The Columbus Jazz Orchestra’s multidisciplinary tribute to the mother of the Civil Rights movement, Rosa Parks, unintentionally piggybacks on the profundity of this past week, when America celebrated the second swearing in of its first Black president on the same day it honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The bravery and grace of Parks, “Suite Rosa” seems to say, is enough to carry a thousand tributes to her life, regardless of current affairs; however, a musical program rooted in a memory of a non-musician presented a unique challenge: What kind of music does such a program include?
“This is a little different for us because we usually honor another musician or a style of music if we do a tribute concert,” said CJO artistic director and conductor Byron Stripling. “The [image] of Rosa Parks is this little lady who had the courage and dignity to sit down on a bus. How did this woman get that kind of courage?”
“Suite Rosa” explores that question through music, dance and poetry.
Spoken word artist Speak Williams reads a letter he wrote to Parks; a 20-member choir joins the orchestra for African spirituals; a re-writing of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” by renowned jazz composer John Clayton weaves its way through the orchestra’s performance; and a short ballet, re-staged by Stripling’s wife and the original choreographer’s daughter, Alexis Wilson, is danced by two women of different races (one of whom is Rosa) trying to ride a segregated bus.
“I learned that I need to pay more attention to that feminine part of [Rosa Parks],” Stripling said of what curating “Suite Rosa” has taught him. “I need to learn that her femininity was a strength, and I can learn more from the women in my life.”
Bobbi Townes, singer
Speak Williams, spoken word artist
John Clayton, composer
Alexis Wilson, choreographer