Jazz Orchestra's concerts a tribute to Rosa Parks

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Singer Bobbi Townes (above) and Keith "Speak" Williams will join the Columbus Jazz Orchestra in the Suite Rosa concerts this weekend.

For Byron Stripling, it all came down to a simple, albeit funny-sounding, phrase -- "Don't forget to remember."

Thus, the Columbus Jazz Orchestra's Suite Rosa concerts this weekend at the Lincoln Theatre will be a tribute to Rosa Parks. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of this pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement.

"This is something that needed to be remembered, something to be celebrated," the CJO music director told The Beat.

"I just asked myself, 'What do other generations need to know?' "

Stripling started with the "music that served as a soundtrack for this movement" as a way to speak to Parks' legacy.

"Black people were trying to define themselves, and it was a struggle," Stripling said. "Music was a way to do that."

The Negro spiritual I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free serves as a core motif, appearing three times in the 90-minute program in three different settings.

In addition to the orchestra, Suite Rosa also includes dance, spoken word, a 20-voice choir and singer Bobbi Townes.

Indeed, this program could only be done by the CJO.

The dance piece, set to the song I Told Jesus, is choreographed by Alexis Wilson, who is Stripling's wife.

Her father, choreographer Billy Wilson, created the piece, which features two female dancers (one African-American and one Caucasian) and imagines the mental "dance" that might have gone on inside Parks' mind in the moments leading up to her decision to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955. (The piece concludes with a simple symbolism that The Beat won't give away.)

Choir leader Milt Ruffin is a musical institution in Columbus and beyond, a sought-after bassist and choir director/ arranger who also serves as an administrator at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center and on the faculty at Ohio State University.

Townes, singer for the Columbus band Fresh Wreckage, is also the daughter of CJO keyboardist Bobby Floyd. The duo will perform an intro to a full-band arrangement of How Great Thou Art.

Columbus spoken word artist Keith "Speak" Williams will perform Letters to Rosa, recurring throughout the program.

"In working with him, I suggested he write her letters and then read them to us," Stripling said. "To ask her about things we all want to know about, and to tell her 'Thank you.' "

The program also includes arrangements and a new composition by longtime CJO collaborator John Clayton.

For the finale, a last iteration of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, the entire "cast" will share the stage.




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