Friday, October 10, 2014





by Kofi Natambu

[This essay is an excerpt from a new book-in-progress by Kofi Natambu entitled A BRAND NEW BAG: How African Americans Revolutionized U.S. Culture and Changed the World, 1955-1975]

“They were always telling me for years to play commercial, be commercial. I’m not commercial. I say play your own way. Don’t play what the public wants—you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you’re doing—even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.”    
--Thelonious Monk

“Monk is a virtuoso of the specific techniques of Jazz, in challengingly original uses of accent, rhythm, meter, time and of musically expressive space, rest, and silence…He is a major jazz composer, the first since Duke Ellington…His repertory abounds with intriguing melodies, truly instrumental pieces…To play Monk properly, musicians justly testify, you have to know the melody and the harmony and understand how they fit together…It is a sign of the great Jazz composer that his sense of form extends beyond written structure and beyond individual improviser, to encompass a whole performance…So it is with Monk.”
 --Martin Williams

(b. October 10, 1917--d. February 17, 1982)

By 1955 the legendary pianist-composer Thelonious Sphere Monk (b. October 10, 1917) had been playing music professionally for over twenty years. Like everything else about him--from his highly original name to his stubbornly independent, innovative, and utterly idiosyncratic approach to nearly every aspect of his extraordinary life and career--Monk was his “own man” from very early on. Moving with his family from North Carolina to New York at the age of five in 1922, the precocious Monk always went his own way and made his own decisions about how he wanted to live—even as a child. Thus, during his junior year in the spring of 1934 Monk left the acadmically rigorous and prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York (which was and is a very competitive citywide magnet school which only admitted the best and most gifted students in the city) to pursue a professional career in music. He was just 17 at the time but had already impressed a number of his teachers and musical peers as a young man of great talent and potential. Coming from a very proud and independent black working-class family who loved music and insisted that their three children take music lessons (both of Monk’s parents worked and Thelonious, Sr.—Monk’s father--also played piano), Monk initially resisted his mother’s suggestions that he play violin and later the trumpet (neither of which Monk liked). However, young Thelonious was utterly fascinated by his sister’s Marion’s piano lesons which she took on the family’s upright piano and the ten year old much preferred listening to her, especially when her music teacher came to their house. By the age of 12 in 1930 Monk had already learned to play the piano very well on his own by ear and keen observation. Highly impressed, the music teacher, a Mr. Wolfe (who was then a student at New York’s famed Julliard School of Music), told Monk’s parents not to waste any more money on their daughter’s lessons since Marion had no real interest in playing music, but it was very apparent to the teacher that her younger brother Thelonious had “a prodigious talent.” This quickly led to the highly precocious youngster enrolling in music courses in school and taking professional lessons from a series of private teachers. Since Monk also excelled academically in math and physics it wasn’t long before Monk began formally composing music, using his command of harmony and melodic ideas to augment his already extraordinary rhythmic sense. By the time Monk turned 19 in 1936 he had already written a number of major compositions, most notably “Ruby My Dear,” that were destined to become Jazz classics.

In 1936 Monk began playing on the road as a touring professional with an evangelist(!) from the Sanctified church named Reverend Graham (who was known publically as “The Texas Warhorse”) who sang and preached in various churches while Monk’s trio played rollicking gospel and rhythm and blues tunes behind her. It’s important to note that as early as 1934 Monk and his trio had already worked at small gigs and dances in New York, usually earning small amounts in tips and cover charges. Monk remained with the evangelist’s troupe for over two years traveling all over the country in both cities and small rural towns alike. This day-to-day immersion in the challenging demands of black folk vernacular styles as both accompanist and ensemble leader gave the dedicated young musician very valuable experience and provided the early aesthetic foundation for his eventually unique and independent styles of composing and improvising music in the Jazz tradition.

In 1938 Monk, homesick from the lonely rough and tumble life of the road, returned to his beloved New York and soon based his own playing style on the stride piano traditions established by such living African American piano legends (and Monk’s personal idols) as James P. Johnson (who happened to live near Monk’s west side Manhattan neighborhood at the time) and Fats Waller. In addition Monk was being deeply influenced by the pianist/composer/bandleader Duke Ellington who also rooted his piano style in the stride tradition, a profound black vernacular music aesthetic of the early 1900s. It was the highly innovative modernity of Ellington’s fecund ideas in piano harmony, rhythmic structure, and orchestral arrangements that inspired Monk in a particularly special way and revealed the possibilities for him to continue and expand on his own experimental efforts.

In 1940 the now 22 year old Monk became house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse, a small Harlem nightclub and nightly gathering place for many aspiring young Jazz musicians and composers who came together on a regular basis at the club to jam and experiment with new musical ideas during afterhours at all night and early morning sessions. These sessions soon became legendary as the place where in the mid 1940s the revolutionary Jazz style ‘Bebop’ was born. Monk’s deep involvement with this movement during endless jam sessions in the early and mid 1940s made Monk’s name well known to other musicians who became very familiar with his challenging compositions and unusual solo playing. This was of course long before the general listening public became aware of his talents. From 1940-1945, an intensely creative period in which Monk wrote many new compositions including his signature classic “’Round Midnight” in 1941, Monk continued to work in relative obscurity at Minton’s and other small clubs in Harlem and in the famed midtown 52nd street clubs and bars where Monk and his angular dissonant harmonies, dynamic rhythms, and soaring, lyrical melodies quickly made him a leading and influential figure among the modernist Jazz cognoscenti. Working closely with such fellow pioneers of this exciting new music as the extraordinary drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, revolutionary guitarist Charlie Christian, iconic saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, and trumpet legend John “Dizzy” Gillespie, Monk soon became a major mentor to many young emerging musicians like the then newly arrived 19 year old Miles Davis in 1945. By this time scores of musicians were experimenting with new harmonic structures, melodic ideas, and rhythmic conceptions. The intense cross-fertilization of styles, ideas, and musical structures were deeply rooted in the modern experimentations with form and content that were sweeping all the arts of the period in literature, painting, dance, and cinema and “Bebop” (or as the musicians themselves simply called it “modern music”) was at the forefront of this cultural and aesthetic revolution.

It was abundantly clear, as Monk himself told a number of interviewers, that his style was “more original” than many of the standardized, generic, and conventional forms of the Bebop movement. Yet Monk was already one of the primary architects of the best and most creative aspects of this movement and was a major source of distilling, synthesizing, and extending the ideas and structures from the myriad of historical musical sources that this generation of modernist musicians consciously absorbed, honed, and developed: Jazz swing styles inherited from the 1920s and ‘30s (e.g. Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Art Tatum, Lester Young, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, etc.) both ‘popular’ and ‘avant-garde’ advances in 20th century classical music (e.g. Stravinsky, Varese, Hindemith, Ives, Bartok, Prokofiev, Ravel, Debussy, etc.), and new black vernacular uses/appropriations of the rich blues and rhythm and blues/rock ‘n roll traditions, as well as various forms of gospel/spiritual music.

All this and more went into Monk’s complex and powerful compositions that while quite intricate and even difficult in harmonic terms, somehow remained both very lyrical (if quirkily idiosyncratic) melodically, as well as creatively connected to black vernacular dance rhythms. This combination of stylistic elements became a trademark of Monk’s compositions and improvisations and led him to finally getting an offer in 1947 to record as a leader of his own ensembles. Now thirty years old and a mature young artist in many respects (though still unknown to people outside of the music), Monk recorded two albums worth of his original compositions (and a few standards) with the small recording label known as Blue Note. Boldly entitled The Genius of Modern Music, Volumes I & II these records put Monk on the mainstream music map for the first time and introduced the man often rather archly referred to in Jazz publications and the mainstream media as “The High Priest of Bebop,” to a new Jazz audience that were just beginning to respond to the innovations of the modernists in the music. Despite this new, limited recognition Monk was still barely making ends meet and was desperately struggling to stay above water economically. However, Monk categorically refused to give up his musical identity or compromise his artistic vision in any way despite many pressures to do so. His first recordings were often lauded (or greatly misunderstood) by the critics and journalists who continued to interview and write about him for a wide range of magazines and newspapers both in and outside the general Jazz world. The laconic, witty, and candid pianist was always considered great copy for the media. However Monk remained almost invisible to any mainstream audience of music lovers.

This situation of severe commercial isolation and economic marginalization during a very creative and productive period of composing and performing his music was juxtaposed to a concomitant rise in status and prestige by fellow musicians, composers, and critics that continued well into the 1950s. Monk continued to record on a regular basis for the important small recording labels Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside. Thus he began the series of major, classic recordings that quickly established his reputation as one of the most significant Jazz composers and soloists in modern music. It was also during this time that Monk first began to be mentioned as the most important composer in the music since the great Duke Ellington revolutionized the Jazz orchestra in the 1920s. At the height of the Bebop craze from 1948-1954 and the justly rapid ascension of Charlie “Bird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as living icons of the movement, Monk made an equally revolutionary breakthrough himself in an utterly independent personal style that drew from bebop conventions (as it did from swing, rhythm and blues, classical, and gospel traditions) but were at the same time completely fresh and different in form and content from his numerous influences. These recordings were made with many of the most important, original, and talented musicians in Modern Jazz--Parker, Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Percy Heath, Max Roach, and Kenny Dorham, among others--and in many ways served as the basic creative and aesthetic foundation of where Jazz was to evolve and grow after 1955.

Thus by the mid-fifties Thelonious Sphere Monk II was a man who already had a very clear and completely masterful command of the modernist and vernacular traditions that characterized the revolutions in both popular and avant-garde music during the post WWII era. This knowledge and understanding on both an innovative theoretical and performance level profoundly transformed the 1955-1975 era in Jazz and made Monk, along with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman the leading musical figures in a particularly tumultuous and exciting period of American art and culture.

