Roll over Duke Ellington
…Tell Mary Lou Williams the news, Chicago jazz star’s requiem has arrived. By Ben Thompson.
Angel Bat Dawid ★★★★ Requiem For Jazz INTERNATIONAL ANTHEM. CD/DL/LP
THE ALBUM trailed excitedly as “the record of my dreams” when Angel Bat Dawid spoke to MOJO in 2019 does indeed turn out to be a blockbuster. Taking her cues from dialogue and music in Edward O. Bland’s once-obscure but now available on YouTube 1959 film The Cry Of Jazz, she delivers an infectiously enraged 24-track meditation on the origins, provenance and unlimited scope of the music which has always refused to be constrained within the four walls of the four-letter word, jazz.
Live recordings of the Requiem’s premiere – a performance of this 12-movement suite for 15-piece instrumental ensemble and four-strong choir which Dawid conducted at Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival in 2019 – have been expanded by their composer/arranger with additional electronic beats, vocal interludes, and a climactic cameo from Sun Ra’s cosmic inheritors Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott contributing to what is, by any standards, one hell of a director’s cut. The music makes fearsome sense on its own, but a viewing of The Cry Of Jazz is recommended before listening – both as an experience in its own right, and as the context for what Angel Bat Dawid calls “a loving conversation that we need to have with each other”.
Bland’s remarkable half-hour film – exploring the connections between the balance of freedom and constraint in black American daily life and the history and structure of jazz – is framed by a dramatised debate between black jazz musicians and white jazz fans, a kind of Crimewatch reconstruction of cultural appropriation. The awkwardness of some of these exchanges may be of their time, but the underlying issues have lost none of their relevance more than 60 years later. A particular flashpoint is the question of jazz’s black American specificity – “Not only did they create jazz, they were the only ones who could have created jazz” – and it’s in making this case that the film’s characters say the words which are Angel Bat Dawid’s musical jumping-off points.
So the 12 stages of her sung liturgy are punctuated by a developing argument about the character and significance of jazz – Jazz Reflects The Improvised Life Thrust Upon The Negro… Because Jazz Is The One Element In American Life Where Whites Must Be Humble To The Negro, etc – and the challenge to which the music triumphantly rises is to be the physical embodiment of that point of view without the tail seeming to wag the dog. Stentorian and playful are the watchwords and Allen and Scott’s deus ex machina appearance at the end (“Sun Ra, thank you for being here today”) is a true mike drop moment in that connection: “This music isn’t notes on a page, this is how we’ve been surviving.”