Thursday, April 10, 2014

THE MUSICAL LEGACY OF AMIRI BARAKA: The Modern Jazz Critic As Cultural Historian, Creative Artist, Social Theorist, And Philosophical Visionary

© 2014

This essay is dedicated to the memory and eternal presence of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1934-2014) who was not only a  great artist, mentor, friend, colleague, and comrade but  also-like he was for so many others around the world-a towering influence on my art and life

"Wailers"  (To Larry Neal and Bob Marley) by Amiri Baraka
David Murray--Tenor Saxophone
Steve McCall--Drums and Percussion
From the film "Poetry in Motion" (1982).  Directed by Ron Mann:

"Leroi Jones has learned--and this has been very rare in jazz criticism--to write about music as an artist."
--Nat Hentoff, Jazz & Pop magazine, 1966

“ ... Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made...Usually the critic's commitment was first to his appreciation of the music rather than to his understanding of the attitude that produced it. This difference meant that the potential critic of Jazz had only to appreciate the music, or what he thought was the music, and that he did not need to understand or even be concerned with the attitudes which produced it...The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy...”

--Leroi Jones, "Jazz and the White Critic," Downbeat magazine, 1963; later reprinted in his book of critical essays and reviews Black Music (William Morrow & Co. 1968)
“Jazz and the White Critic” was a challenge to jazz writers of all backgrounds to reckon with the lived experience of black Americans and to consider how this experience had been embedded in the notes, tones, and rhythms of the music.”
--John Gennari, Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006)


In the name of sheer historical accuracy and perhaps even ultimately a triumphant kind of poetic justice the following emphatic statement bears repeating as often as possible: For fifty years from 1963-2013 Amiri Baraka (also known as Leroi Jones) wrote and published the most profound, influential, and strikingly original body of musical criticism in the United States, as well as some of the most significant--and enduring--cultural and social criticism generally that this country has produced since 1945. This is especially true of his stunning and groundbreaking work in the musical genre of 'Modern Jazz' and his extensive, dynamic, and typically incisive examination of the music's rapid evolution since 1900 in both its visionary "avant garde" modes as well as its more traditional vernacular styles and expressions.

An essential aspect of Baraka’s critical writing on jazz however is also rooted in a deep consciousness and visceral understanding and love of the rural and urban blues/rhythm and blues traditions not only in formal and aesthetic terms but as a complex and historically cumulative social and cultural statement about the ongoing meaning(s) of the content of these musics in both their structural and lyrical dimensions. Thus an appreciation and respect for the ideological complexities and contexts of African American culture as an important economic, social, and political reality as well as an essentially protean artistic force is integral to fully engaging and grasping what Baraka is primarily focused on and concerned with in his writing about the music.

Thus it is not surprising that Baraka's first book about the music, originally entitled Blues People: Negro Music in White America became a seminal, widely acclaimed, and subsequently never out of print historical text. Published by the then 28-year-old writer in 1963, the book was also importantly subtitled in at least a few of its other many editions as "The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed From It." Disdained and even dismissed in some quarters by some haughty and self-important highbrow critics, both white and black, as being too steeped in what they perceived as a fundamentally reductive sociological emphasis in Baraka's analysis of the blues as art and history (a highly inaccurate and quite dubious line of argument echoed in a particularly patronizing and intellectually self serving manner by the celebrated African American novelist and cultural critic Ralph Ellison) Blues People clearly marked a major new turning point in not only the history of Jazz and blues criticism in the United States but in its perception and intellectual appreciation and understanding by music critics generally. Not surprisingly this new consciousness was also beginning to be reflected to some degree in its public reception by audiences.

Despite its ill-informed detractors Blues People also firmly established Baraka as a major intellectual and literary force to be reckoned with because he was not afraid of expressing a strong and independently assertive viewpoint alongside a persistently sharp critical analysis of what the music has meant to black Americans from the standpoint of not only individual citizens or artists but of the mass culture generally. He insisted on an interpretive POV that saw class relations as well as "race" in terms that established a clear hierarchy and division of attitudes and values that informed one's deep affinity for or relative indifference to the various forms and expressions of the blues as creative/stylistic form and artistic identity as well as a distinct and thus substantive and independent sensibility in the larger society as a whole. Consequently Baraka declared that the purveyors of the blues sensibility and its primary cultural progenitors were not only the artists and the intellectual connoisseurs of the form (i.e. critics, academicians, and scholars) but the so-called 'ordinary citizens' who loved and represented and embodied the art themselves (the actual "Blues People" of the book's title). Therein, Baraka insisted, lay the music's true power and ultimate potential as both a creative and social/philosophical force.