The visionary quality of Monk’s musical aesthetic lay in an intensely self conscious and self reflexive effort to simultaneously question, critique, and fundamentally rethink the traditionally specific roles and identities of harmonic structure, melodic form, and rhythmic content in modern music and reassert/reclaim SOUND itself as the most important individual and collective element in both improvisational and composed ensemble settings alike. For decades since the 1890s both African American and European/white American popular, vernacular, and (semi)classical musics had been dependent on inherited conventional modes of organizing musical patterns through the predominance of either harmony (songform structures), melody (songform lyrics), or rhythm (fixed metrical time). By the early 1900s various avant-garde practices in the United States and Europe had begun to overtly upset and challenge these conventions somewhat (by breaking up and/or distorting/rearranging the forms themselves) but still largely in terms of the central role of fundamentally Western conceptions and methodologies that favored a critical embrace (dissonance) or dismissive denial (atonality) of the diatonic scale as a ‘negative’ reference (e.g. Schoenburg, Ives, Webern, etc.). However, through the then revolutionary interventions of such major figures as Louis Armstrong and Ellington by the early 1920s, Jazz began creatively embracing and appropriating conventional music structures and ideas from a myriad of western sources while subtly transforming and subverting them with highly idiosyncratic (and African derived) methods of either using dissonant or unorthodox harmonies as well as crosscutting and constructivist architectural rhythms (a structural and expressive device known as ‘riffing’) in both compositional and improvisational contexts. It’s crucial to note that the major black Jazz composers, improvisors, and arrangers of the 1920s and ‘30s (Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins) were very adept at using these sources while also creating and improvising entirely new ways of expressing melodic lyricism and ‘pop’ song forms such as Louis Armstrong’s brilliant inventions of ‘scat’ singing and ‘swing’ instrumental styles.

Out of this historical maelstrom of multinational aesthetic and cultural traditions and conceptions, Monk consciously critiqued, individually reworked, and creatively extended and subverted the conventions of 20th century modernist and vernacular sources (including those of ‘Bebop’) to forge his own vision of what constituted ‘modern music.’ The first principle was a reliance and insistence on changing the sound of the piano (and by extension other instrumental voices in the ensemble) through an entirely new approach to note articulation, timbral dynamics, and use of temporal/spatial elements in his own improvisations and composing material for other musicians in his groups. As a result many early listeners to Monk’s music--musicians, critics, and general listeners alike-- thought that Monk was not a very technically accomplished pianist (again in the strictly Western European traditional/classical terms which were the canonical norm in the United States). This misunderstanding and profound ignorance of the actual sources of Monk’s methods and approach to instrumental expression and compositional structure was an impediment to many people in jazz circles until the critical and listening Jazz public (and many musicians as well) finally ‘caught up’ to many of Monk’s innovations by the late 1950s. By then Monk was already an established twenty-five year jazz veteran whose once radical contributions to voicing, phrasing, and tempo were finally the ‘new modern mainstream’ of the Jazz tradition.

The extraordinary recordings that Monk made from 1955-1965 only further solidified and cemented this reputation and suddenly made his work de rigueur for the young, emerging innovators and radicals of the period. In 1955 Monk finally began to receive the commercial attention (and monetary success) that had previously eluded him without compromising himself by ‘going commercial’ in any way as an artist. This reality completely validated Monk’s famous assertion that one must ‘play [your] own way’ and ensured that he would enter the rarefied pantheon of the greatest musicians and composers in the history of his art completely on his own terms. It was a profound lesson in artistic integrity, dedication to craft, and disciplined perseverance that would serve as a beacon for an entire new generation of gifted, ambitious players and composers in the 1960s, the ‘70s, and beyond who recognized that Monk’s greatest and most significant contributions lie not only in his fierce aesthetic commitment but in not allowing himself to be corrupted and distracted by the relentless demands and pressures of the marketplace. The result was one of the most singular, influential bodies of work in the entire canon of 20th century music.



(Originally posted on October 24, 2009):

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thelonious Monk: An American Original
Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley 
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original by Robin Kelley--Free Press, October 2009


The book is finally out and it is simply INCREDIBLE. This is an absolutely stupendous achievement by one of the finest social historians and cultural critics in this country, the great Robin D.G. Kelley. Dr. Kelley has written the definitive biography of the legendary Thelonious Monk and it is a 600 page masterpiece. Over ten years of exhaustive historical research and writing went into this opus and it was more than worth the wait! So don't hesitate for another second. GET THIS BOOK TODAY AND TELL EVERYONE YOU KNOW AND THEIR FRIENDS TO GO COP IT NOW...

(Note: I will be doing an extensive review and analysis of Dr. Kelley's new biography on this site as soon as I finish reading the text)


Who Is Thelonious Sphere Monk?

With the arrival Thelonious Sphere Monk, modern music—let alone modern culture—simply hasn’t been the same. Recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any musical genre, Monk achieved a startlingly original sound that even his most devoted followers have been unable to successfully imitate. His musical vision was both ahead of its time and deeply rooted in tradition, spanning the entire history of the music from the “stride” masters of James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith to the tonal freedom and kinetics of the “avant garde.” And he  shares with Edward “Duke” Ellington the distinction of being one of the century’s greatest American composers. At the same time, his commitment to originality in all aspects of life—in fashion, in his creative use of language and economy of words, in his biting humor, even in the way he danced away from the piano—has led fans and detractors alike to call him “eccentric,” “mad” or even “taciturn.” Consequently, Monk has become perhaps the most talked about and least understood artist in the history of jazz.

Born on October 10, 1917, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Thelonious was only four when his mother Barbara, big sister Marion, and baby brother Thomas, moved to New York City. Unlike other Southern migrants who headed straight to Harlem, the Monks settled on West 63rd Street in the “San Juan Hill” neighborhood of Manhattan, near the Hudson River. His father, Thelonious, Sr., joined the family three years later, but health considerations forced him to return to North Carolina. During his stay, however, he often played the harmonica, “Jew’s harp,” and an old player piano the family acquired soon after he arrived. Thelonious’s mother also played piano, mostly hymns and other sacred music, and she encouraged her children’s musical interests by taking them to hear Franko Goldman’s band perform in nearby Central Park and paying for music lessons. She arranged piano lessons for Marion and hoped Thelonious would take up violin. He chose trumpet instead, and studied the instrument briefly but was challenged by bronchial issues. He was about eleven when Marion’s piano teacher took Thelonious on as a student. By his early teens, he was playing rent parties, sitting in on piano at a local Baptist church, and was reputed to have won several  “amateur hour” competitions at the Apollo Theater.

Admitted to Peter Stuyvesant, one of the city’s best high schools, Monk dropped out at the end of his sophomore year to pursue music and during the summer of 1935 took a job as a pianist for a traveling evangelist and faith healer. Returning after two years, he formed his own quartet and played local bars and small clubs until the spring of 1941, when he became the house pianist at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.

Minton’s, legend has it, was where the “bebop revolution” began. The after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s, along with similar musical gatherings at Monroe’s Uptown House, Dan Wall’s Chili Shack, among others, attracted a new generation of musicians brimming with fresh ideas about harmony and rhythm—notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Tadd Dameron, and Monk’s close friend and fellow pianist, Bud Powell. Monk’s harmonic innovations proved fundamental to the development of modern jazz in this period. Anointed by some critics as the “High Priest of Bebop,” several of his compositions (“52nd Street Theme,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Epistrophy,” “I Mean You”) were favorites among his contemporaries.

Yet, as much as Monk helped usher in the bebop revolution, he also charted a new course for modern music few were willing to follow. Whereas most pianists of the bebop era played sparse chords in the left hand and emphasized fast, even eighth and sixteenth notes in the right hand, Monk combined an active right hand with an equally active left hand, fusing stride and angular rhythms that utilized the entire keyboard. And in an era when fast, dense, virtuosic solos were the order of the day, Monk was famous for his use of space and silence. In addition to his unique phrasing and economy of notes, Monk would “lay out” pretty regularly, enabling his sidemen to experiment free of the piano’s fixed pitches. As a composer, Monk was less interested in writing new melodic lines over popular chord progressions than in creating a whole new architecture for his music, one in which harmony and rhythm melded seamlessly with the melody. “Everything I play is different,” Monk once explained, “different melody, different harmony, different structure. Each piece is different from the other. … [W]hen the song tells a story, when it gets a certain sound, then it’s through…completed.”

Despite his contribution to the early development of modern jazz, Monk remained fairly marginal during the 1940s and early 1950s. Besides occasional gigs with bands led by Kenny Clarke, Lucky Millinder, Kermit Scott, and Skippy Williams, in 1944 tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was the first to hire Monk for a lengthy engagement and the first to record with him. Most critics and many musicians were initially hostile to Monk’s sound. Blue Note, then a small record label, was the first to sign him to a contract. Thus, by the time he went into the studio to lead his first recording session in 1947, he was already thirty years old and a veteran of the jazz scene. Although all of Monk’s Blue Note sides are hailed today as some of his greatest recordings, at the time of their release in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they proved to be a commercial failure.

Harsh, ill-informed criticism limited Monk’s opportunities to work—opportunities he desperately needed especially after his marriage to Nellie Smith in 1948, and the birth of his son, Thelonious, Jr., in December of 1949. Monk found work where he could, but he never compromised his musical vision. His already precarious financial situation took a turn for the worse in August of 1951, when he was falsely arrested for narcotics possession, essentially taking the rap for his friend Bud Powell. It was his second arrest; the first, in 1948, was for possession of marijuana. Deprived of his cabaret card—a police-issued “license” without which jazz musicians could not perform in New York clubs—Monk was denied gigs in his home town for the next six years. Nevertheless, he played neighborhood clubs in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem, sporadic concerts, took out-of-town gigs, composed new music, and made several trio and ensemble records under the Prestige label (1952–1954), which included memorable performances with Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Milt Jackson. In the fall of1953, he celebrated the birth of his daughter Barbara, and the following summer he crossed the Atlantic for the first time to play the Paris Jazz Festival. During his stay, he recorded his first solo album for Vogue. These recordings would begin to establish Monk as one of the century’s most imaginative solo pianists.

