Word has come this afternoon that Amiri Baraka has died. The militant man of letters known for his agitation and fist-shaking work was 79.
As the AP notes in its obituary, “Perhaps no writer of the 1960s and '70s was more radical or polarizing than the former LeRoi Jones, and no one did more to extend the political debates of the civil rights era to the world of the arts. He inspired at least one generation of poets, playwrights and musicians, and his immersion in spoken word traditions and raw street language anticipated rap, hip-hop and slam poetry.”
Baraka also wrote extensively about jazz and blues and the genres’ impact on both black and white audiences. In “Dutchman” (1964), a one-act play focusing on a middle class black man, Clay, and a white woman, Lula, Baraka examined the legend of Charlie Parker.
"Charlie Parker. All the hip white boys scream for Bird," Clay says. "And they sit there talking about the tortured genius of Charlie Parker. Bird would've not played a note of music if he just walked up to East 67th Street and killed the first 10 white people he saw. Not a note!"
In “Jazz and the White Critic” (1960), Baraka notes:
There have been so far only two American playwrights, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, who are as profound or as important to the history of ideas as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or Ornette Coleman, yet there is a more valid and consistent body of dramatic criticism written in America than there is a body of criticism about Negro music. And this is simply because there is an intelligent tradition and body of dramatic criticism though it has largely come from Europe that any intelligent American drama critic can draw on. In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help at all. Negro music, like the Negro itself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgment and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. It might be that there is still time to start.
“Blues People (Negro Music in White America)” (1963) remains a seminal study. Indeed, Baraka in the book makes clear he believes blues serves as black Americans’ personal history.
“Blues People” argues that “negro music” – as Amiri Baraka calls it – appealed to and influenced white America. According to Baraka, music and melody is not the only way the gap between American culture and African American culture was bridged. Music also helped spread values and customs through its media exposure. “Blues People” demonstrates the influence of African Americans and their culture on American culture and history.
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