In that light it is important to consider that as the great poet Langston Hughes and many other critics and commentators pointed out when the book made its initial appearance that Blues People was in many ways the intellectual and critical culmination of a contentious historical debate raging then (and even to a great extent today) within Black America as well as the larger society over the cultural and thus political and ideological value and meaning(s) of the African American experience and the role of its various artistic forms and artists who through their creative work publicly represent and embody this cultural history. In Baraka's analysis the music serves as both a crucial narrative record (literally as well as on vinyl) of what black people have experienced and an ongoing emotional and psychological register of the impact and effects this experience has had on them and their larger spiritual, existential, and philosophical conception of themselves. As he puts it in his original introduction to the book in 1963:

"In other words I am saying that if the Negro in America, in all its permutations, is subjected to a socio-anthropological as well as musical scrutiny, something about the essential nature of the Negro's existence in this country ought to be revealed, as well as something about the essential nature of this country, i.e. society as a whole...And the point I want to make most evident here is that I cite the beginning of blues as one beginning of American Negroes. Or, let me say, the reaction and subsequent relation of the Negro's experience in this country in his English is one beginning of the Negro's conscious appearance on the American scene...When America became important enough to the African to be passed on, in those formal renditions, to the young, those renditions were in some kind of Afro-American language..."

Baraka also was deeply concerned with how and why these specific musical traditions, techniques, and innovations took the various forms and stylistic identities that they did from the dialectical standpoint of their creators' dynamic, and critically informed engagement with their aesthetic material. One of Baraka's major strengths as a critic is his emphasis always on the process of the creative act in the course of expressing ideas and emotions via the integral elements of music making. This is a major even central aspect of Baraka's writing as a music critic that he strongly maintained and greatly enhanced in all future critiques and celebrations of Jazz, blues, and rhythm and blues following the publication of Blues People.

In Black Music (William Morrow, 1968), his second book devoted to the extraordinary social history and cultural identity of this musical art, Baraka lays out what amounts to a very erudite and casually elegant book-length manifesto on the most advanced, radical, and innovative developments in modern Jazz during the culturally and politically tumultuous 1960s. A trenchant and mesmerizing collection of many of the finest theoretical essays, feature articles, and music reviews that he had written for various national magazines and journals from 1959-1967, Baraka not only critically interprets the revolutionary music of this fascinating historical period but discusses its myriad meanings and values from the direct viewpoint of the individual musicians themselves. What results is a series of riveting, complex, and always critically challenging portraits of these musicians as dedicated cultural workers and the often visionary perspectives that these artists embodied and conveyed to their audiences. Baraka especially draws the readers' attention to the largely black working class and sometimes even more economically challenging (i.e. poor) social and cultural milieu that so many of these musicians and their peers and colleagues lived, created, and performed in. In doing so he reminds us that many of the most profound, lasting, and useful modern art expressions in the United States (and elsewhere) are not merely or exclusively the products of the academic “Ivory Tower” and foundation grant institutions nor are they dependent on the often fickle largesse of wealthy patrons. In fact as Baraka amply demonstrates in his analysis the evidence everywhere of the deep desire and demand for aesthetic, economic, and political self determination among this intrepid generation of musicians, composers, and improvisers is one of the major principles animating their work and overall vision. One of many brilliant examples of this analytical focus can be found in Baraka's intricate, detailed, and powerful dissection of the general aesthetics and cultural values of such legendary and even iconic musicians, composers, and improvisors of the post 1945 modern music era as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, Milford Graves, Don Pullen, Bobby Bradford, and Roy Haynes, among many others who emerged as a self consciously radical, innovative, visionary. and transformative force in the music since the late 1950s.

Dedicated to “John Coltrane, the heaviest spirit” Baraka's Black Music posed a tremendous intellectual and artistic challenge to a entire generation of artists, critics, and cultural/political activists (and I might add is still doing so some two generations and 45 years later!) to begin to seriously address and attempt to resolve many of the major structural and institutional problems and crises facing not only our creative artists in the realms of music, literature, dance, filmmaking, visual and media art, etc. but our larger communities as well. Toward that end the book provides an important ongoing subtextual narrative about the insidious political economy of the music business and its direct and indirect effects on the musicians themselves who not only have to withstand and tragically negotiate the oppressive and exploitive impositions of white supremacy/racism in all its guises but the even more comprehensive venality of corporate capitalism in the studios, clubs, theatres and general commercial venues where the music was being recorded and/or performed for various live audiences during an era when Jazz, despite its growing richness and vitality in a creative sense, especially was suffering greatly economically as a result of its clearly limited reception and appreciation by the larger society. This unfortunately also included the growing commercial interest in and support for pop, rhythm and blues, and rock musics (resulting in the increasing exclusion and marginalization of Jazz and blues) in the national black community.