In 1955, Monk signed with a new label, Riverside, and recorded several outstanding LP’s which garnered critical attention, notably Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, The Unique Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners, Monk’s Music and his second solo album, Thelonious Himself. In 1957, with the help of his friend and sometime patron, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he had finally gotten his cabaret card restored and enjoyed a very long and successful engagement at the Five Spot Café with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Wilbur Ware and later Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. From that point on, his career began to soar; his collaborations with Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and arranger Hall Overton, among others, were lauded by critics and studied by conservatory students. Monk even led a successful big band at Town Hall in 1959. It was as if jazz audiences had finally caught up to Monk’s music.

By 1961, Monk had established a more or less permanent quartet consisting of Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore (later Butch Warren and then Larry Gales) on bass, and Frankie Dunlop (later Ben Riley) on drums. He performed with his own big band at Lincoln Center (1963), and the quartet made a few European and world tours throughout the decade. In 1962, Monk had also signed with the gargantuan Columbia records, and in February of 1964 he became the third jazz musician in history to grace the cover of Time Magazine.

However, with fame came the media’s growing fascination with Monk’s alleged eccentricities. Stories of his behavior on and off the bandstand often overshadowed serious commentary about his music. The media helped invent the mythical Monk—the reclusive, naïve, idiot savant whose musical ideas were supposed to be entirely intuitive rather than the product of intensive study, knowledge and practice. Indeed, his reputation as a recluse (Time called him the “loneliest Monk”) reveals just how much Monk had been misunderstood. As his former sideman, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, explained, Monk was somewhat of a homebody: “If Monk isn’t working he isn’t on the scene. Monk stays home. He goes away and rests.” Unlike the popular stereotypes of the jazz musician, Monk was devoted to his family. He appeared at family events, played birthday parties, and wrote playfully complex songs for his children: “Little Rootie Tootie” for his son, “Boo Boo’s Birthday” and “Green Chimneys” for his daughter, and a Christmas song titled “A Merrier Christmas.” The fact is, the Monk family held together despite long stretches without work, severe money shortages, sustained attacks by critics, grueling road trips, bouts with illness, and the loss of close friends.

During the 1960s, Monk scored notable successes with albums such as Criss Cross, Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk Time, Straight No Chaser, and Underground. But as Columbia/CBS records pursued a younger, rock-oriented audience, Monk and other jazz musicians ceased to be a priority for the label. Monk’s final recording with Columbia was a big band session with Oliver Nelson’s Orchestra in November of 1968, which turned out to be both an artistic and commercial failure. Columbia’s disinterest and Monk’s deteriorating health kept the pianist out of the studio. In January of 1970, Charlie Rouse left the band, and two years later Columbia quietly dropped Monk from its roster. For the next few years, Monk accepted fewer engagements and recorded even less. His quartet featured saxophonists Pat Patrick and Paul Jeffrey, and his son Thelonious, Jr., took over on drums in 1971. That same year and again in 1972, Monk toured widely with the “Giants of Jazz,” a kind of bop revival group consisting of Dizzy Gillespie, Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Al McKibbon and Art Blakey, and made his final public appearance in July of 1976. Physical illness, fatigue, and perhaps sheer creative exhaustion convinced Monk to give up playing altogether. On February 5, 1982, he suffered a stroke and never regained consciousness; twelve days later, on February 17th, he died.

Today Thelonious Monk is widely accepted as a genuine master of American music. His compositions constitute the core of jazz repertory and are performed by artists from many different genres. He is the subject of award winning documentaries, biographies and scholarly studies, prime time television tributes, and he even has an Institute created in his name. The Thelonious Monk Institute was created to promote jazz education and to train and encourage new generations of musicians. It is a fitting tribute to an artist who was always willing to share his musical knowledge with others but expected originality in return.

Book Events

Monday, October 5, 2009, 7:00 – 9:00 PM
Barnes and Noble
66th and Broadway
New York, NY

Thursday, October 8, 2009, 7:30
Book party, Discussion, and Jam session
The Brecht Forum
451 West Street, New York, NY 10014 (between Bank & Bethune Streets)
Phone: (212) 242-4201 – Email: brechtforum at

Saturday, October 10, 2009, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffee House
5015 Connecticut Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 7:30 PM
Conversation with Robin D. G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk
With Guest, pianist Randy Weston
Center for Jazz Studies, Columbia University
Dwyer Cultural Center, 258 St. Nicholas Ave. and 123rd St.
New York

Thursday, October 15, 2009, 3:00 PM
Reading and book signing, “‘North of the Sunset’: Thelonious Monk’s L.A. Stories”
Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA
Presentation Room
Los Angeles, CA
Free and open to the public

Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 7:00 PM
Book Soup
8818 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069-2125
(310) 659-3110

October 23, 2009, 7:00 PM
Vroman’s Bookstore
695 E Colorado Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 449-5320

October 27, 1009, 7:00 PM
Eso Won Bookstore
4311 Degnan Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90008
(323) 290-1048

October 29, 2009, 7:00 PM
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway (North Beach)
San Francisco, California 94133
Tel (415) 362-8193

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The Book
About The Author
Who Is Thelonious Sphere Monk?
Book Events

The Book

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“The piano ain’t got no wrong notes!” So ranted Thelonious Sphere Monk, who proved his point every time he sat down at the keyboard. His angular melodies and dissonant harmonies shook the jazz world to its foundations, ushering in the birth of “bebop” and establishing Monk as one of America’s greatest composers. Yet throughout much of his life, his musical contribution took a backseat to tales of his reputed behavior. Writers tended to obsess over Monk’s hats or his proclivity to dance on stage. To his fans, he was the ultimate hipster; to his detractors he was temperamental, eccentric, taciturn, or child-like. But, these labels tell us little about the man or his music.

In the first book on Thelonious Monk based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, as well as a decade of prodigious research, prize-winning historian Robin D. G. Kelley brings to light a startlingly different Thelonious Monk–witty, intelligent, generous, family-oriented, politically engaged, brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Indeed, Thelonious Monk is essentially a love story. It is a story of familial love, beginning with Monk’s enslaved descendants from whom Thelonious inherited an appreciation for community, freedom, and black traditions of sacred and secular song. It is about a doting mother who scrubbed floors to pay for piano lessons  and encouraged her son to follow his dream. It is the story of romance, from Monk’s initial heartbreaks to his life-long commitment to his muse, the extraordinary Nellie Monk. And it is about his unique friendship with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, a scion of the famous Rothschild family whose relationship with Monk and other jazz musicians has long been the subject of speculation and rumor. Nellie, Nica, and various friends and family sustained Monk during the long periods of joblessness, bipolar episodes, incarceration, health crises, and other  tragic and difficult moments.

Above all, Thelonious Monk is the gripping saga of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision. It is a story that, like its subject, reflects the tidal ebbs and flows of American history in the twentieth century. Elegantly written and rich with humor and pathos, Thelonious Monk is the definitive work on modern jazz’s most original composer.

Advance Praise for Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

“Robin Kelley’s new biography Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is a breath of fresh air amongst the biographies of our legendary jazz musicians. This book is thorough, detailed and written with a true affinity for Monk’s humaneness and creative musical output. It fills in the missing pieces about the growth of the jazz scene in New York through the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, detailing each step of TSM’s development – who passed through his bands, what gigs he played and what happened on those scenes. It’s an invaluable and close look at the center of the world’s most important creative musical developments in these decades: New York City.”

—Chick Corea

“Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is one of the most anticipated books in jazz scholarship, and well worth the wait. Robin D. G. Kelley represents one of this generation’s most important voices equipped with the knowledge, passion and respect for both jazz and jazz musicians required to interpret the many details and nuances of Thelonious Monk’s life. This compelling book will both challenge old assumptions and inspire new assessments of the life and legacy one of the world’s greatest musicians.”

—Geri Allen, pianist/composer, Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, University Of Michigan

“Powerful, enraging and enduring. . . . In Robin Kelley’s finely grained and surely definitive life-and-times study, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original, has found an original biographer.”

—David Levering Lewis, biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois and Pulitzer Prize winner

“An honest and eloquent treatment of one of our most important artists, Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of an American Original is a stunning tour de force! It is the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date. Furthermore, in Monk’s story, Kelley has found the perfect medium to shed light on a nation’s, and a people’s, history and persistent quest for freedom. In so doing he has given us a book that is  as bold, brilliant and beautiful as Monk and his music.”

—Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday

About The Author

Robin D. G. Kelley never met Thelonious Monk, but he grew up with his music. Born in 1962, he spent his formative years in Harlem in a household and a city saturated with modern jazz. As a child he took a few trumpet lessons with the legendary Jimmy Owens, played French horn in junior high school, and picked up piano during his teen years in California. In 1987, Kelley earned his PhD in History from UCLA and focused his work on social movements, politics and culture—although music remained his passion.

During his tenure on the faculties of Emory University, the University of Michigan, New York University, and Columbia University, Kelley’s scholarly interests shifted increasingly toward music. He has written widely on jazz, hip hop, electronic music, musicians’ unions and technological displacement, and social and political movements more broadly.

Before becoming Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Robin D. G. Kelley served on the faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies, where he held the first Louis Armstrong Chair in Jazz Studies. Besides Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley has authored several prize-winning books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997), which was selected one of the top ten books of 1998 by the Village Voice; Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century, written collaboratively with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn (Beacon 2001); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). He also edited (with Earl Lewis), To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), a Choice Outstanding Academic Title and a History Book Club Selection. Kelley also co-edited (with Sidney J. Lemelle) Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora (Verso, 1994). He is currently completing Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa (Harvard University Press, forthcoming), and a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.

