Oree's 'Never Back Down' jazz opera explores 1851 Christiana

Despite a keen interest in African American history, Warren Oree had never heard of the violent standoff that came to be known as the Christiana riot. Then Oree came upon a two-sentence summary of the 1851 confrontation, which involved three escaped slaves, a strong-willed free black man, and a slave owner intent on retrieving his property. That was enough to spark the bassist/composer's curiosity.

"I don't knock the Underground Railroad," Oree says, "but for too long African Americans have been pictured as either running away or cowering, and that's not a true picture. You had many instances of slave revolt and rebellion that have been swept under the rug for various reasons. So when I heard about the Christiana resistance, I thought, 'Man, I've got to write about this.' And I figured I'd do it in a way that can be entertaining, a little different, and informative."

The result is Never Back Down, a jazz opera that premiered in July 2009 at Philadelphia's historic Cliveden house. Oree, a 62-year-old city native, wrote the piece under a grant from the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. as part of its Quest for Freedom program promoting the city's Underground Railroad history.

At just more than an hour, Never Back Down is performed in a concert setting, allowing a balance between the jazz and operatic components. Beyond performing their parts, singers are called on to engage with the instrumental soloists.

"I put the structure of jazz first and put opera on top of that," Oree says, "as opposed to trying to put jazz on top of the operatic structure. I'm keeping it minimal. I asked the actors to dress all in black so the audience can hopefully fill in the blanks and visualize what they would have looked like in 1851."

Never Back Down will have its second performance Sunday at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, funded in part by a grant from the William King Foundation. In addition to an expanded version of the opera, the event will feature performances by the Clef Club Youth Ensemble and four area poets whom Oree commissioned to pen works exploring the theme of slave resistance.

Four singers will portray the key characters in the tale, which played out in Christiana, Lancaster County, on Sept. 11, 1851 - 150 years to the day before another historic U.S. tragedy. While the Christiana riot did not alter the national landscape to the same extent as the 9/11 attacks, the event prefigured the Civil War, with tensions erupting between African Americans striving for freedom and landowners contending to maintain the status quo.

(Although Pennsylvania nominally became a free state in 1780, about 6,000 slaves remained, and by law their children, even if born in the state, could be slaves until age 28. Although Christiana was north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the uprising, and the death of slave owner Edward Gorsuch, angered Southern landowners, who called for the hanging of those responsible.)

"It started out as a small, local case," says Leslie Simon, operations director at the National Archives at Philadelphia, who aided Oree in his research. "But it became very widely known and served as a rallying cry. It stirred up all sorts of emotions and became polarizing."

A year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law mandating the return of runaway slaves to their owners, Gorsuch, a Baltimore planter, arrived on the doorstep of William Parker, a freed slave who had become a conductor on the Underground Railroad and organized groups to fight off slave hunters in the region. Gorsuch, leading a party of armed men, was seeking the return of three runaway slaves. The ensuing clash left him dead and his son wounded.

Roy Richardson sings the part of Parker. "He was a fighter, first of all," Richardson says. "He had all the qualities of a natural leader. He stood up for himself no matter what the cost, so it's a very strong image that needs to be portrayed. It's a lot to live up to."

It's no surprise that Oree found some resonance in the story of Parker and the Christiana riot. A born leader of sorts himself, Oree came to music relatively late in life after a troubled youth. He formed his signature group, the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble, in 1979; it remains the core of his every musical endeavor.

Supplemented by additional horns, violin, and piano, the quintet (Oree, saxophonist Umar Raheem, percussionist Doug "Pablow" Edwards, guitarist Frank Butrey, and drummer Greg "Ju Ju" Jones, a member since the beginning) serves as the band for the opera. Expanded even further, it becomes the Philadelphia Freedom Jazz Orchestra, Oree's big band, which will perform Friday night at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pared down to just Oree, Raheem, and Jones, it becomes the Arpeggio Jazz Trio, which will perform May 13 as part of the monthly Lucky Old Souls series at Moonstone Arts Center.

The Philadelphia Freedom Jazz Orchestra made its debut at last year's West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, for which Oree has served as artistic director throughout its eight years. (This year, it is scheduled June 17 to 19.)

"That was a dream of mine for a long time," Oree says of the big band. "So, as I do sometimes, I put the orchestra together impulsively. The name has a double meaning, referring to the whole Philly freedom thing but also the fact that I wanted the musicians to have freedom. I handpicked courageous, crazy cats who aren't scared to step off the charts and make their statement."

No matter the context, one constant when Oree takes the stage is a dynamic engagement with his audience. That may involve simply relating the story behind a piece of music, taking suggestions from the crowd for a bit of spontaneous composition, or, in the case of Never Back Down, encouraging audience members to place themselves in the characters' situation. Regardless of subject - even one as difficult as slavery - he sees music as a powerful means of communication.

"Music seems to have the power to help people retain," he says. "A perfect example is rap music. You have kids who can't remember two times two, but they will quote everything that Biggie Smalls or Nas or Lil Wayne is saying and can talk about it. So it's easier to listen to history with a musical accompaniment as opposed to someone just yapping. Throughout the years, music has been shown to be a powerful force for change. People make war or love with music."

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