1921 Tulsa Massacre Memorialized In Music By 4 Black Composers

Prema‘ (1964) a piano concerto by Alice McLeod — the jazz pianist, harpist and composer who later married John Coltrane — was recently arranged for harp by Ashley Jackson, who performed it with the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra. ‘Prema’ is one of the few concert works for harp that reach toward the jazz tradition.

NEW YORK — In his 1789 autobiographical slave account, “The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa),” this native of Guinea wrote that “we are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets.”

Despite the horrors of kidnapping, forced march, imprisonment, and the ocean voyage now known as “The Middle Passage,” Africans in America began to slowly mold and shape their very difficult lives in a new and different place. Over the span of 246 years, their dances, melodies, and preserved oral traditions helped build this country from an Eastern seaboard set of British colonies into what is now recognized throughout the world as a dominant nation and culture.

Until this year, the third Saturday in the month of June had been subject to scattered celebration as Juneteenth, remembering the June 19, 1865, announcement made to the African American community of Galveston, Tex., by Union Major General Gordon Granger, that the American Civil War was over and the slaves in the State of Texas and nationwide were “forever free.” The announcement was made two and a half years after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the Civil War ended. Lincoln himself was already dead, the victim of John Wilkes Booth

Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges joined conductor Amadi Azikiwe when the Harlem Chamber Players gave the premiere of Adolphus Hailstork’s ‘Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust).’ It sets the poetry of Herbert Woodward Martin.

The celebration of Juneteenth still has earth-shaking ramifications for the development of social, political, and economic relations among all American citizens. The gravity and meaning of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900) still awaits its true essence and fulfillment, given the cognitive-dissonant denials that there was an attempted insurrection at the Capitol Building on January 6th and the current recriminative voter suppression legislation efforts.

On Juneteenth 2021, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, The Greene Space in partnership with the Harlem Chamber Players, Harlem Stage, and the Harlem School of the Arts presented Pity These Ashes: Tulsa 1921-2021, a concert of music by four living African American composers, all of whom have made an indelible creative impression upon our diverse cultural landscape: Jessie Montgomery, Alice Coltrane, Adolphus Hailstork, and Trevor Weston

The streamed concert featured soloists mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, violinist Lady Jess (the stage name of Jessica McJunkins), harpist Ashley Jackson, the dance students of the Harlem School of the Arts (choreography by HSA dance chair Leyland Simmons), WQXR host and author Terrance McKnight, and conductor Amadi Azikiwe leading the Harlem Chamber Players.

Montgomery’s “Starburst” for string orchestra opens with a flourish that recalls the gestures of Ulysses Kay and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, both African American composers whose music and presence serve as guiding forces. In this brief work the seamless layers of rhythm and melody are imitated and interlocked in a fascinating web of shimmering beauty. Originally written as a string quartet in 2012 and recorded by the Catalyst Quartet (“Strum”: Music for Strings), In all instruments, intensely melodic writing darts around constantly within the ensemble, the rhythmic line halting slightly when natural or false harmonic sonorities are called upon with magical effect.  


Alice McLeod Coltrane

Prema (above) was written in 1964 for piano and orchestra by Alice McLeod, the jazz pianist, harpist and composer who would become the wife of legendary saxophonist John Coltrane and take his name. The work was recently arranged for harp by the evening’s soloist, Ashley Jackson, with Tom Cunningham, executive director of the Urban Playground Chamber Orchestra. This is one of precious few concert works featuring the harp that reach toward the jazz tradition through both stylistic integration and timbral conversation. The influence of John Coltrane’s mid-1960s music can be heard in the interplay between harp and chamber orchestra, quite the contrast to the standard harp concerto repertoire. The title Prema is derived from Sanskrit, meaning “pure love for the Divine.” It also has melodic touches of Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme within it, reflecting the increasing interest in Hindu mysticism and Eastern religion that marked both John and Alice’s life and music of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Adolphus Hailstork

Hailstork, who begins his eighth decade this year, has been composing with astonishing quality and quantity. He has produced no fewer than three transcendent works over the past five years: The World Called (2018) for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, whose setting declaimed the poetry of Rita Dove and memorialized Heather Heyer, the lone victim of the Charlottesville Riot of 2017; A Knee On The Neck (2020) for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which pays tribute to George Floyd; and the premiere of Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust) for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra. It sets the poetry of Herbert Woodward Martin on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in May 1921, when the thriving black economic community known as the Black Wall Street was burned to the ground, at least 300 African Americans were killed, and white Tulsa leaders and citizens orchestrated a cover-up followed by eight decades of silence. Below is the streamed premiere.

Tulsa 1921 (Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust), featuring the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges (above), opens with a cold and eerily distanced echo of the devastation of the violently destroyed neighborhood and black business district known as Greenwood. The body of the text speaks of a conversation among a present-day student of history, a survivor of the massacre, and one of the dead victims. Bridges sang with tragic and deeply moving expression throughout, beginning with a painful vocalise that at times resembled an agonized scream. A small measure of expressive relief emerged from the solo violin (concertmaster Ashley Horne) and solo cellist (Wayne Smith), telegraphing folklike blues fragments of melody. Rendering pity upon the ashes and dust in the context of Tulsa history is an invitation to a soiree of madness. The black Tulsans who struggled to create a legacy to pass on to their children were robbed in more ways than one can possibly imagine, their silence screaming through the text from a century ago, arriving with forceful eloquence.

Trevor Weston, composer of ‘The People Could Fly’

Weston’s The People Could Fly (2013) is based on an African American folk tale from the children’s book by Virginia Hamilton. It tells of a “stolen people from Africa”, enslaved and subjected to the merciless toil exacted upon “people who once had the ability to fly,” except for one old slave named Toby who remembered the old magic words that could enable and empower the slaves to fly again, starting with a slave woman named Sarah and her child. As the narrator tells the story, the solo violin embodies the spirits of the slaves, and the orchestra provides a musical personification of the defiant hope of the slave “to fly away.” The music of the closing clearly recalls folk dancing even to the sound of foot-stomping by the chamber orchestra as the spirit of dance embodies the slaves’ “flight of the soul.”

Dance students of the Harlem School of the Arts enacted Weston’s ‘The People Could Fly.’