Angel Bat Dawid grew up in a strict Christian, but musical family. She started playing the clarinet, but music always came second. When life was bothering her the most, she withdrew her savings from the bank. She traveled around for a year as a full-time musician and made one of the most idiosyncratic jazz records of the year - on her iPhone. Her debut The Oracle is a tribute to the city of Chicago and spirituality in black music.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Angel Elmore (aka Angel Bat Dawid) grows up with strict parents, but it’s pretty much written in the stars that she'll develop an intense love for music. In fact, the fact that her parents don't allow her to play outside only plays into her hands. Because indoors, Dawid soaks up all the music her father plays. “And that was the best of the best,” she laughs, on the phone from Chicago. “Funk, gospel, rap and rock, all from the sixties and seventies.” As a result, Elmore listens to Funkadelic as a child and sees Sun Ra's film Space Is the Place when she’s only thirteen. “I used to secretly take CDs from his room and forget to put them back. Then I’d hear him yell, 'Where's my Stevie Wonder?'”
Her father is also a pastor, just like his father before him. His friends and colleagues often come over to read the Bible and sing together. “The black pastor is quite different from the white one. “You know that scene in Blues Brothers where James Brown leads a church service? That's pretty much how it was at our house. I thought my father's friends were celebrities. The Temptations or something.”
It is also her father who ensures that Angel wants to take matters into his own hands early on. At the age of five, he takes her to Amadeus, the musical drama film about Mozart's life and death. “If you want to get to know Mozart, you should watch that film: all of his best work is in it. I even have the soundtrack on vinyl.” The scene that particularly impresses her was one in which Mozart is blindfolded by his father and then plays the harpsichord flawlessly. The future star composer is about the same age as Angel in the cinema at the time. “I didn't know that kids could make music too! Since that moment I wanted to know everything there is to know about music.” Elmore starts on the clarinet, although she doesn't quite know why. The only example she has is fellow townsman Benny Goodman. "But as a 12-year-old trying to be cool, being like a corny white dude isn't necessarily inspiring." Secretly, she much prefers to play the violin, as she has seen in Fiddler on the Roof. In the end she finds a cassette in the library (“there was no YouTube yet”) that makes her embrace the instrument: Mozart's clarinet concerto.
“It's actually quite ironic that I'm so influenced by the largely white world of classical music while being so militant about my own blackness,” Elmore muses years later. “When I started to progress in that world, I was suddenly the only black girl. I played music that black people usually don't play, which was quite a challenge. It often felt like I was too black for the white world and too white for the black world. In the US, the distinction between the two is still very sharp, while I was just someone who fell between the two. As a teenager, I listened to Nirvana, The Doors and Led Zeppelin, as well as Tupac, The Beatles and classical.” Only jazz, that took quite a while. Elmore has only really understood it for about five years, she thinks. Sure, she'd heard of John Coltrane and his associates, but otherwise she found the genre rather intimidating up until recently. She only gets to know the real stuff when she starts working in a record store. “I listened to albums from black jazz labels, five days a week, nine hours a day,” she recalls.
Jazz takes Elmore to a new phase in her musical existence. She can already play and read every classical piece, but she is unable to write something herself. On a regular jazz evening, she is invited to play along and is given a tip about a software program to make music. It’s the early 2000s, so it is not very extensive yet. But still: Elmore can get started with it. “I listened to my favorite hip-hop songs and recorded their bass lines in the program, much like a classical composer would.” Another strategy that Elmore often uses: play along with her favorite records until an original idea arises. She used to do it with Mozart, from then on with Coltrane and Sun Ra. “An album is like a library to me,” she explains, “where legends have left their lessons so that we can listen to them and learn from them. It is the best university imaginable. Why pay a lot of money to learn from someone who probably doesn't know nearly as much as John Coltrane?"
Elmore initially attends classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago when life starts to get to her. She has to deal with a brain tumor that eventually has to be surgically removed. In order to pay the bills, she is forced to take a better-paying job in a chic lingerie store. Music comes second again. “I had to spend all my time growing up,” she says. “It was depressing. Everything I had invested in in my youth was suddenly pushed into the background. Relatives wondered if I was still making music at all.”
The turning point takes place in 2012, when Elmore joins a group of psychics in Chicago. With them, she takes a trip to Mexico. “I had such a good time there and I found so much clarity. Maybe it was because I was out of the country for a while, but I thought: I can't come home and then continue in the same way. That is simply unacceptable.” Back in the Windy City, jam sessions with a friend lift Elmore out of her depression. She decides to quit her job and to try to be a full-time musician for a year, with the money she has saved in a pension fund. She finds a small house on the shore of Lake Michigan, where her neighbours live so far away that she can make music all day without any problems. She immediately pays her rent for a year and begins working on what would eventually become The Oracle. “Everything was open again from that moment on. That's why I take every opportunity now to encourage everyone in the world: do what you love. Of course I sacrificed things too. When was the last time I went shopping? No idea, but it doesn't matter. When I had a good job, I was still unhappy. Now I have less stuff, but I can do what I want.”
Elmore also uses her savings that year to travel around. On The Oracle, for example, she refers to trips to London – where the jazz scene is currently at least as vibrant as in Chicago – and Cape Town, where she improvises with South African drummer Asher Simiso Gamedze. “I'm very used to being abroad,” she says. “My father always took us on missionary work, so I was abroad a lot from a young age. If there’s an opportunity to go somehwere, I've already packed my bags." Two hours after meeting Gamedze, Elmore is already at the drummer's house. Their fifteen-minute jam session ends up in full on her album as 'Cape Town'. “I just recorded it with my iPhone, but that track just had to be on the record, that's how important that day felt to us. Shortly after we recorded that jam, Asher emailed me explaining why: we're two musicians who are outside the system, but who know there's something inside of us that we need to share with the world. Not in an arrogant way, but we just know that.”