Kelley’s essays have appeared in several anthologies and journals, including The Nation, Monthly Review, The Voice Literary Supplement, New York Times (Arts and Leisure), New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Color Lines, Code Magazine, Utne Reader, Lenox Avenue, African Studies Review, Black Music Research Journal, Callaloo, New Politics, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noir, One World, Social Text, Metropolis, American Visions, Boston Review, Fashion Theory, American Historical Review, Journal of American History, New Labor Forum, Souls, Metropolis, and frieze: contemporary art and culture, to name a few.

Video of Robin Kelley author of new biography Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times of An American Original talking about Monk and his book:


(Originally posted on January 2, 2010):

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Women Who Had a Major Influence on Thelonious Monk's Life and Art: Barbara Monk, Nellie Smith Monk, Alberta Simmons, and Mary Lou Williams


Nellie and Thelonious Monk

Nellie Monk (1921-2002)


See what I said about "Genius and Recognition" in my previous post below about Monk, Baraka, and Robin Kelley? Well, that admonition goes DOUBLE here. So thank you, Thank you, THANK YOU Mrs. Barbara Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Alberta Simmons, and Nellie Smith Monk (the one Thelonious always "crepesculed" with) for being absolutely instrumental as well as essential in the formation and growth of one of the greatest and most important artists of the 20th century...


The Women Who Made Thelonious Monk
by Walter Ray Watson
National Public Radio--NPR

My story about Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley ran on All Things Considered yesterday. But wait! There's much more to say: Kelley's new book, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original, takes considerable pains to acknowledge the support of women in the life of the musician.

The photo ID of Barbara Monk, Thelonious Monk's mother, shows that she was employed by the City of New York to clean public offices. (courtesy of the Thelonious Monk Estate)

First, there's his mother, Barbara Monk, who moved to New York City with Thelonious Monk Sr., and their three children: Thomas, the eldest; his sister Marion, and Thelonious Jr., the youngest child. The family moved to New York City to escape the farm life they had known in North Carolina. Thelonious Sr. eventually returned to Carolina, and Monk's mother and sister raised the family. Barbara Monk cleaned city offices to support her kids. When the youngest Monk began skipping classes during his senior year at Stuyvesant High School -- and eventually left altogether -- it was Barbara Monk who encouraged him to take that leap of faith.

A few years earlier, she had also supported Thelonious Jr.'s decision to follow a Christian evangelist, a woman whose name was never known to the family (and whose precise religious affiliation was just as hard to pin down), on a barnstorming tour of Midwestern towns for nearly two years.

As Kelley recounts in his book, Monk's travels through Kansas and other states is the most mysterious and undocumented time in Monk's life. But they were also perhaps his most fruitful years as an itinerant artist, learning how to call tunes on the spot, and how to respond to both musicians and audiences in the moment.

There was also a piano teacher early in Monk's development named Alberta Simmons. Kelley learned about Simmons' life from her daughter, Alberta Webb; Simmons, born in 1892, died long ago. Alberta Simmons was a performer, and assimilated the stride styles of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake. She played the Clef Club, speakeasies in New York City, and even went out to Flushing, Queens for gigs. But as Webb told Kelley, "Being a woman, [Simmons] got sort of sidetracked trying to raise her children. Unfortunately things did not work out in later years."

Kelley's detective work found New York census records of Alberta Simmons at five year intervals. As time progressed, Simmons reported her career as piano teacher, and, in later years, "domestic worker." But before her earnings as a teacher dried up, Thelonious Monk learned stride piano from the woman. Monk was known to visit the home of James P. Johnson, and attend "cutting sessions" by other famed stride practitioners. But early on, Alberta Simmons showed him the way.

Kelley told me that Alberta Simmons never got the chance to make a recording, so there's no sample artifact of her playing style. Her daughter, Alberta Webb, told Kelley that she unfortunately had no photographs of her mother to share either -- and Webb died before the publication of Kelley's book. It's one of Kelley's regrets, he says. (Then again, you develop a mountain of regrets when you interview 300 people, read countless lost articles and spend 14 years on a mission that no one quite believes you would complete.) On the bright side, Kelley says that it's not much of a leap to think of Monk's 1956 solo recording of "Memories of You," the Andy Razaf/Eubie Blake song, as his tribute to Alberta Simmons. According to Kelley's research, she played this tune often, as if it were her own. Here's an excerpt (from The Unique Thelonious Monk, originally issued on Riverside Records):

Then, of course, there's his wife, Nellie Monk. She can't be underestimated for her role as partner, protector, career manager and supporter of Thelonious Monk. She gave her husband the space and time to develop his musical sense of space and time. She also cleaned private homes and worked as a seamstress in the lean years: The period when his music was dismissed or ignored by critics, thus making him a hard sell to the public, to club managers and to anyone considering him for studio recordings.

Last but not least, there's the great pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who defended, promoted and befriended Monk. Reportedly, she first heard him as a young man in Kansas City while he was touring with that mysterious traveling evangelist. She later helped him get gigs in New York, and introduced him to a great deal of music. Kelley writes that despite Monk's Baptist roots and travels with evangelical revivals, he attended Catholic churches with Williams. Among the home recordings Kelley was exposed to by the Monk Estate were these pieces that Williams arranged and wrote out for Monk to try. Hear Monk practice "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm."

Takes One and Two:

Take Three:

Robin Kelley also sent me an unpublished excerpt he wrote about the music.

After ending his home recording of "Body and Soul" abruptly, Mr. Monk then shuffles some papers on the piano and announces, with the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store, "Now let me see how we make out with this now. Mmmmm!" He then proceeds to tentatively work through an arrangement of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" -- a Gus Kahn and Bronislau Kaper composition Mr. Monk never recorded nor included in his repertoire. The initial choruses sound a lot like Mary Lou Williams' 1946 trio recording (Classics Records 1050) of the song, which I confirmed when archivist Ann Kuebler helped me locate the arrangement (titled simply "Chillun") in Ms. Williams' papers at the Institute for Jazz Studies. It is likely that Mr. Monk had a copy of her arrangement from the 1940s since they exchanged quite a bit of music during the early days of bebop. In particular, Mr. Monk takes from the arrangement Ms. Williams' rephrasing of the melody, the ascending arpeggios in the third and fourth bar of the song's A section, and the key signature: A-flat ... By the second take, he begins to incorporate more of his own unique phrases and improvised lines, including a striding left hand and dissonant clusters in the piano's upper register. Perhaps as a tribute to Mary Lou Williams, his final six bar cadence incorporates the kind of "boogie woogie" left hand figures Ms. Williams often used. By the third take, "Chillun" is entirely his own. Opening rubato, almost ballad-like, Mr. Monk throws in an unusual bass line in bars 9-12 and shifts into stride piano, over which he plays several high register phrases over and over to see what they sound like. By the time he returns to the melody, Mrs. Nellie Monk adds her singing voice and Mr. Monk closes with a tag similar to what he plays at the end of Gershwin's "Nice Work if You Can Get It."

Also, Mary Lou recorded this [arrangement] on October 7, 1946 (three days before Monk's 29th birthday). Unique are her phrasing of the melody and, most importantly, the bass line, in bars 3 and 4 of the A section; those ascending arpeggios. Notice how he echoes her phrasing throughout, especially in early takes of the song.

Here's the first 'A' section of Mary Lou's version:

Now go back and listen to Monk's versions with this information: The context makes a huge difference.

As long as Monk's legacy still rings in our ears, the women who contributed to Monk's development as a child, student, artist and man are to be honored. (And then there's the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, but that's another story in itself.) Thanks to Robin Kelley for keeping their gifts to the music alive, if not unearthing them altogether.

7:45 PM ET | 12-30-2009 | permalink

Posted by Kofi Natambu at 2:13 AM

Labels: Alberta Simmons, Barbara Monk, Jazz history, Jazz piano, Mary Lou williams, Nellie Monk, NPR, Thelonious Monk, Walter Ray Watson

Jazz Icons: Thelonious Monk- Live In '66 + Other Monk videos in Japan, Germany, France, Denmar, Holland, England, and the United States

Documentary film: Thelonious Monk Straight, No Chaser, 1988
Directed by Charlotte Zwerin

Thelonious Monk was one of the true, undisputed innovators of jazz. His influence, both in playing and composition, altered all of us as musicians and even more fans of the art form. Straight, No Chaser primes itself as the definitive film documenting Monk’s life. With insight from family, friends, and collaborators such as John Coltrane, Teo Macero, Johnny Griffin, and more the picture the film paints is one of incredible talent and collaborative spirit. Early on Monk took notice from fellow jazz legends Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and more, which only furthered his vibe and energy. Check out the entire film below and comment with your thoughts!


Thelonious Monk Documentary -- 1/10:

Monk Documentary--2/10:

Monk Documentary--3/10:

Monk Documentary--4/10:

Monk Documentary--5/10:

Monk Documentary--6/10:

Monk Documentary--7/10:

Monk Documentary--8/10:

Monk Documentary--9/10:

Monk Documentary--10/10:

Jazz Icons: Thelonious Monk- Live In '66 + Other Monk videos in Japan, Germany, France, Denmar, Holland, England, and the United States

A Monk’s Life: Thelonious Monk


A mystery man, to most of us, the Monk is widely considered one of the most innovative and creative musicians of the 20th century. Who was this man? Why the hat? Why the jacket? Why the beard? To give you a rough idea – Duke Ellington wrote, recorded, produced and released over 1,000 songs in his career. Monk composed around 70. But Monk is the next most frequently recorded jazz composer after Ellington. With 930 less songs, he has been as widely recorded as the biggest name of 20th century jazz. That’s the gist. But beyond the statistics, the man was one of flamboyance, energy, creativity, originality, and above all – style. His early work in shaping the bebop genre, his later work in changing conceptions of jazz performance and improvisation, and his crazy dance moves combined to create one of the most powerful people in jazz history. This is how it happened.

