Impressions of The Race Riot Suite

by Denis McGilvray


Composed by Chris Combs for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and Horn Quintet

Chris Combs wondered if there was something more he could do with his personal research into the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, so he turned to what he knows best: composing and playing music.

“The more I thought about the riot and the more the injustice sank in and felt like it’s still happening in different ways in the community, I just felt like I couldn’t stay silent,” says Combs, guitarist in the Tulsa jazz band Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.

What he created is the seven-movement Race Riot Suite. Listen closely and you’ll hear the soul of Greenwood rise through the powerful music played in this epic and deeply moving musical narrative.

The suite kicks off with the sounds of an old piano played like it was back when hot jazz was king: horns swing high and low, bass and drums bring that big heartbeat to life, and steel guitars sing so bitter-sweetly of the hustling, bustling Black Wall Street, that booming town built with red brick then filled with African blood.

The music sizzles with the vibrant sounds of life in Greenwood: the hotels and diners, the barbershops and buses, the pool halls and movie theaters, the spirit-filled voices ringing from the churches, the honky-tonk players riffing at the juke joints.

You also hear frenetic sections of music evoking the madness that spurred events on: staccato blasts of hard-hitting horns, bass and drums, stinging lap steel guitar licks, pounding piano runs. You feel the hatred of those who hungered for the strange fruit that Billie Holiday sang about, dangling from the end of a rope in an old tree. The music becomes unhinged, a frenzied mob, wild gunshots fired, blood on the streets, a fire, a firestorm, an apocalypse.

Keep on listening and you hear redemption as well. In powerfully played rhythmic melodies, the music expresses what Combs thinks is one of the most important aspects of this story—the strength of spirit and undaunted resiliency that helped the people of Greenwood rebuild their community in the aftermath of that massacre.

“I would love it if the music helps inspire Tulsans to learn more about this story for themselves and to experience what’s happening right now in the Greenwood community,” Combs says.

The Suite comes to a close with a soulful prayer played on deeply bowed bass with an undertone of low horns: a prayer of remembrance, a prayer for peace, a prayer that violence such as this will never happen again.