“I also wanted to put that jam on there to encourage people to get together with their friends and make music. You don't have to be a musician for that: you can just sing together, like we used to do when there was no television. Now that there is so much technology that makes us individualistic, we have to look much more specifically for moments of humanity.”
Elmore finds those moments especially with The Brotherhood, the seven-piece collective that functions as her band. The group is the result of a carefully conducted search, Elmore explains. “Another thing I learned from an album: In the Soul Box liner notes, Grover Washington Jr. explains how to put together an ensemble. The most important thing is that people get along well. Only then do you look at the bond they have with the music and only then at their technical qualities. So if you know a jazz cat who can play anything, but has a fucked up personality, it's not going to work." Elmore meets most of her bandmates at free jazz jam sessions hosted on Sundays in Chicago by multi-instrumentalist David Boykin. “I wasn't very much into free jazz at all, but he encouraged me to just play something. That really opened a door for me.”
Angel Bat Dawid now pays tribute to Chicago with The Brotherhood. To the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), for example, a group of older musicians who play progressive music a stone's throw from Elmore's home. Completely outside the mainstream, on its own. Pretty much the entire Brotherhood is devouring the book George Lewis (a member of AACM since 1971) wrote about the collective. “That's why we wanted to be more than a band, form a kind of coalition: the Participatory Music Coalition. A lot of music is now presentational: there is a stage and an audience. Our music is different, it comes from much older and darker forms of music. Look again at the black church service. If a pastor there says something that you like, then you can simply praise amen loudly. It's the same with our music. Spirituality does not have to be performed in silence.”
The Brotherhood regularly visit shows by members of the Association during that period. After one of those shows, Elmore approaches pianist Muhal Richard Abrahms with her book to ask for an autograph. “He taught me a lesson that I now pass on to everyone I speak to. He looked into my eyes and said: ‘If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.’ And I believe him, just look at him. He passed away in 2017, but has lived a long and wonderful life.”
In any case, relatively young musicians such as Elmore in Chicago learn a lot from established jazz musicians. There is a high degree of solidarity, also between jazz musicians and colleagues from other genres. The Oracle, for example, shows a kinship with the work of R&B newcomer Noname, while the autotune on opener 'Destination' is strongly reminiscent of just about the most famous musician associated with the city: Kanye West. “It's all just great black music,” explains Elmore. “The blackness of Chicagoan musicians manifests itself not only in the colour of our skin, but also in a certain style, based on the traumatic history we carry on our shoulders. Black people have always had to look for ways to express themselves under restrictive circumstances. That happens in the black church, but also in hip-hop, for example. It just arose from a group of young people who had the need to make music, but did not have the means to buy instruments and therefore had to make do with records on turntables.”
“It makes people uncomfortable when black people express themselves,” she continues. “Of course Kanye West is an excellent example in that regard. People love what he says so much that it's less and less about how progressive an album like Yeezus is. Chicago has something that fuels improvisation and experimentation in artists.”
Another Chicago figure who plays a central role on The Oracle is Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a visual artist and poet who passed away in 2010 at the age of 95. Elmore was inspired by her poem 'What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black', a rendition of which is one of the poignant highlights of her debut. “We were playing at a kind of festival that paid tribute to her, so I wanted to do something special. Then I came across that poem. In the original version, I read it all out loud, but it's very long, so I put it on the album in sort of canon form." Elmore wrote the closing track of that album in the backyard of Burroughs' old house, where she had sneaked inside. “It's just down the street from my house. Nobody lives there now, just some raccoons. But the house has so much history. People like Langston Hughes (poet, writer and social activist, ed.) and Gwendolyn Brooks (poet, writer and teacher, ed.) came over there. I just sat in the garden and meditated for a while. When I got back home I wrote 'The Oracle', in a kind of trance. I know people often talk about spiritual jazz. That's crazy to me: all jazz – and actually all black music – is spiritual. Hip-hop as well. I don't know what spirit it comes from, but we're all doing something beyond our consciousness."
While Burroughs' spirit is present in the album's closing track, the record opens with a reference to another scholar: Dr. Yussef Lateef. Whether it's his album The Centaur and the Phoenix, his composition book The Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns ("it contains a very nice diagram by John Coltrane!") or his science fiction novel A Night in the Garden of Love: Elmore has developed a true obsession with him. “The poem I used, 'Destination', is from the book Spheres. It is about something very deep: your last feeling, your destiny.”
Angel Elmore seems to have at least partly reached her destination with The Oracle. It's an album that's full of big ideas about music and segregation in American society, but it's also a very concrete example of the ways in which music can improve one's life. “It was hard work, you know. I'm not a natural, but I still practice every day and had to be strong when I wanted to write and mix this album on my own. At the same time, I feel blessed to live in a time where I can just be myself. Angel, a black woman. By being myself, I hope to be able to inspire other people to be themselves as well.”
The idea of contributing to someone else's life plays an important role in The Oracle, concludes Elmore. “After the album was finished, I listened to it a lot on the south side of Chicago, which is almost completely black. You see black families, black people who have problems with crime and drugs, black artists… I hope my album can do for all those people what so many albums have done for me in the past. I don't need to be famous or anything. I've had a lot of money and I’ve had a little: I've had no use for money for a long time. I do what I want and I am happy. Everything else is a bonus.”
The Oracle is uit via International Anthem. Op zaterdag 30 maart speelt Angel Bat Dawid op Rewire in Den Haag.