Sung Ra performance at Church of the Ascension “Call Us Immigrants”: The Convergence of Sound and Language in Improvisational Jazz

A Reflection from Emerging Scholar Ainjel Stephens, on the 2018 Colloquium: Hovering at the Edge: Words, Music, Sound, and Song.

We sit in the concert hall and wait for sound. It is the first night of the Guelph Jazz Festival and Colloquium. Our tickets and our programs tell us that SUNG RA is about to perform. They come out as a collective, chanting “imagination” through the aisles. On stage, the instrument performers stand in their designated place. The one we might consider the leader steps up to the mic and proclaims, “call us immigrants.”

The show carries on, but my mind is stuck on that bold claim. To call them immigrants: what does this mean? The essence of improvisational performance is the performer call-out and the audience response, so how is this call asking me to respond? By calling out to us, they are asking us to call back to them, calling them immigrants from Saturn, the same as the legendary Sun Ra. If we call back to them as they ask, then it is our obligation to listen to their reply.

The performance itself converges instrumental sound with the voices of a chorus. Eventually, both voice and instrument join, harmonizing rather than fighting for dominance, and together they become a singular voice. We have called out to the music, by calling them immigrants, and this is their response: the projection of a voice. Jazz music, then, is a voice: an entity capable of giving meaning to the sounds that we hear. But how do we understand what it is that is being said?

If we accept that jazz is voice, then we must decide what voice means. In Vilde Aaslid’s panel, Rising Up Off the Page: Jazz and Poetry, she spoke of Marvin Tate’s performance on “Call Off Tomorrow” from the album Flesh & Bone, in which he declares “Freedom spelled backwards is [indistinguishable vocal noise].” Here, Tate is using his voice to express something beyond the words he says. Backwards, freedom is nothing: freedom must be played straight or else it is not freedom at all. At another level, it can be said that Tate is using voice to express something that is not language, meaning that voice is not exclusive to the realm of language. Darius Jones supports this interpretation when, at his artist panel on Friday, he stated that society needs to “separate language from voice.” He also claimed that “the voice is the whole thing” in performance, and that through voice we all become instruments. Voice, for him, is an instrument of expression, the same way the saxophone or piano may be. Voice, then, is the essence of jazz performance: regardless of the words said, we must listen to the way the voice expresses itself, and to the words outside the realm of language that are being spoken through vocal performance.

Even if voice can exist without language, there is always the question of language and what language indicates. Music and expression become interesting when language and voice do not match but are instead in opposition to one another. At the “Improvisation in Music and Words” roundtable, Sara Villa discussed how linguistic patterns in improvised performance poetry are used to negotiate with the mainstream culture and in order to express one’s personal form of hybridity. What this means is that in performed poetry, including jazz performance, a language is created using bits and pieces of different languages and vernacular techniques, such as codeswitching and translanguaging. Language, then, is something that is played with and created through hybridization by the performer in order to find the right words to express the complications of their existence. Language is not something stable, but rather something that is created, changed, and lived. Improvisation in jazz thus breaks down the structure of dominant language or the language of the oppressor (English, for example), and reworks it in a way in which it is newly created and thus newly experienced. The breaking down of language becomes an act of freedom and free expression.

But language is more than what is said; it is a means of communication between two or more persons. Language must be something that is understood, whether it is what Darius Jones described as a “private language,” meaning a language shared between small groups, or a more widely spoken language, such as English or Afrikaans. At the “Improvisation in Music and Words” roundtable, Paul Watkins discussed how in the poem “Zong!,” a “language of pure sound” is expressed because the text is so convoluted and fragmented it is hard to read what is said. Furthermore, he argued that the reader must improvise these sounds in order to make meaning from the text, and that it “blurs lines between music and sound.” Language, here, is something that cannot fully express the realities of the moment; it becomes something that must be renegotiated and recreated between the reader and the poem. The reader, then, is responsible for creating language—a means of communicating with the poem and understanding the sound in which it makes. In Dionne Brand’s interview with Winston Smith, she discussed how in her poetry book, The Blue Clerk, the poems are about “what is said and what is withheld.” The lack of language, then, becomes as significant as the language that is given. Brand also discussed how the word “blue” is open to interpretation: there are gaps in language in which denotation and connotation are negotiated and meaning is created. With a word such as “blue,” there are various connotations that can be given; language cannot fully express what is trying to be communicated. What could give meaning to this word would be voice, which would help communicate how the word is used and what is implied by how the word is said. Voice, then, becomes essential to the function of language. Voice in jazz is the way language is able to not only be created but also understood. In this context, without the expression of jazz voice, language becomes meaningless.

Voice, then, is part of a dialogue. Someone must listen for meaning to be created, however words do not have to be used for this dialogue to occur. At his keynote, Brett Hayes Edwards presented a screening of the film Sweet Willie Rollbar’s Orientation (1972), a film which is entirely silent but for the music of a saxophone. Without sound, music becomes the voice of the story as well as the sounds of the city. Even as the screen fades to black, the music plays on, indicating that in this visual silence, there is still a voice and still something being said. This singularity of the saxophone joins the city with the people who reside in it as they are all playing the same song, expressing in the same voice. At the end of the film, the characters march out as if in a marching band, each playing instruments the audience is unable to hear. Thus, they are silent; we are unable to communicate with them, as they are not speaking a language we understand. Yet, the film as an entirety is expressive because it engages with the audience, even if a word is never spoken. Without language, the film speaks through the use of visuals and music, thereby forming a dialogue in which meaning is created by the audience from what they see and hear.

Listening, then, can be revolutionary. If one listens to voice and is willing to engage with that voice, a dialogue can be formed wherein voice becomes something through which meaning may be expressed and received. To put it simply, to listen is to create understanding. To understand is the first step in evoking change. As William Parker put it towards the end of his Saturday morning performance, “there’s a rainbow in the ghetto that’s turning guns into trumpets.” It is not violence that speaks which is able to evoke change, but music. Music has the potential to be revolutionary, and the first step of this process is listening.

What does it mean to call someone an immigrant? It means to listen to the music, to the response to the call that you made. But more than that, it is a question of language: what is an immigrant? When listening to SUNG RA play, a realization began to dawn on me. In the realm of music, we are all immigrants, coming from different backgrounds to connect, to listen, to speak. Words are not needed to understand the language of music. Through music, we are sharing ourselves and the histories we bring with us. There is freedom in the call out, and freedom in the response to improv. Doesn’t that make listening the most revolutionary thing of all?

Inspired by the initiative developed by our friends and colleagues at the ArtsEverywhere Festival, and in partnership with the University of Guelph, the Emerging Scholars program offers scholars from all levels of study the opportunity to participate and engage with participants in our Colloquium program. They also receive complimentary attendance at two ticketed Guelph Jazz Festival performances, an intimate “Scholar’s Dinner” with Colloquium presenters, artists and participants, and an opportunity to publish their writing about their Festival and Colloquium insights on the IICSI website.