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Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s Riotous Ambition

Trio’s expansive new project explores a ghastly corner of Oklahoma history

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey

As middle school students, Chris Combs and Josh Raymer knew that they could become professional jazz musicians, even if they were from Tulsa, Okla. After all, they had the irresistible role models of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a hometown trio. “Most of the musicians I know in Tulsa I know from going to Jacob Fred shows,” says Combs, 27. “That band was playing some of the most forward-thinking music we’d ever heard before, and at the same time they were very outspoken about questioning the government and who we are. I loved the crowds; they included punks, hippies and jazz-school kids, because the band filled in a lot of gaps for people. It was always very empowering to go to a Jacob Fred show and leave feeling, ‘I could do this. I could take my life and redefine what it means to be a Tulsan, the way these guys have.'”

What Combs didn’t know back then was that Tulsa was the site of one of the deadliest race riots in American history. Over 16 hours on May 31 and June 1, 1921, more than 1,200 businesses, churches, schools and homes were burned to the ground in the African-American neighborhood of Greenwood, according to an official Oklahoma investigation. More than 10,000 people were left homeless; more than 800 were admitted to hospitals, and between 100 and 300 people died. Then the whole thing was so thoroughly hushed up that Oklahoma school kids such as Combs and Raymer were never taught about it. “I wasn’t even aware of the incident till I was in high school,” Combs says, “and that’s only because the first official report on the riots was released in 2001. This terrible, awful thing had happened in this safe, whitewashed city I had grown up in, and I hadn’t known anything about it. This flourishing African-American community had been right here in Tulsa and I had had no contact with it. I started reading more and more and getting deeper and deeper into it.”

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