Finally, the flagship essay of Black Music that opens the volume contains one of the most prescient, eloquent, historically significant, and intellectually honest essays ever written about the “Modern Jazz” dimension of African American music. Entitled "Jazz and the White Critic" the piece had originally appeared in Downbeat the largest national 'mainstream' Jazz magazine in the country in August, 1963 just before the appearance of his first book on the music Blues People later that year. What remains essential about this prophetic essay is its analytical insistence that the philosophical and cultural aspects of African American music like that of all major aesthetic traditions throughout the world is key to acquiring a genuine knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the art. As he states in his concluding paragraph:

“We take for granted the social and cultural milieu and philosophy that produced Mozart. As Western people the socio-cultural thinking of eighteenth-century Europe comes to us as a historical legacy that is a continuous and organic part of the twentieth-century West. The socio-cultural philosophy of the Negro in America (as a continuous historical phenomenon) is no less specific and no less important for any critical speculation about the music that came out of it...this is not a plea for narrow sociological analysis of Jazz, but rather that this music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes which produced it. It is the philosophy of Negro music that is most important, and this philosophy is only partially the result of the sociological disposition of Negroes in America. There is, of course, much more to it than that.” (Italics mine)

The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues  (William Morrow, 1987)

The long awaited arrival of Amiri's third full volume of music criticism in 1987 published some twenty years after Black Music and twenty-five years after Blues People was not only well worth the wait but added still more brilliant wrinkles to his long-term critique of the music, its artists, and the larger social, economic, and political contexts that it existed and persisted in. Both a dynamic synthesis and extension of previous writing about its historical identity as well as an celebratory examination of its contemporary expressions, The Music is divided between a series of poems that center on Jazz and the blues by both Amiri and his wife, Amina Baraka, which takes up a third of the text, an extraordinary political play entitled The Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Musical by Amiri that uses both “avant-garde” as well as more traditional Jazz and blues elements, techniques, and styles in an updated and innovative operatic context. Most of the actors in the production are the musicians themselves who both play and sing their parts. Such important and highly accomplished 'avant' Jazz musicians of the post-1970 era as the tenor saxophonist David Murray, drummer and percussionist Steve McCall, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and the pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers.

The last third of the book features 26 virtuosic and typically incisive essays, reviews, liner notes, and feature articles by Baraka written for and published by various national magazines, journals, and newspapers in the 1975-1987 period as well as some new and important critical essays written specifically for the book. Covering everyone and everything from Miles Davis (in a masterful 1985 article for the New York Times) to the history of Jazz and other African American musics in Greenwich Village in NYC to a series of briliant book and music reviews of books and recordings about and by such major musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Woody Shaw, Cecil McBee, Gil Scott-Heron, Chico Freeman, Ricky Ford, and Craig Harris. There are also a scintillating collection of extremely informative, lyrically written, and politically astute theoretical and critical essays like "Where's the Music Going and Why?", "Jazz Writing: Survival in the Eighties", "The Phenomenon of Soul in African American Music". "Masters in Collaboration", "Blues, Poetry, and the New Music" "AfroPop", "The Class Struggle in Music" and "The Great Music Robbery." There is simply not enough space in this piece to do justice to the crackling intellectual firepower and truly impressive depth and scope of Baraka's writing here; suffice it to say for now that he (re)proves all over and once again exactly WHY he is the preeminent American music critic of the past half century by a very wide margin with virtually no real contenders in sight. Long out of print (and criminally never republished in paperback!) one MUST track down this 1987 hardcover classic and read what it says about a massive range of issues and concerns with respect to the music in not only aesthetic and ideological terms but from the equally profound standpoints of literature (and rhetoric), social theory, cultural history, and political analysis and journalism. One will not come away disappointed. If only the academic departments of 'American and African American Studies' (and all other so-called "ethnic", "humanities", and "cultural studies" programs generally) had professors, public intellectuals, and social activists of Baraka's caliber and clarity running them instead of the often pretentious, biased, and myopic fetishists of "language and culture" who too often ride herd in these fields in U.S. colleges and universities today, we would all be much better informed about the actual strength, beauty, and complex reality of the multiracial and multinational society that we all in fact inhabit. As Baraka makes clear in the essay "Blues, Poetry, and the New Music" from what is finally a GREAT book:

"Each generation adds to and is a witness to extended human experience, If it is honest it must say something new. But in a society that glorifies formalism, i.e. form over content, because content rooted in realistic understanding of that society must minimally be critical of it--the legitimately truthfully new is despised. Surfaces are shuffled , dresses are lengthened or shortened, hair is green or blond, but real change is opposed. The law keeps the order and the order is exploitive and oppressive! The new music reinforces the most valuable memories of a people but at the same time creates new forms, new modes of expression, to more precisely reflect contemporary experience!"

