Early this year, clarinetist-vocalist-composer Angel Bat Dawid’s debut album The Oracle hit the creative music scene with the impact of a meteor; landing as a lesson and an invocation of something greater. I don’t remember the last time I felt such a deeply personal, visceral connection with a record that so beguiled and eluded my grasp. She brings her band, Tha Brothahood, to the Wexner Center on Thursday, October 10th (tickets available here). I had the privilege of speaking with Bat Dawid over Skype; that conversation (edited and condensed) is below along with performance videos and the film she mentions in our discussion.
Angel Bat Dawid gifted us all with this finely drawn portrait of where she’s been and where she’s going; placing herself in the great black music tradition of Chicago’s arts community but settling for no less than every possiblity the future can offer. I’m not alone in that estimation. Shannon Effinger for Pitchfork called The Oracle, “a vast, immersive aural exploration of black experiences.” Hank Shteamer in Rolling Stone wrote about her “sensitivity and compassion.” And the accolades pile up from there.
Angel Bat Dawid’s infectious enthusiasm radiated through the phone. My first question was how she arrived at making her first statement to the world a purely solo album, with one guest appearance. She said, “It wasn’t supposed to be an album. Scotty [McNiece, co-founder of Chicago label International Anthem] said, ‘Angel, I really like what you’re doing. I’d like to do an album. What’ve you got?’ I had nothing. Except since I can remember I’ve always recorded myself. It’s completely serendipitous that [an edition of The Oracle] came on cassette because since I was a little girl I always recorded myself with little tape players around the house. And I was always doing stuff like that, overdubbing, and then I got into hip-hop production in the 2000s – learned a lot about mixing and mastering because I could never pay anyone to do it.”
Those tapes weren’t just references for her, they spoke to her commitment to her community and the inclusive nature of music in her role as co-founder of Chicago’s Participatory Music Coalition. “We like to jam and play music together. [The collective] was really transformational – we were becoming better musicians. I was composing a lot of new stuff; [the coalition includes] people who are really advanced musicians, who know how to read or write music, and we have musicians who are just as advanced but they don’t read music. I wanted both people to be comfortable. For those who could read, I had the charts; for those who couldn’t, I would just record all the voices, you know?”
Those recordings became The Oracle’s heart. “I sent Scotty a bunch of [these tapes] I had and [he and his partner] were like, these are cool. And then there’s only one or two songs that I specifically wrote for the album which was the [title track] and the last song, and ‘Impepho.’ Those were just me in my studio and I just got inspired and started playing.”
Her sense of always recording, always documenting, means The Oracle serves as a travelogue of Bat Dawid’s journeys. South African Asher Simiso Gamedze is the only featured artist on this record, on the sprawling, hypnotic “Capetown.” She said, “I recorded it in Capetown with a voice memo on my iPhone. Like, Angel, make sure you record this. I was in South Africa and I’d literally just met him like 30 minutes before. It was a very important journey. Something told me to go, I didn’t know a soul but I asked some people who had been there if they knew anybody I could, you know, just link up with and he was one of them. We met up at a coffee shop and like 20 minutes later he said, ‘You wanna come back to my place and jam?’ I’m like, yes, definitely. We went back to his house, I just pressed record and the rest is history.”
Angel Bat Dawid also recorded “London” in its namesake locale but its roots grow even closer to home. “In 2017, [International Anthem] did this show in London: Chicago meets London, an exchange. There’s a huge, great thing that’s happening in Chicago; the same thing is happening in London. All these amazing new, young artists are putting out these really great jazz albums. They linked up and it was around my birthday time.
“Like I told you, Scotty is my friend first and foremost, and a bunch of the artists on International Anthem are my homies. So I was like, Wait a minute. My homies are about to be in London. It’s around my birthday and live. And also the Art Ensemble of Chicago was gonna be performing. On my birthday. In London. I was like, I think I need to make a trip down. I wasn’t there to perform and nobody [outside of my friends] even knew me.”
These friends on the London bill included rising stars like Ben Lamar Gay and Jaimie Branch. “We know [each other] because, like, you’re all performing in Chicago together; we see each other. When I told Ben, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to see y’all on Monday for my birthday.’ He was like, ‘Are you gonna bring an instrument?’ Of course I am. I’m gonna play somewhere, [even if it’s] under a tree or something. I always bring my clarinet with me. And he was like, ‘Oh yeah? You wanna play on my set?’”