Monk was born in 1917 in North Carolina. His family relocated to Manhattan, where he began to play the piano around 1923. He was mostly a self-taught musician, although he sometimes snuck in on his sister’s lessons. His first performance experience was in gospel and church music, playing small and large church organs. But he eventually found interest (and work) in jazz, which was the thing in 1930s Manhattan. His practice and playing eventually landed him a job at a local nightclub, Minton’s Playhouse, as the resident pianist. Playing in the work hours was more of a chore for Monk – as the real music went on after hours. Monk participated in ‘cutting contests’ with other jazz solo artists. These were musical battles, basically improvisational competitions, ‘fought’ between contemporary pianists. They were meant to determine the mastery of a new musician on the scene, competing against regional masters.

These musical battles led to the formation of a new style of jazz – bebop. Developing from roots in stride piano, common at the time. The bebop that Monk was beginning to carve out was a common style with other leading artists, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This new genre was a result of the need to create innovative forms of playing to ‘survive’ in the Manhattan jazz scene. Monk knew this from the start, and his musical innovations ensured that he could play the survival-of-the-fittest game with supreme confidence. His improvisational style flourished with bebop, but he quickly grew away from it. His writing style and improvisation included very dissonant chord choices and scale use, sharp and unusual rhythms, abrupt silences, and odd heavily syncopated geometric melodies. These features were revolutionary in the 1940s and even more so when fully developed in the 60s.

After establishing himself on the Manhattan scene in the early 40s, he gained a reputation and began playing and performing studio recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet. As things were picking up, in 1951 he became entangled in a narcotics case, which resulted in his New York City Cabaret Card removed – the card which allowed him to play alcoholic establishments in the city. With this gone, he lost his residency, and his audience, and his performances. He spent time in the mid-50s writing, practicing, and playing out-of-town gigs from time to time. During this intermission, he began meeting and producing records with other well-known jazz musicians, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. Davis, one of the most well respected jazz performers in the world, ran into problems with Monk because he found Monk’s playing simply too difficult to play over. Rumour has it that Davis asked Monk to sit out and stop accompanying, which caused extreme tension between the two that almost led to violence.

Ready to put his past troubles (and Manhattan) behind him, Monk visited Europe in 1954 where he performed and recorded in Paris. Although trouble didn’t leave him, as he was again caught up in narcotics difficulties over marijuana possession. Luckily a close friend took responsibility and he got off clean. He was still finding trouble, while trying to avoid it. Luckily for him, things were about to turn up.

Riverside Records was ready to take Monk on. He recorded with the label from 1955-1961. Although Monk arrived highly regarded, producers found his music too ‘difficult’ for mass consumption. He was coerced to produce several albums of covers (of the basic jazz standards) to spread his music to public audiences. By 1956, he began to produce his original music in ‘Brilliant Corners’, which was very complex (requiring Sonny Rollins, on the title track, to have to paste together separate tracks because the saxophone part was so difficult).  But it was considered a success for Monk, and it propelled him to produce more originals and more albums. After receiving back his New York City Cabaret Card, he put himself back on the Manhattan circuit, where (revitalized with his original music), he established a place and an image for himself.

And his image was as unique as his playing style. He was well known for his eccentric hats, suits and sunglasses. He was one of the first who began the beret and sunglasses look that we are so familiar with in jazz cafés today. His hats ran the gamut from trendy berets to ridiculous fez hats. Monk’s manner matched his style – frequently he would leave the piano and just stand up to walk around or dance before sitting down again. These touches made him stand out in the jazz community as more than just another musician – he was a character. With musical talent to match. Monk continued to play in other jazz groups with John Coltrane and (yes, really) Miles Davis, before being signed to Columbia Records in 1962. He produced and released many live albums and studio recordings up until the mid 1970s, when he disappeared from the jazz scene. Many believe that he finally fell to mental illness that had haunted him his whole life – either manic depression or schizophrenia. He retired to a friend’s New Jersey home, where he lived until he died of a stroke in 1982.

What else can be said of such a jazz legend? Not much, I’m afraid. The only thing to do now is to listen to the music that made his life – the music that was Thelonious Monk. Below are links to recordings to some of his most famous songs. Get a taste for one of the 20th century’s best musicians. A Tribe article could hardly do him justice.

Blue Monk:

‘Round Midnight:

Straight No Chaser:

Well You Needn’t:


Tuesday, October 7, 2014



(Originally posted on January 11, 2014):

Saturday, January 11, 2014

AMIRI BARAKA, 1934-2014:



The death of Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) at the age of 79 on January 9, 2014 in his beloved Newark, New Jersey marks the passing of one of the greatest and most important American writers and thinkers of the past century and in my view the preeminent African American writer of his generation as well as the most consistently profound, innovative, and creatively influential of the entire post 1945 era. A charter member of an extraordinary generation of U.S. writers who were born between 1920-1940 (an innovative, dynamic, visionary, fiercely independent, highly contentious, and even openly raucous group that includes such pivotal post WW2 literary/cultural figures as James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Truman Capote, Toni Cade Bambara, Larry Neal, Diane DiPrima, Charles Stevenson Wright, Al Young, Joan Didion, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Bob Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, Susan Sontag, Edward Albee, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Ed Bullins, Adrienne Kennedy, Jayne Cortez, Adrienne Rich, and Clarence Major), Baraka (formerly known as Leroi Jones until 1968) was a truly revolutionary artist in every sense of the word. Blazing a fifty year trail of innovative literary triumphs in poetry, drama, fiction, music criticism and history, cultural and political essays, and social criticism that began formally with the publication of his first book of poetry Preface to A 20 Volume Suicide Note in 1961 Baraka was a also a consummate political organizer and activist who had a seminal impact on two generations of African American activists in a wide myriad of radical political movements that formally began in 1964 and lasted until his death. It is impossible in this limited space to properly comment on and explain just how protean and fundamentally groundbreaking so many of Amiri's stunning achievements in literature and cultural/social activism were or fairly assess the immense and invaluable intellectual and creative legacy he has left us all. As someone who was personally fortunate to have known and on a number of occasions worked with this figure in our contemporary art and politics for many years I was a personal witness to the kindness, generosity, warmth, humor (Amiri was a very funny individual), honesty, wicked sophisticated wit, and deep sincerity that Baraka so often embodied. It should also be noted that unlike far too many other intellectuals in general Baraka was also one of the very best DANCERS that I ever saw. To say that I and many, many other people throughout not only this country but the world (Amiri was a longtime and very enthusiastic global traveler) will miss this literary and cultural GIANT is a massive understament. Amiri was simply one of the those individuals whose extraordinary work and loving humanity constituted and represented the very best in the inspirational history of the powerful African American cultural, aesthetic, and political tradition(s) that informed everything that Baraka did and tried to do in a nearly six decade career. May Amiri rest in eternal peace and may his ongoing legacies continue to inspire, guide, and motivate us to fight for freedom, justice, and self determination in the arts, in our politics, and most importantly in our lives. As Baraka always taught and reminded us: A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues)...What follows is an extensive textual and visual tribute to Baraka's art and life from many different archival sources, including from his own great body of work. Enjoy and spread the word...

Love and Struggle,


“The attempt to divide art and politics is a bourgeois lie which says good poetry, art, cannot be political, but since everything is … political, even an artist or work that claims not to have any politics is making a political statement by that act.” 
--Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka: Fierce Fictions, Radical Truths
by Calvin Reid
May 1, 2000
Publishers weekly
Interview with Amiri Baraka

"You take your life and talk about it any way that you can get into it." 
--Amiri Baraka

As the car carrying PW's interviewer proceeds through Newark, N.J.'s black neighborhoods, one recognizes many of the street names--Hillside, Central Avenue, Newark Street--that crop up in Amiri Baraka's fiction. It's not surprising; Baraka's writing has always been characterized by the habitual retelling of his life's story--his intellectual and emotional development; his conflicts and his strident, impassioned  political transformations.

Born and raised in Newark, Baraka (or LeRoi Jones, as he was known until 1967) still lives in a black middle-class neighborhood not very far from where he grew up. The house where the car stops is large and old and thoroughly lived in. The ground floor is a comfortable warren of light-drenched rooms filled with wood furniture and hung with paintings and prints. Baraka rakes back his long and graying hair as we talk in a small room lined with books. Just as in the photographs of LeRoi Jones from the late '50s and early '60s, Baraka's eyes--wide open, animated and sly--command attention. The writer is short, perhaps five feet, six inches. He's a bit stooped in posture and, as a result of diabetes, rail thin. His dark green pullover and darker slacks hang loose on his frame, but his movements are quick and energetic. His conversation is informally erudite, mildly but comically profane and inflected in the colloquial, hip manner of the black jazz musicians he has written about for decades.

The publication of The Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka this month (Lawrence Hill Books; Forecasts, March 6, 2000) will introduce Baraka's fiction to a new generation of readers. The book includes the two published works that established his reputation as a fiction writer: Tales, a collection of short stories that includes the surreal masterpiece "The Screamers," and The System of Dante's Hell, a Joycean autobiographical work of idiosyncratic linguistic invention. The volume also includes 6 Persons, an unpublished novella that assembles all the  clashing phases of his life into a pointillistic, grumbling, literary self-examination. 6 Persons chronicles Baraka's life up to Malcolm X's murder in 1965, the point at which he broke with the white downtown literary scene (and left his white wife and their two children) and moved to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Company and later the Black Arts Movement.

An uncompromising, albeit cultish and mercurial black political activist, Baraka has radically shifted political ideology in ways that have often left both his admirers and detractors incredulous. After years as an aggressive black nationalist and black arts aesthetician, he became an extreme left-wing Marxist in the 1970s.

Yet despite these political makeovers, his fiction has remained formally inventive, vividly p tic and deeply emotional. Baraka is a seminal American poet, an Obie award-winning playwright (The Dutchman, 1964), a pioneering black jazz critic and a deft literary essayist. His work draws both from African-American vernacular culture (particularly the improvisational legacy of the blues, jazz and black music in general) and the black American literary tradition, with its demands for social justice. He has combined these influences with the experimental techniques and forms associated with the American and European 20th-century literary avant-garde. Baraka's fiction, probably his least known body of work, manages to be both formally difficult and relatively accessible and synthesizes these seemingly antithetical traditions into vibrant works of the American literary imagination.

