“I was drowning in unfamiliar activities and sounds,” Melba Pattillo Beals writes in the fourth chapter of her memoir “Warriors Don’t Cry,” “the sound of the constantly ringing telephone, of people talking loud in my ear and expressing their views about integration, of reporters’ urgent voices about what integration might do to the city and to the South.” It’s Beals’ memories of cacophony and chaos that dominate this chapter of her life — the one where she walked into Central High School and became one of the Little Rock Nine.
That memoir, and the tumult therein, inspired a 60-minute jazz suite called “No Tears,” commissioned by the Oxford American. The suite is a nimble blend of spoken word, jazz vocals and a score for a small orchestra that combines composition and improvisation. Musically, the suite marries triumph and tumult; Pattillo Beals was, after all, not only at the epicenter of colliding worlds — the segregationist South colliding with a nationwide call for school integration, federal government colliding with state government — but she was also experiencing it as a young adult, and Chris Parker’s score uses that sprawling range of emotion and character. There are moments carved out for majestic orchestral statements, but also for wailing sax solos and oboe/cello duets and, of course, room for Parker and vocalist Kelley Hurt to work their own magic.
Originally performed as a septet in 2017 near Little Rock’s historic Magnolia Mobil Gas Station during a series of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School, the suite has since been been outfitted with orchestral parts by revered jazz bassist Rufus Reid, and this recording features Grammy Award-winning drummer Brian Blade, bassist Bill Huntington, trumpeter Marc Franklin and saxophonists Bobby LaVell and Chad Fowler. It’s being released as an album on Sept. 25, which you can pre-order here. A 2019 performance of the piece with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra will be released the same day as a free bonus album.
And, on Sept. 23, Parker and Hurt perform at Oxford American’s Landmark Series, previewing selections from the “No Tears Suite,” and to be accompanied by a discussion with Pattillo Beals about the connections between the music and her words. Register for the virtual concert and discussion here, which is sponsored by the Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative, the National Park Service, Central High National Historic Site and Philander Smith College.