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music  (University of California Press, 2009)

After an astonishing forty five years of endlessly writing, teaching, and lecturing about African American music all over the world it was an absolutely thrilling and inspiring surprise to find yet another extraordinary volume of music criticism by Amiri in the 21st century. Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (University of California Press, 2009) is an epic 411 page text of 84 essays, reviews, liner notes, articles, and precise literary portraits of and about musicians and their art over a fifty year period.. Taking on a huge canvas of critical themes and musical personalities Baraka carries off one can only be described as a penultimate triumph of the art and craft of music criticism at its highest possible level. In a stunning display and critical synthesis that includes an encyclopedic knowledge of the music, a razor sharp attention to the historical nuances of the music and how it it has stylistically evolved and mutated over the years, and finally a thoroughly independent theoretical and critical perspective on the music in aesthetic, historical, and social/cultural terms, Baraka compiled and summed up what constitutes a comprehensive philosophical treatise on Jazz and blues music in U.S.--and by extension the world-- over the past century.

In this quest Digging joyously and fastidiously examines the work, philosophy, craft, and vision of such GIANTS as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, David Murray, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Billie Holiday, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Harris, James Moody, Jackie McLean, Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Hopkins, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Tolliver, Odean Pope,John Hicks, Von Freeman, Jimmy Scott, and Reggie Workman (WHEW!). Baraka also writes with great insight, intelligence, and passion about such exciting and important emerging musicians and composers of the past two decades as Vijay Iyer, Rodney Kendrick, Ralph Peterson, Jon Jang, and Ravi Coltrane,

Finally Digging is an intense, wide ranging, and deeply philosophical and scholarly meditation on, and relentless excavation of, the multidimensional aspects of the music's varied diasporic genealogies, and a celebration of its ongoing presence and importance on both a national and global level. Amiri incorporates everything he has learned and experienced in the both the music and his life (and their endless interconnections). This synergy of the personal and aesthetic gives the book an organic unity and focus that shapes and informs the text as the essays strive to fuse an understanding of politics, history, ideology, and art with a larger vision of "what it all means." Confronting this complicated task is handled beautifully in such sage and critical essays as "The 'Blues Aesthetic' and the 'Black Aesthetic: Aesthetics as the Continuing Political History of a Culture ', "Jazz Criticism and Its Effects On the Music", "Black Music As A Force for Social Change", "BoperaTheory", "Jazz and the White Critic: Thirty Years Later" , "Newark's "Coast" and the Hidden Legacy of Urban Culture", "Blues People: Looking Both Ways", "Miles Later" and "Griot/Djali: Poetry, Music, History, Mesage". "Cosby and the Music", and "The American Popular Song: The Great American Song Book" among others. In other words NO ONE has written about American music with a wider, deeper, and more informed LOVE, UNDERSTANDING and KNOWLEDGE than Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones or what ithis music means to the artists who create it and the millions of blues people/citizens from all over the world who listen, dance, sing and live their lives to and with it. On this and much much more besides, Amiri has--as always-- the 'last word' (for now) on the subject:

"...So Digging means to present , perhaps arbitrarily, varied paradigms of this essentially Afro-American art. The common predicate, myself, the Digger. One who gets down, with the down, always looking above to see what is going out, and so check Digitaria, as the Dogon say, necessary if you are the fartherest Star, Serious. So this book is a microscope, a telescope, and being Black, a periscope. All to dig what is deeply serious. From a variety of places,,,the intention is to provide some theoretical and observed practice of the historical essence of what is clearly American Classical Music, no matter the various names it, and we, have been called. The sun is what keeps the planet alive, including the Music, like we say, the Soul of which is Black."

Kofi Natambu
Berkeley, California
April 9, 2014
(Paul Robeson's 106th birthday)


Blues People: Negro Music in White Music. by Leroi Jones. William Morrow, 1963

Black Music. by Leroi Jones. William Morrow and Company, 1968

The Music: Reflections On Jazz and Blues. by Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka. William Morrow and Company, 1987

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music. by Amiri Baraka. University of California