From Newark to the Air Force

Baraka was born in 1934. His mother was a housewife and his father was a postal worker and an elevator operator. His family emphasized the arts, and at family gatherings, "you had to sing or dance or tell stories or something," he remembers. "You couldn't just sit there, the old folks would think something was wrong with you. 'You can't sing, boy?'" He remembers piano, drum and trumpet lessons, drama class and art school. "My sister and I sang duets."

Small but intense, he was an all-around high school athlete. He won medals in track, played second base, point guard in basketball and was a halfback on the football team. "I love sports. If I had been a little bigger, I would never have been a writer." Baraka also remembers the games of the old Negro Baseball League champions, the Newark Eagles. "We used to go to see them all the time. I knew all the players."

After attending Rutgers ("there was about three black people there") briefly, in 1952 he enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C., the pinnacle of black scholarship for upwardly mobile African-Americans of the period. He remembers Howard with a mixture of pride and irritation. His time there is fictionalized in The System of Dante's Hell, in the story "The Alternative" from Tales and in 6 Persons. But he also flinches at memories of the school's stifling propriety and "the whole caste-color-system" that rewarded light-skinned blacks at the expense of  the dark. "Petty little bourgeois, middle-class Negro madness," says Baraka.
Baraka tells PW he got thrown out of Howard "a couple of times"; "I was more interested in reading and hanging out," than attending classes. "There were always people jammed up in my room. We thought we were intellectuals and we tried to embarrass the Negr s whenever we could."

Originally a premed student, he switched to literature, studying Dante, the 17th-century English p ts and the moderns Stein and Joyce. He praises "some good teachers," like the late p t Sterling Brown, who grounded him in both European classics and in black American culture, particularly "the importance of the blues; that it was first a verse form and then the music flowed from that."

Kicked out of school (he never graduated), he headed back to Newark and joined the air force in 1954. And although he calls it "the worst thing I could have done," he also admits that the air force was "where I really got most of my education." A weatherman and a B-36 gunner, he was stationed in Puerto Rico and ended up the base librarian. Soon, the library became an informal classroom for "about eight, nine of us,  black, white, Mexican. I would order TheHistory of Western Music and each night there would be something else we would listen to, say, 'Well, what do they mean by counterpoint? Oh, that's what it is.'"

And books. "All kinds of books, man--we read Proust in there, all kinds of wild shit that I would never have read--Thomas Hardy, whatever. We'd read the whole New York Times bestseller list, which was BS like it is now, though I think it was a higher level of bull then. I remember this fellow saying, 'What's a Kafka?' I said I don't know what a Kafka is. Order it. Then we'd spend a week reading Kafka. We actually taught ourselves a great deal."

He was also writing poems and sending them to the New Yorker, the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee Review and the Hudson Review. "I would send them all out and they would come back quick. I should have saved those rejections."

In the end, though, Baraka was kicked out of the air force, too. He had too many books in his room--airmen were allowed to have only the Bible and one book--and among them was TheCommunist Manifesto. "Someone said I was a Communist. As it turned out, 40 years later, now it's true," says Baraka laughing.

Discharged from the service, he returned to Newark in 1957, "determined to go to New York." He got a job at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street and moved into an apartment on East 3rd Street in the East Village, "$28 a month for three rooms, no heat. I remember my mother wept when she dropped me there because the place was so shabby." He married the writer and p t Hettie Cohen in 1958, and they began publishing Yugen, an underground literary magazine devoted to the work of other p t luminaries of the beat generation. (Baraka remarried after leaving that marriage; he now has seven children with the p t Amina Baraka).

By the early 1960s, he was reading at different places in the Village, and had published his first volume of p try, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, and his first works of jazz criticism (including Blues People and Black Music, two noted critical histories of blues and jazz). He knew the beat scene and other notable writers of the period: "I met [p t] Jack Micheline down in the Village. Allen [Ginsberg] was in Paris. I sent him a letter on toilet paper asking was he for real. He sent me a letter back on better toilet paper saying that he was tired of being Allen Ginsberg. Allen and I were friends after that."
At the time, he was trying to free his p try from the influence of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. "I decided I would consciously write another way. So I decided to put what I was writing about in my mind as a visible focus, but just write spontaneously off that image." He also let the line of his p try extend across the page. "Other p ts had a tendency to write a short, terse, well-defined kind of line," Baraka explains. "Once I let go of that preconception about the line, I found that the ideas that I wanted to talk about but couldn't, would come out, just flow out. I don't know if I consciously wanted to write fiction. It became that." The result was an extended, prosaic line of verse that prefigured the style of Dante's Hell and 6 Persons, which was written in 1973-1974.

While his work is admittedly autobiographical, Baraka says the books are not an extended memoir. "You take your life and talk about it any way that you can get into it. Some of it's fiction, some of it's like illusion, some of it's would-be, never-be and added-on-to. Some of it's literal. But it's fiction in the sense that it ain't happen like that. It's not linear. It's all kind of ways. Back and forth and up and down; reflections. The mind works like that if it's not put into the straitjacket of trying to recall literally what happened. Ultimately, what you try to get is what was the feeling of that period, what was the emotional charge of that period."

The language in these works is complex, allusive and fragmentary, like thought, but it is also emotional, capturing the raw vernacular of those times, and Baraka's characterizations of whites, homosexuals and Jews will no doubt offend all three groups. "People will jump on me about it," Baraka says. "I was going to make it politically correct, but looking at it, I thought, 'Well, that was then.' I certainly would not have described certain things that way now. In my wild mind that was the way I saw those things. I know some of it is very abrasive."

"I never wanted my fiction to be formal American literature because that's boring to me," Baraka says. "While this stuff might be more difficult, it's much more interesting to write." Surprisingly for such a pivotal literary figure, he has three unpublished novels, written since the 1970s, all in the same streaming, hallucinatory, machine-gun-paced syntax. Baraka shrugs. "The editor of 6 Persons said, 'I can't read that. Why don't you write something clear like Dante?' I said, 'What? A few years ago you told me Dante was unreadable.'"

Baraka has had a long and idiosyncratic publishing career. "My relationships with publishers haven't been great," he says. He declines to talk about his editors. His longest publishing relationship was with William Morrow, but he has also been published by Grove Press, Third World Press, Doubleday, Bantam and Thunder's Mouth Press. The Italian publisher Marsilio is currently publishing his p try and will publish a collection of essays on music later this year. He is represented by Sterling Lord Literistic.

"I'm going to try and get some books published by major publishers and continue to do my own publishing," Baraka says. "I've published a lot of my own works." The unpublished novels include Burning Mirror ("It will give you the mood of the late '70s and the political shenanigans going on"); Why Are You Saying This ("a book about the rise of the buppie, the Negro academic"); and Negrocity ("an overview of all the backwards Negr s I've ever known"). There is also a book of short stories called Tales of the Out and the Gone. And Third World Press is publishing a nonfiction work, Jesse Jackson and Black People, sometime this year.

"Wherever I speak," says Baraka, "I always urge that writers publish their own writing. Don't wait for these people [corporate publishers] to discover you, they're only going to try and turn you into them. Get your own galleries, get your own venues. You've got to have an alternative superstructure to this one, an alternative to this commercial culture."

Amiri Baraka Reading his Poetry with Music at the University of Pennslyvania in March 2013 with the Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. ensemble:

The masterful synthesis of words and music that allows the transformational merger of the lyrical and the powerful to reveal the truth...

Amiri Baraka reads "Somebody Blew Up America". (2009) Saxophone played by Rob Brown

"Somebody Blew Up America" by Amiri Baraka with Rob Brown-saxophone, recorded live on February 21, 2009 at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy NY.
The poet icon and political activist Amiri Baraka performs with Rob Brown, an eloquent and versatile saxophonist with a deep knowledge of jazz, in a reading from his book "Somebody Blew Up America & Other Poems.

This production is part of "Free Jazz at the Sanctuary," a 13-part series of performance videos featuring some of the world's most talented improvisers. Each hour-long show is available on DVD directly from Downtown Music Gallery
( For more information on this series, visit

Amiri Baraka "Obama Poem" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Un Poco Loco" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Why's/Wise" (2-21-2009)

Def Poetry Jam TV appearance - Amiri Baraka - "Why is We Americans?"




Amiri Baraka Reading his Poetry with Music at the University of Pennslyvania in March 2013 with the Guthrie Ramsey, Jr. ensemble:

The masterful synthesis of words and music that allows the transformational merger of the lyrical and the powerful to reveal the truth...

Amiri Baraka reads "Somebody Blew Up America". (2009) Saxophone played by Rob Brown

"Somebody Blew Up America" by Amiri Baraka with Rob Brown-saxophone, recorded live on February 21, 2009 at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy NY.
The poet icon and political activist Amiri Baraka performs with Rob Brown, an eloquent and versatile saxophonist with a deep knowledge of jazz, in a reading from his book "Somebody Blew Up America and Other Poems.

This production is part of "Free Jazz at the Sanctuary," a 13-part series of performance videos featuring some of the world's most talented improvisers. Each hour-long show is available on DVD directly from Downtown Music Gallery

( For more information on this series, visit

Amiri Baraka "Obama Poem" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Un Poco Loco" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" (2-21-2009):

Amiri Baraka "Why's/Wise" (2-21-2009)

Def Poetry Jam TV appearance - Amiri Baraka - "Why is We Americans?" (2005)


"The artist's role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world and themselves more completely. That's how I see it. Otherwise, I don't know why you do it."

'A man is either free or he is not. There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedom.'

"Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is."

"To name something is to wait for it in the place you think it will pass."