Chuckling at the serendipity, she said, “I’m like, What? And then literally maybe two minutes later, Jaimie Branch walks into the bar. This is my first time meeting her and I’m such an admirer of her work. And she was like, ‘You play clarinet; you want to play on my set?’ I was like, ‘Are you for real?’ This is the best birthday ever.”
“And when I was in London it was such a phenomenal show; I had such a good time. I met all the young jazz musicians and, like, they were doing it. They were so awesome. I was staying at this AirBNB, and let me tell you my life is all about serendipity because the house had a piano. The next day, after all the shows I went to, I was super, super inspired. I went to a little music store and [bought] some composition paper. I went on the piano and then I just recorded that on my phone again.”
Unlike most of the tunes on the record, this composition didn’t immediately hit the bandstand. “It just sat there and I didn’t even show that piece to anyone [until putting together The Oracle]. I just really liked it for myself. Whenever I heard [the piece], it reminded me of what a special time I had there. Even when I hear ‘London’ right now, my heart just melts.”
Angel Bat Dawid’s origin as a clarinet player goes back to seeing Amadeus with her Dad as a child. “I remember it vividly; I remember the scene where Mozart was a little boy and he would play a violin and piano. I was like, all white kids could do that; I want to do it. When I was about eleven and my family and I lived in Africa. We came back from Africa, and I wanted piano lessons really bad. And then I went to school; I want to learn violin but the orchestra was filled up. They were like, Well, here’s a clarinet. I don’t want to play this! It just looked goofy, you know? I’m a kid, I want to play a cool instrument.
“I went to the library – there was no YouTube – and all I could find was, like, Benny Goodman. [At the time,] I was like, This is a corny white man. [Then] I found Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. And when I heard it I was like, Oh, I didn’t know the clarinet could do all of that. And I got obsessed. I listened to this tape. I listened to it when I went to bed. I listened to it when I woke up in the morning. I don’t think I ever [returned it to the library], I think I just kept it. Then I got the sheet music and I would play to it. I got obsessed with it and I learned a lot from it. I got it. I improved greatly.”
The animating incident in Angel Ellmore becoming Angel Bat Dawid came at the end of her rope in a mind-numbing day job. She cashed in her 401k and paid rent for a year on a coach house. She said, “I’m just gonna use all these savings, all I’ve got, for a year. If I fall on my ass, well, then I’ll just get another job. That was my whole logic and it was during that year that I started going to these jam sessions in the city; there was a free jazz jam session with really amazing musicians [hosted by] David Boykin every Sunday. Now that I had all this time I went every Sunday.
“That’s where I learned how to play free music. I was classically trained; I can read really well but I always had like a kind of complex about that. I did feel like a real musician because I couldn’t just play – I couldn’t just improvise. And so I didn’t really feel whole until I started going to these free jazz jam sessions.”
David Boykin also provided Bat Dawid’s first exposure to the towering Chicago institution, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), of which he’s one of the most prominent current members. We spoke about George Lewis’ essential history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself.
“[The book] changed my life when I read it. I remember reading it in a coffee shop somewhere. I remember closing the book and I was like I know exactly what to do. I was just so inspired. And then, of course, that’s where I learned all the people that they were talking about. Come to find out, a lot of them were in town. Like, Oh, I’m gonna go to their show, and you know that’s that.”
The AACM blazed a guiding model for her work in the Participatory Music Collective and also opened a door for direct encouragement from one of the much-missed giants in the field. “That year, Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams [founding AACM members] were performing here in Chicago at the MCA. I was like, I want them to sign my book.
“I went up to Muhal; he doesn’t know me. He knows I’m a musician but nothing about me. And I told I said thank you; I appreciate you. He signed [the book] for me and as he was signing it he looked at me. He said, ‘If you take care of the music, it will take care of you.’ He was pointing at me, [looking at] me in the eyes. I was like, did the sensei just drop me some knowledge? Did this just happen in my life? And that really is what happened.
“The way I take care of [the music] is making sure that I practice and rehearse and make new compositions and tell people about AACM. I trusted and believed Muhal because he has an amazing legacy. If a bum off the street told me, maybe I could be skeptical, but when I looked at his life I was like I can believe this man. Look at the legacy he left. He’s right.”
The spiritual element is key in much of the AACM’s precursor work and is vitally important to Angel Bat Dawid. She said, “Each song on the album is spiritual,” and expanded, “Black music is all spiritual. Lots of people don’t understand that. No such thing as non-spiritual black music.”
