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Some music-related thoughts about Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka at the Malcolm X Festival in Oakland in 2007
Amiri Baraka at the Malcolm X Festival in Oakland in 2007
by David Sasaki, from Wikipedia (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Amiri Baraka died yesterday at the age of 79. The writer of the announcement on the BBC News Web site described him as “Poet and activist;” and the caption for the accompanying photograph said:

Baraka called himself “a revolutionary optimist”

However, there is far too much to the life of Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones, to allow for any neat summarization.

I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity, a few years ago, to attend a reading by Baraka at City Lights Bookstore in my home town of San Francisco. He was a “natural” City Lights visitor, given his initial association with the Beats; but his determination to use writing to disclose the uglier sides of race relations in the United States led him down a path that would distance him from the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The texts he read at City Lights were prose accounts of the 1967 Newark riots, a much more “internal” account of racial discrimination than had appeared in Tom Hayden’s more sterile and analytical reporting for The New York Review of Books.

That contrast in style was as evident in the act of reading aloud as it was in the text itself. I suppose my own description of Baraka was that he had a deep understanding of jazz that would always influence his way with words. Thus, even when reading an almost flat prose-like account of where he was in Newark when the riot erupted, one could hear the inflections of some of John Coltrane’s solos inspired by racial discrimination. (Think of “Alabama.”) It goes without saying that, if there was jazz in the way he read his prose, his readings of poetry rose to the heights of the most imaginative jazz of his time and then some.

As a result, beyond the politics and the poetry, I would have to say that the writings by Baraka I most admire are the columns he wrote (as LeRoi Jones) for Down Beat back in the days when writing about jazz was as important as making it. The anthology Black Music is required reading for anyone curious about the wild and wonderful directions that jazz took during the Sixties. Baraka knew how to write about Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins; but his real gift came with his approaches to Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and (of course) Cecil Taylor. The dedication page could not put it better:

For John Coltrane, the heaviest spirit

Most importantly, Baraka recognized that, for jazz, the avant-garde was not some elite intellectual domain as it was among those academics who were determined to reduce the music of Anton Webern to the abstractions of higher mathematics. “Jazz and the White Critic” offers an acute perspective of the advances of jazz, cutting to the core of the matter with surgical precision while wielding that scalpel as a weapon against those who just would not “get it.” When I listen to jazz today, I can quickly distinguish those who “got” Baraka and those about whom he wrote so perceptively from those who probably would not recognize any of the names. The act of making music may now be more racially integrated than it was when Baraka was writing; but the “middle-brow” thinking of “the White Critic” (regardless of that critic’s race) is still with us, to the detriment of those now trying to make music in both clubs and concert halls.