"If the flag of an armed enemy of the U.S. {the confederacy) is allowed to fly over government buildings, then it implies that slavery, or at least the threat of slavery, is sanctioned by that government and can still legally exist."

"“Art is a weapon in the struggle of ideas, the class struggle.”

"“There is no justice in America, but it is the fight for justice that sustains you.”

"“Art is whatever makes you proud to be human.”

"“God has been replaced, as he has all over the West, with respectability and air conditioning.”

"“There is no depth to education without art.”

“Since the rich eat more/ than anybody else/ It is reasonable to assume/ that they are more full of shit.”

“Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis.”

Amiri Baraka: The Power of the Word:

Black Arts poet Amiri Baraka reads from his work, & discusses writing, politics & the Black experience with novelist and American literature professor Alexs Pate at the University of Minnesota in 2008. Co-produced with the support of the Givens Foundation:

Amiri Baraka speaks to the Importance of African-American History at the University of Virginia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day January 15, 2011:

Amiri Baraka

Newark , NJ

Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, on October 7, 1934. His father, Colt LeRoy Jones, was a postal supervisor; Anna Lois Jones, his mother, was a social worker. He attended Rutgers University for two years, then transferred to Howard University, where in 1954 he earned his BA in English. He served in the Air Force from 1954 until 1957, then moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There he joined a loose circle of Greenwich Village artists, musicians, and writers. The following year he married Hettie Cohen and began co-editing the avant-garde literary magazine Yugen with her. That year he also founded Totem Press, which first published works by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others.

He published his first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, in 1961. From 1961 to 1963 he was co-editor, with Diane Di Prima, of The Floating Bear, a literary newsletter. His increasing hostility toward and mistrust of white society was reflected in two plays, The Slave and The Toilet, both written in 1962. 1963 saw the publication of Blues People: Negro Music in White America, which he wrote, and The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, which he edited and introduced. His reputation as a playwright was established with the production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York on March 24, 1964. The controversial play subsequently won an Obie Award (for “best off-Broadway play”) and was made into a film.

In 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones repudiated his former life and ended his marriage. He moved to Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. The company, which produced plays that were often anti-white and intended for a black audience, dissolved in a few months. He moved back to Newark, and in 1967 he married poet Sylvia Robinson (now known as Amina Baraka). That year he also founded the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of Baraka’s plays against police brutality: Police and Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself.

In 1968, he co-edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing with Larry Neal and his play Home on the Range was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther party. That same year he became a Muslim, changing his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. (“Imamu” means “spiritual leader.”) He assumed leadership of his own black Muslim organization, Kawaida. From 1968 to 1975, Baraka was chairman of the Committee for Unified Newark, a black united front organization. In 1969, his Great Goodness of Life became part of the successful “Black Quartet” off-Broadway, and his play Slave Ship was widely reviewed. Baraka was a founder and chairman of the Congress of African People, a national Pan-Africanist organization with chapters in 15 cities, and he was one of the chief organizers of the National Black Political Convention, which convened in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 to organize a more unified political stance for African-Americans.

In 1974 Baraka adopted a Marxist Leninist philosophy and dropped the spiritual title “Imamu.” In 1983, he and Amina Baraka edited Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and in 1987 they published The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka was published in 1984.

Amiri Baraka’s numerous literary prizes and honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, and a lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

He taught poetry at the New School for Social Research in New York, literature at the University of Buffalo, and drama at Columbia University. He also taught at San Francisco State University, Yale University and George Washington University. Since 1985 he has been a professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He was co-director, with his wife, of Kimako’s Blues People, a community arts space.

Amiri Baraka died on January 9, 2014.

Selected Bibliography


Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961)
The Dead Lecturer (1964)
Black Art (1969)
Black Magic: Collected Poetry 1961-1967 (1969)
It’s Nation Time (1970)
Spirit Reach (1972)
Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979)
The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991)
Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1961-1995) (1995)
Wise Why’s Y’s: The Griot’s Tale (1995)
Funk Lore: New Poems (1984-1995) (1996)
Somebody Blew up America and Other Poems (House of Nehesi, 2003)


Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (1984)
Conversations with Amiri Baraka (1994)
Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979 (1984)
Eulogies (1996)
Home: Social Essays (1966)
Jesse Jackson & Black People (1996)
Raise, Race, Rays, Raze: Essays Since 1965 (1971)
The Essence of Reparations (2003)


Arm Yrself or Harm Yrself (1967)
BA-RA-KA (1972)
Black Power Chant (1972)
Dutchman and The Slave: Two Plays (1964)
Four Black Revolutionary Plays, All Praises to the Black Man (1969)
General Hag’s Skeezag (1992)
Home on the Range (1968)
Jello (1970)
Junkies Are Full of (SHHH...) (1970)
Police (1968)
Rockgroup (1969)
Selected Plays and Prose of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1979)
The Baptism and The Toilet (1967)
The Death of Malcolm X (1969)
The Motion of History, and Other Plays (1978)
The Sidney Poet Heroical, in 29 Scenes (1979)


Tales (1967)
The System of Dante’s Hell (1965)
Three Books by Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) (1975)

Amiri Baraka Photo credit: James Madison University

Amiri Baraka: Selected Poems
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
(For Kellie Jones born 16 May 1959)

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

In Memory of Radio
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake's hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts...
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)
; love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn't like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let's Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn't throw stones?) "Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
This Love.

Notes For a Speech

African blues
does not know me. Their steps, in sands
of their own
land. A country
in black & white, newspapers
blown down pavements
of the world. Does
not feel
what I am.


in the dream, an oblique
suckling of nerve, the wind
throws up sand, eyes
are something locked in
hate, of hate, of hate, to
walk abroad, they conduct
their deaths apart
from my own. Those
heads, I call
my "people."

(And who are they. People. To concern

myself, ugly man. Who
you, to concern
the white flat stomachs
of maidens, inside houses
dying. Black. Peeled moon
light on my fingers
move under
her clothes. Where
is her husband. Black
words throw up sand
to eyes, fingers of
their private dead. Whose
soul, eyes, in sand. My color
is not theirs. Lighter, white man
talk. They shy away. My own
dead souls, my, so called
people. Africa
is a foreign place. You are
as any other sad man here


"A closed window looks down
on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
call across or scream across or walk across
defying physics in the stream of their will.

Our world is full of sound
Our world is more lovely than anyone's
tho we suffer, and kill each other
and sometimes fail to walk the air.

We are beautiful people
With African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms
tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.

We have been captured,
and we labor to make our getaway, into
the ancient image; into a new

Correspondence with ourselves
and our Black family. We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy,and create. What will be

the sacred word?

Monday in B-Flat

I can pray
all day
& God
wont come.

But if I call
The Devil
Be here

in a minute!

Wise I

WHYS (Nobody Knows
The Trouble I Seen)

If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
by enemies
who won't let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues and instruments,
who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
deep trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep


probably take you several hundred years
to get


(All thinking people
oppose terrorism
both domestic
& international…
But one should not
be used
To cover the other)

They say its some terrorist, some
A Rab, in
It wasn't our American terrorists
It wasn't the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn't Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring

It wasn't
the gonorrhea in costume
the white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases

They say (who say? Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks

Who got fat from plantations
Who genocided Indians
Tried to waste the Black nation

Who live on Wall Street
The first plantation
Who cut your nuts off
Who rape your ma
Who lynched your pa

Who got the tar, who got the feathers
Who had the match, who set the fires
Who killed and hired
Who say they God & still be the Devil

Who the biggest only
Who the most goodest
Who do Jesus resemble

Who created everything
Who the smartest
Who the greatest
Who the richest
Who say you ugly and they the goodlookingest

Who define art
Who define science

Who made the bombs
Who made the guns

Who bought the slaves, who sold them

Who called you them names
Who say Dahmer wasn't insane

Who/ Who / Who/

Who stole Puerto Rico
Who stole the Indies, the Philipines, Manhattan
Australia & The Hebrides
Who forced opium on the Chinese

Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers

Who owned the slave ship
Who run the army

Who the fake president
Who the ruler
Who the banker

Who/ Who/ Who/

Who own the mine
Who twist your mind
Who got bread
Who need peace
Who you think need war

Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain't nobody bigger

Who own this city

Who own the air
Who own the water

Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder
and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth

Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime

Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos


Who own the ocean

Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio

Who own what ain't even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain't the real owners

Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws

Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying

Who the Beast in Revelations
Who 666
Who decide
Jesus get crucified

Who the Devil on the real side
Who got rich from Armenian genocide

Who the biggest terrorist
Who change the bible
Who killed the most people
Who do the most evil
Who don't worry about survival

Who have the colonies
Who stole the most land
Who rule the world
Who say they good but only do evil
Who the biggest executioner

Who/Who/Who ^^^

Who own the oil
Who want more oil
Who told you what you think that later you find out a lie
Who/ Who/ ???

Who fount Bin Laden, maybe they Satan
Who pay the CIA,
Who knew the bomb was gonna blow
Who know why the terrorists
Learned to fly in Florida, San Diego

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion

Who need fossil fuel when the sun ain't goin' nowhere

Who make the credit cards
Who get the biggest tax cut
Who walked out of the Conference
Against Racism
Who killed Malcolm, Kennedy & his Brother
Who killed Dr King, Who would want such a thing?
Are they linked to the murder of Lincoln?

