Saxophonist and Kent State University music teacher Chris Coles has spent the past two years creating a performance piece that he hopes will raise awareness about racial injustice. Nine Lives Project tells the story of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. Coles says it was a turning point in his life.
Compelled to act
"After hearing about it, I was kinda hurt," Coles said. "It was, to me, very historically significant in the sense that it's the first attack in my lifetime where you see a legitimately racially-charged thing. I thought we were past that. I just felt compelled to write something."
Coles said he decided to begin by writing a tone poem. "I tried to imagine myself at a church service and see all of this happen. A man come in. He prays with the people. He opens fire. So I tried to envision this in real time."
Expanding Nine Lives
Coles first performed Nine Lives in 2015 as a workshop at the Bop Stop in Cleveland. Then later that year he gave a 15-minute performance of the tone poem at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada.
"The director of that program said I should write a grant for this," Coles said. In 2017, Coles was awarded a Knight Arts Challenge grant and received $45,000. He raised another $40,000 to turn the poem into a 40 minute performance piece.
Coles collaborated with other artists to turn Nine Lives into a four-movement suite.
He wrote the first piece with Akron-area composer and bandleader Sam Blakeslee. Then he worked with animator Hannah Taddeo on the second movement, which Coles said, "depicts the story of the Charleston church shooting in a little bit of an abstract movement." The third movement is a dance component choreographed by Kent State University instructor Gregory King. "He brought in an Elevated hip-hop group." The fourth movement features emcee Jul Big Green who will perform spoken word.
Coles also assembled some of the area's most notable jazz musicians to record the music, including pianist Theron Brown, trombonist Christopher Anderson, trumpeter Tommy Lehman, bassist Dave Morgan, Bobby Selvaggio on alto sax and Zaire Darden on drums. Coles plays tenor sax. Emily Laycock performs vocals.
Evoking a change of thought
Nine Lives Project debuts Saturday, Aug. 24 at the Rubber City Jazz & Blues Festival. He hopes it inspires change.
"What I hope happens is that we think about these people and we remember them, and not just every year that it happens. But that we take them with us and that changes how we think. These people have been with me this entire piece. I've been thinking about them and what I can do to be better. And I'm not saying that I've done it. But I at least want people to leave thinking, 'Man maybe I should change up how I'm thinking about this.' And it can start in Akron, right here."
Coles has been releasing weekly videos on the project's Facebook page called "Reflection Wednesday," where he asks a question about race and social injustice in the United States.
As part of the Knight Arts grant, Coles said he will be scheduling a public performance of the project and hosting a master class, likely with Boys & Girls Clubs of the Western Reserve in Akron. And he said audio and video recordings are in the works. He plans to donate the proceeds to an Akron charity and to the Emanuel AME Church.