In 1959, Ed Bland proclaimed the “death of jazz” in his groundbreaking film, The Cry of Jazz. Set in Chicago, the film arrived amid the rapid commercialization of Black music for white audiences, and heightening racial inequality. Reflecting on the film 60 years later, multifaceted performer, bandleader, and composer Angel Bat Dawid mused in a 2019 interview, “if jazz was declared dead, then why wasn’t there a funeral?”
Dawid was preparing for the premiere of her new work, A Requiem for Jazz, at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago. The title may seem like an unlikely choice for Dawid, who is deeply invested in the city’s avant-garde jazz scene. Instead, her Requiem assembled a “multigenerational ensemble” from her tight-knit musical network to remember, reflect, and re-envision the “spirit” of jazz anew.
In Requiem for Jazz (released March 24 on International Anthem), Dawid returns to the 2019 live performance with sharp skills as a producer, and as a sensitive interpreter of texts. Invoking the biblical passages that were reinterpreted by enslaved Africans in hush harbors, the album creates a remarkable call and response between Mozart’s Requiem and Bland’s The Cry of Jazz. In Christian traditions, requiems are imposing monumental objects that can overwhelm listeners. But the film is deeply dialogic; Black musicians debate the racial politics of jazz with white consumers, and narrate archival footage of mid-1900s Black social life, backed by jazz recordings.
Adapting lines from the film as the structure and text of her own Requiem, Dawid creates conversations between Black musical life and Afrofuturist remixes. The 12 Latin-titled tracks feature excerpts from the 2019 performance. Imagining the requiem as memory, these tracks trace the polyphonic lineage of Black musical traditions that influenced jazz up to the 1950s. Through 11 tracks titled with lines from the film, Dawid responds by remixing recordings from the live performance through her signature blend of live sampling, synths, voice, and clarinet. Invoking Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist musical practice (featured in the film’s soundtrack), Dawid uses these tracks to sound out possibilities for Afro-Diasporic music yet to come.
The opening tracks set up the dialogue with breathtakingly intimate ensemble playing and electronic responses. On “INTROIT-Joy n Suffrin,” Dawid intones “Jazz is the Music of Joy and Suffering.” A delay pedal spins her voice into an ethereal soundscape, giving way to a string quartet wearily repeating a short chord progression. Faltering melodies in the winds build slowly, and a chorus echoes Dawid’s words.
Tha Choruzz (Tramaine Parker, Monique Golding, Deacon Julian Otis Cooke, and Philip Armstrong) delivers exceptional performances throughout. On the “KYRIE-Joy n Suffrin,” they riff on the words “lord have mercy” in the tradition of spirituals, gospel, and R&B, stretching the words beyond their breaking point into haunting cries. Dawid’s electronically manipulated voice concludes, “this endless repetition is like a chain around the spirit.” The line is core to Bland’s thesis — that the form and changes of jazz only offer limited freedom. In reality, these creative constraints mirror the oppressive conditions of Black life in the U.S.
The arrangements on the ensuing tracks excel at using repetition to highlight points of tension in the text, which are rendered musically. In “DIAS IRE,” the chorus transforms the words “chain around the spirit” from a dirge to a powerful anthem, but the uplifting mood quickly turns to deep ambivalence. A mournful trumpet solo from Sam Thousand on “TUBA MIRUM” calls into question the lyrics “I know a change is gonna come.” And on “REX TREMENDAE,” bright gospel melodies and chord progressions are juxtaposed with the repeated lyrics “futureless future.”
Dawid’s arrangements and Nombuso Mathibela’s poetic liner notes make clear that oppressive anti-Black structures have changed little since 1959. But both also propose that Black musical life has strategies for disruption and surviving violence. “CONFUTATIS” explicitly names endless patterns of repression, which are interrupted by group improvisations. In her response, Dawid reminds the musicians that through music, “We made a memory of our past with the promise of our future.” She adds, “Guess what, I wasn’t born in 1959… Everyone on this stage is the promise.”
Dawid uses the most solemn moments of the requiem to hold white people accountable for structural oppression. In “OFFERTURIUM,” the chorus chimes that “jazz is the one element in American life where whites must be humble to the negro,” over a whitewashed boogie-woogie accompaniment. A lush orchestral texture in “SANCTUS” underscores the chorus’ observation that whites must pay their debt to become human. The “AGNUS DEI” then triumphantly announces, “The body of jazz is dead, but the spirit of jazz is alive.”
The album’s ending turns simultaneously to the past and future to build community. Solos from Marshall Allen and Knoel Scott on “LUX AETERNA” convene with the past, paying homage to the legacy of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Dawid invites the entire community to let out a musical exhalation for her student in “Long Tone for Rayna Golding” so that, as Dawid says, “our future can be bright.”
Sixty years after Bland’s film, Dawid’s pluralistic Requiem for Jazz is a poignant reminder that genre labels fail to convey the depth of Black musical life. The film leaves open the question about the future of the “spirit” of jazz, but Dawid’s Requiem reminds listeners that the spirit of jazz is inextricably linked to community. Through arresting performances, profound poetry, and a world-renewing musical vision, the album implores listeners to remember the past while breathing life into the future.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.
You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.
Leave a Reply