“There’s a great book by Amiri Baraka [as Leroi Jones], Black Music. I think everyone in the world should read this,” an opinion shared by the writer of this article. “He talks about Pharaoh Sanders as spiritual music. So yes, there is a highly spiritual element to my music. I can’t help it, because I’m black. I’m a black woman, you know. And this music is black music. Black people created jazz.”
“I can still debate about this word jazz and it’s actually black traditional classical music. America’s only true art form. Many people of many ethnicities can play this but can’t play it at the same time, because you can’t play jazz without acknowledging that this music is a reflection of a certain thing that happened to my people. If those circumstances hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t have this art form.”
Those truths about the origin of jazz also inspired her project for the Hyde Park Jazz Festival in her native south side of Chicago. “I wrote a Requiem which is gonna premiere in two weeks [after we spoke]. It’s a requiem for jazz.”
Touching on other inspirations for this requiem, she drew my attention to Ed Bland’s powerful 1959 film The Cry Of Jazz which I’d never seen, the YouTube is linked below. “It was filmed in 1959 in Chicago with an integrated cast. They’re all friends and after a concert, these two white characters talk about rock and roll. And then the brother comes and he’s like, ‘No, let me break it down to you what jazz really is.’ The most controversial part of the movie is that halfway through the film he says jazz is dead. He says jazz is dead in 1959! So in response to this very important film that my father introduced me to years ago: What is ‘jazz is dead’ and why wasn’t there a funeral?”
That question opened up broader sociological implications. “We need to talk about it. When I quit my job and went to the jazz scene, [I noticed] I was looking around [at all] these free jazz things and I do not see anybody that looks like me. I don’t see any black people in the audience and I’m not seeing any black people playing this music. That is a problem.
“That’s why I got really deep into it: if we’re gonna be playing all this great black music and jazz and everything, there needs to be black people playing it.
“I asked myself why [the situation] is that? Some people say, well, black people don’t support each other. That’s a lie. That’s a lie. Black people love live music, whether it’s rock, whether it’s gospel, whether it’s anything. If someone is on stage playing something, black folk love that. So I knew that wasn’t it. What I got was, OK, I think it has a lot to do with education.”
“Being a black person there are things that we think about constantly. Someone who isn’t black doesn’t have to think about this, we still do. You know, there’s people, of course there’s racism and bigotry, there’s people like that. But the majority of people are just by default in an internalized system of racism – they don’t even realize they’re in it because then you don’t have to think about certain things that I have to care about. Like when I walk into a room, I go somewhere and I don’t see anybody like me. That’s the first thing I think about. Or you’re just [oblivious to] a whole bunch of stuff that we think about when you talk about this music that comes from black people.
“And then you go to a conservatory that’s teaching music that comes from black people. You don’t have any black voices teaching it. That’s a problem and that’s why the music sounds like it. It sounds good. And they are great at playing all the notes but it’s not the notes that make something ‘jazz’. It’s the spirit that came from spirituals.
“[The ancestors] knew that this was something deeper and we knew this was taking you out of your consciousness. We knew it was deeper, and we knew that if we go into those songs, we can escape any oppression. There is still oppression up north right now. These spirituals, that’s where you get gospel, that’s where you get blues, that’s where you get jazz, that’s where you get hip hop; that’s where you get all these black forms of music that run the world now. All because people in their time of oppression went and started singing and doing music.”
She expanded on the stacked decks of the stratified jazz education system. “[We need to investigate] where people are learning to play this music, who’s teaching it, and who’s saying what it is and what it’s not. We need to clear it up. We need to start having [this conversation] because this debate still exists from 1959. 60 years ago! It’s still on the table. Sixty years later things still are not right. If things were right I would shut up about all this but they still are not right. The only way to get things right is have this discussion, put it in our face. This is not a discussion to make people feel bad; that’s egotistical. It’s about the fact that 50 years later this is still not balanced. Something is not right. Let’s fix it.”
The brilliant tunes from The Oracle will be in full force at the Wexner Center as will her sense of communion with her fellow players. Every member of the five piece band is a multi-instrumentalist she raved about. This is a show not to be missed.
For the only (so far) announced jazz or jazz-adjacent show from the Wexner Center in the 2019-2020 season, this delivers massively on the promise of the new team and extends the proud tradition of breaking wild, new, important voices in that space. Angel Bat Dawid also provided a playlist to the Wex in advance of the show, listen to it here.