Who invaded Grenada
Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later

Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,

Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby

Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin's head

Who put the Jews in ovens,
and who helped them do it
Who said "America First"
and ok'd the yellow stars

Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced,
tortured , assassinated, vanished

Who got rich from Algeria, Libya, Haiti,
Iran, Iraq, Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon,
Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine,

Who cut off peoples hands in the Congo
Who invented Aids Who put the germs
In the Indians' blankets
Who thought up "The Trail of Tears"

Who blew up the Maine
& started the Spanish American War
Who got Sharon back in Power
Who backed Batista, Hitler, Bilbo,
Chiang kai Chek who WHO W H O/

Who decided Affirmative Action had to go
Reconstruction, The New Deal, The New
Frontier, The Great Society,

Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for
Who doo doo come out the Colon's mouth
Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza
Who pay Connelly to be a wooden negro
Who give Genius Awards to Homo Locus

Who overthrew Nkrumah, Bishop,
Who poison Robeson,
who try to put DuBois in Jail
Who frame Rap Jamil al Amin, Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
The Scottsboro Boys, The Hollywood Ten

Who set the Reichstag Fire

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away ?
Who,Who, Who/
explosion of Owl the newspaper say
the devil face cd be seen Who WHO Who WHO

Who make money from war
Who make dough from fear and lies
Who want the world like it is
Who want the world to be ruled by imperialism and national oppression and terror
violence, and hunger and poverty.

Who is the ruler of Hell?
Who is the most powerful

Who you know ever
Seen God?

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who ^
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

AMIRI B 10/01

In the Funk World
If Elvis Presley/ is
Who is James Brown,


I wanted to know my mother when she sat

looking sad across the campus in the late 20's

into the future of the soul, there were black angels

straining above her head, carrying life from our ancesters,

and knowledge, and the strong nigger feeling. She sat

(in that photo in the yearbook I showed Vashti) getting into

new blues, from the old ones, the trips and passions

showered on her by her own. Hypnotizing me, from so far

ago, from that vantage of knowledge passed on to her

passed on to me and all the other black people of our time.

When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to

black people. May they pick me apart and take the

useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave

the bitter bullshit rotten white parts


Works by Amiri Baraka: A Selected Bibliography

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, poems, 1961
Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1963
The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, 1963 (editor)
Dutchman and The Slave, drama, 1964
The System of Dante's Hell, novel, 1965
Home: Social Essays, 1965
A Black Mass, drama 1966
Tales, short stories 1967
The Baptism and The Toilet, drama, 1967
Black Magic, poems, 1969
Four Black Revolutionary Plays, 1969
In Our Terribleness, essays, 1970
Slave Ship, drama 1970
It's Nation Time, poems, 1970
Jello, play, 1970
Raise Race Rays Raze: Essays Since 1965, 1971
Spirit Reach, poems, 1972
African Congress: A Documentary of the first Modern Pan-African Congress (editor), 1972
Hard Facts, poems, 1975
The Motion of History and Other Plays, 1978
The Sidney Poet Heroical, drama, 1979
Poetry for the Advanced, 1979
reggae or not!, 1981
Daggers and Javelins: Essays 1974-1979, 1984
The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, 1984; revised 2nd edition 1997
The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, 1987
Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones, 1961- 1995
Wise, Why’s, Y’s, poems, 1995
Funk Lore: New Poems, 1996.
Somebody Blew Up America, poem 2001
The Book of Monk, poems 2005
Tales of the Out & the Gone, 2006
Billy Harper: Blueprints of Jazz, Volume 2, Audio CD, essay, 2008
Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, essays, 2009
The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, 1963 (editor)
Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, 1968 (editor with Larry Neal)
Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, 1983 (editor with Amina Baraka)
Film Appearances
Motherland (film) (2009)
Ferlinghetti: A City Light (2008) .... Himself
The Black Candle (2008)
Corso: The Last Beat (2008)
Oscene (2007) .... Himself
Turn Me On (2007) (TV) .... Himself
Revolution '67 (2007) .... Himself
Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place (2007)
Retour à Gorée (2007) .... Himself
The Pact (2006) .... Himself
The Ballad of Greenwich Village (2005) .... Himself
500 Years Later (2005) (voice) .... Himself
Hubert Selby Jr: It/ll Be Better Tomorrow (2005) .... Himself
Keeping Time: The Life, Music & Photography of Milt Hinton (2004) .... Himself
Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (2004) .... Himself
Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002) .... Himself
Strange Fruit (2002) .... Himself
Piñero (2001) .... Himself
Bulworth (1998) .... Rastaman
Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry 1960-95, Volume II: Warriors (1998) .... Himself
Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978) .... Himself
Fried Shoes Cooked Diamonds (1978) .... Himself
One P.M. (1972)

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present (Books on the work of Amiri Baraka)
Broderick, James F. Paging New Jersey: A Literary Guide to the Garden State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003.

Brown, Lloyd W. Amiri Baraka. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. PS3552.A583 Z57

Campbell, James. Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark. Berkeley: U of California P, 2008.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.

Grandt, Jürgen E. Kinds of Blue: The Jazz Aesthetic in African American Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2004.

Johnson, Cedric. Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Joyce, Joyce A. Black Studies as Human Studies: Critical Essays and Interviews. Albany: State U of New York P, 2005.

Lacey, Henry C. To raise, destroy, and create: the poetry, drama, and fiction of Imamu Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones). Troy, NY: Whitston Pub. Co., 1988 PS3552 .A583 Z75

Reilly, Charlie. ed. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.

Watts, Jerry G. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. NY: New York UP, 2001.


(Originally posted on October 7, 2009):

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Tribute to the Life and Work of Amiri Baraka on his 75th Birthday

An Excerpt From:

Blues People: The Negro Experience In White America and the Music That Developed From It
William Morrow, 1963
by Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka)

Chapter One:

The Negro as Non-American: Some Backgrounds

When black people got to this country, they were Africans, a foreign people. Their customs, attitudes, desires, were shaped to a different place, a radically different life. What a weird and unbelievably cruel destiny for those people who were first brought here. Not just the mere fact of being sold into slavery--that in itself was common practice among the tribes of West Africa, and the economic system in which these new slaves were to form so integral a part was not so strange either. In fact, Melville Herskovits points out, "Slavery [had] long existed in the entire region [of West Africa], and in at least one of its kingdoms, Dahomey, a kind of plantation system was found under which an absentee ownership, with the ruler as principal, demanded the utmost return from the estates, and thus created conditions of labor resembling the regime the slaves were to encounter in the New World."' But to be brought to a country, a culture, a society, that was, and is, in terms of purely philosophical correlatives, the complete antithesis of one's own version of man's life on earth--that is the cruelest aspect of this particular enslavement.
An African who was enslaved by Africans, or for that matter, a Western white man who was, or is, enslaved by another Western white man can still function as a kind of human being. An economic cipher perhaps, even subject to unmentionable cruelties--but that man, even as the lowest and most despised member of the community, remains an essential part and member of whatever community he is enslaved in; the idea being, even if an African from the Guinea Coast is sold or beaten into slavery by an African from the Gold Coast, there continues to exist, at the very least, some understanding that what the victor has reduced into whatever cruel bondage is a man--another human being. There remains some condition of communication on strictly human terms between Babylonian and Israelite or Assyrian and Chaldean that allows finally for acceptance of the slave caste as merely an economically oppressed group. To the Romans, slaves were merely vulgar and conquered peoples who had not the rights of Roman citizenship. The Greeks thought of their slaves as unfortunate people who had failed to cultivate their minds and wills, and were thus reduced to that lowly but necessary state. But these slaves were still human beings. However, the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race.

From the actress Frances Anne Kemble's, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation: "The only exception that I have met with yet among our boat voices to the high tenor which they seem all to possess is in the person of an individual named Isaac, a basso profundo of the deepest dye, who nevertheless never attempts to produce with his different register any different effects in the chorus by venturing a second, but sings like the rest in unison, perfect unison, of both time and tune. By-the-by, this individual does speak, and therefore I presume he is not an ape, orangoutang, chimpanzee, or gorilla; but I could not, I confess, have conceived it possible that the presence of articulate sounds, and the absense of an articulate tail, should make, externally at least, so completely the only appreciable difference between a man and a monkey, as they appear to do in this individual `black brother.' Such stupendous long thin hands, and long flat feet, I did never see off a large quadruped of the ape species. But, as I said before, Isaac speaks, and I am much comforted thereby."

There was no communication between master and slave on any strictly human level, but only the relation one might have to a piece of property--if you twist the knob on your radio you expect it to play. It was this essential condition of nonhumanity that characterized the African slave's lot in this country of his captivity, a country which was later and ironically to become his land also.

Perhaps more weight will be added to the idea of the foreignness of the African in the New World if we consider that not only were the Africans completely different in appearance from their captors, but there was not even a semblance of similarity between the various dialects those Africans spoke and colonial English. In Greece, there were slaves who taught Greek children their grammar and conducted classes in botany, as well as performing more menial tasks. The Romans employed slaves in the theater, in gladiatorial combats, and utilized the highly-educated foreign slaves as instructors. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus were slaves. But the black slave in America had no chance for such intelligent diversion based on his skills or prominence in his own country. The African's sole purpose in America was, for the most part, to provide the cheapest agricultural labor possible to procure. Any deviation from this purpose was either accidental or extremely rare. (Even such a normal phenomenon as the "house nigra" was nonexistent on the smaller farms; on the larger plantation there were only one or two. Sometimes the house slave was merely the oldest or most infirm member of the owner's retinue; even after the advent of the African slave, for some time house servants on the larger plantations were indentured white persons.)

It is certain that it was this foreignness and the reluctance of the white American to think of the African as another man that helped early to fix the African's, and later the AfroAmerican's, place in American society--just as the color of the African's skin set him apart from the rest of the society blatantly and permanently. A freed serf, if he was lucky, could hope at least to matriculate into the lower rungs of the general society and perhaps find some genuine niche in the mainstream of that society in which to function as a citizen, a man. But the African, and later even the freed black, was always apart. A freed Negro, and there were quite a few of them even before the so-called Emancipation, would always remain an ex-slave. Otherwise, what was he doing in this country.

Anthony Braxton - Five Pieces -Comp 23 G

Anthony Braxton - "Comp. 40 M" (1974):

Anthony Braxton Quartet 1974 ~ "Ornithology" (by Charlie Parker)

Anthony Braxton - "Composition 55"

Anthony Braxton - "Composition No 1”

Anthony Braxton Quartet Spain 1983

Anthony Braxton Live in concert and interviewed in 2010