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Angel Bat Dawid's 'Requiem for Jazz' straddles African-American spirituals and "spiritual jazz"

Terrence Antonio James

When Edward O. Bland’s historic documentary The Cry of Jazz declares that “jazz is dead,” it’s not the first time — and far from the last — that the phrase was uttered. But this fascinating film does have the distinction of making its impassioned eulogy in 1959 — the landmark year that saw the release of pivotal albums like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, along with the recording of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Part verité study, part cinematic essay, part political manifesto, Bland’s half-hour film interweaves the history and practice of jazz with the long struggle for racial equality in America — railing against the ignorance and appropriation responsible for killing the expression of “joy and suffering” in Black music. It ultimately has more in common with Nicholas Payton and other exponents of Black American Music than it does the purist tendencies of the Moldy Figs. And it still has something to say to us today.

Angel Bat Dawid, the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer and educator, approaches the text of The Cry of Jazz as Holy Writ on her remarkable new album, Requiem for Jazz. The hour-long work combines dialogue from the film with elements of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. Pairing a four-voice choir with a host of exploratory Chicago musicians, Dawid crafts a piece that bridges the African American spiritual and so-called spiritual jazz.

From a modern vantage point, Bland’s film reaches conclusions that seem stunningly prescient, especially emanating from late-50s Chicago. “Jazz is dead because the Negro needs more room to tell his story,” it argues in voiceover, insisting that a total overhaul of “serious music” is in the offing. “Jazz is merely a faint glimpse of something with colossal power which is arising… The jazz body is dead, but the spirit of jazz is alive.”

Bland makes these assertions while illustrating the history of jazz with early performance footage of the Sun Ra Arkestra, intercut with glimpses of contemporary Black neighborhoods in Chicago. In less than a decade, the city would host the foundation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose mission encouraged the melding of jazz, folk, modern classical and avant-garde influences. Afrofuturism and “Ancient to the Future” both emerged from the very metropolis where The Cry of Jazz dug the music’s grave.

Dawid is part of a new category-annihilating generation of Windy City musicians carrying forward the adventurous mantle of those visionary forebears — improvising artists like Damon Locks and Ben LaMar Gay, with whom she has recorded. On Requiem for Jazz she underscores the prophetic qualities of Bland’s work, preaching the word of jazz’s body and spirit and channeling the spirit of Sun Ra. The suite is a vivid expression of that “joy and suffering,” with its vocalists — members of Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble — fluctuating between operatic profundity and harrowing moans.

Dawid’s music on Requiem for Jazz, pairing the choir with a 15-piece band, was recorded during a live premiere at the 2019 Hyde Park Jazz Festival. She then took that material and framed it with a series of interludes and overdubs — including new recordings of Arkestra leader Marshall Allen and percussionist Knoel Scott, whose voices now grace “My Rhapsody,” one of composer Paul Severson’s contributions to the film’s score.

That mashup is just one way that Dawid obliterates the barriers between past and present throughout this expansive work. At times, the music can sound like she’s working on the edge of a black hole, a boundary state where notions of place and time break down and reassemble in surprising configurations.

All at once, the musicians seem to inhabit the cathedral, the cotton field, the concert stage and the rocket ship. Robotic pronouncements from the future echo into work songs from an agonizing past. The mournful strings of a chamber quartet melt away under chattering electronic rhythms. Skittering hip-hop grooves undergird chopped and remixed deconstructions of cosmic acoustic jazz.

If Dawid takes Bland’s “faint glimpse of something with colossal power” as gospel truth, it may be mainly because she’s one apostle helping to bring that glimpsed future into a sharper, more vibrant focus.

Angel Bat Dawid's Requiem for Jazz is available now on International Anthem.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.