wall Street" (also the nickname of Greenwood's business district) gives great insight into the relative prosperity Greenwood was experiencing at the time of the riots. While many whites were left unemployed by a statewide economic downturn, blacks had developed their own economic enclave in Jim Crow-era Oklahoma, and the piece's swinging mid-section reflects the positive atmosphere the community had established. JFJO is augmented by an epic horn section featuring Sex Mob leader Steve Bernstein and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, and the section's giddy five-way vocalization towards the end of "Wall Street" is completely off the charts. Even if you didn't know how to jitterbug, you'd still want to dance to these vivacious passages.
The horns aren't just a device for souping up lap-steel guitarist Chris Combs' evocative compositions; they also help set each "scene" in Combs' tragic jazz opera. The crescendos in "Prelude" combine with JFJO's ghostly sound to pull us back into the era -in-question while preparing us for a disturbing musical horror story; the wrenching power of the horn figure in "The Burning" mirrors the ferocity of attacks that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless; and tortured solos by Bernstein and baritone saxman Peter Apfelbaum on "Lost in the Battle for Greenwood" could be the howls of survivors seeing everything they'd built lying in smoking ruins. Bernstein's slide trumpet is especially effective because it offers the sliding range of the trombone without the 'bone's open tone, and is therefore better suited to project the anger of the survivors.
Race Riot gives pianist Brian Haas a real workout: He plays brilliant barrelhouse rag on "Wall Street," and his frantic lines on "Burning" are hyperactive versions of the stereotypical accompaniment to silent films. But then Haas' in-the-clear opening to "Mt. Zion" reeks with the wrenching, too-soon loss of loved ones; he anchors the surrealistic onslaught of "Cover Up," and his passionate solo on "Eye of the Dove" embodies the spirit of a community that would, eventually, rebuild. Nonetheless, the historical "disappearing" of the Greenwood riots robbed the survivors and their descendants of closure and redemption. Race Riot Suite may only be one small step on that road, but it's a step that had to be taken, and it's a story that needs to be heard, and remembered.