Baraka's bohemian blues.
He asked me did I think it was about me? He said, "You think it's about you?" I did and didn't know what he meant. In some ways, I guess, I did think it was about me. Albert meant it was really about Spirit and Energy.
When Baraka goes on to describe Ayler's playing, you can feel him straining for a vernacular linguistic effect that matches the visceral, physical power of the music:
Albert, we found out quickly, could play his ass off. He had a sound, alone, unlike anyone else's. It tore through you, broad, jagged like something out of nature. Some critics said his sound was primitive. Shit, it was before that! It was a big massive sound and wail. The crying, shouting moan of black spirituals and God music.... Albert was mad. His playing was like some primordial frenzy that the world secretly used for energy. (194-95)
By this time, Baraka had thrown himself headlong into the work of building networks and institutions in the black community that would, as Larry Neal described the purpose of the Black Arts Movement, "speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of black people" (62). Not incidentally, this cultural work signaled a key shift in Baraka's relationship to jazz and in his approach to writing about the music. Whereas earlier--even in his sharp critiques of white critics--Baraka had engaged "my more serious colleagues" in analytical debates about Western concepts of art and criticism, now he was a people's intellectual, a revolutionary voice heralding a new expressive mode for a new black identity. As Baraka aligned himself with the community-oriented goals and methods of the Black Power Movement, drenched his writing and public performances in the rhythms and tonalities of the black urban vernacular, and hoisted himself up as an arbiter of black authenticity, his quest for what Werner Sollors has called a "populist modernism" involved a tricky effort to reconcile collective political imperatives with the individual aesthetic freedom he prized as both a poet and a champion of the jazz avant-garde.
By and large, the Amiri Baraka who has been both memorialized and scorned is the black nationalist of the mid-to-late 1960s, the firebrand proselytizer of the black aesthetic, the dazzling "geniu[s] of performance and chameleon register-shifting," as Houston Baker, Jr., has remembered him (xv). In this period Baraka joined such political figures as Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton in giving Black Power a distinctive masculinist intonation. Like Norman Mailer and other celebrity/intellectual outlaws, Baraka embodied the convulsive, spontaneous, and violent impulses of the 1960s. Obscured in this telescoping of Baraka's image, however, is the crucial point that Baraka, as Gerald Early has perceptively noted, was not a product of the 1960s, but "an intellectual child of the fifties" (200).
As he recounts in his autobiography, Baraka's self-tutorial during his mid-1950s' Air Force years led him "into the world of Quattrocento, vers libre, avant-garde, surrealism and dada, New Criticism, cubism, art nouveau, objectivism, 'Prufrock,' ambiguity, art music, rococo, shoe and non-shoe, [and] Highbrow vs. Middlebrow" (121). Werner Sollors has written that the Greenwich Village bohemian Baraka's "first form of protest against the middle class was at aesthetic rebellion, formulated as an indictment, not of racism, capitalism, or the Cold War, but of middle-brow taste" (14). Baraka's poems and social essays in this period were startling: Spring-loaded, razor-sharp, humorous lacerating, prophetic, they called out the trite, the false, the philistine, and the hypocritical in American culture. His main target was the middle class, the white one that dominated American politics and culture, and the black one from which he had emerged and never tired of savaging for what he regarded as a feeble grasping for respectability through slavish mimicry of the decadent white mainstream.
From The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones and Hettie Jones's memoir How I Became Hettie Jones, we glean contrasting but mutually illuminating portraits of the Village years, years in which the Jones household served as a key venue of downtown bohemia: a work space for their magazine Yugen: a new consciousness in arts and letters, a play space for such vivid illustrations of the new consciousness as a nude, lotus-positioned, mantra-chanting Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg, in a 1988 interview, recalled the heady, multi-arts, intergenerational spirit of that time and place:
I met Langston Hughes at LeRoi Jones's party one night when Ornette Coleman was playing music and everyone was dancing. That's the only time I met Langston Hughes. In '59 or '60. A great touching moment in history. When Black Mountain, Beatniks, the Abstract Expressionists, the freedom jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, all met in one room.
The Village's cheap rents, coffeehouses, bars, and galleries offered a tentative but shaky refuge against dominant American racism and philistinism. "Living in Greenwich Village ..., perhaps the most highly 'integrated community' in the United States," Baraka later recalled, "I felt free to move and think as I wanted to, but I was nevertheless constantly running into the northern liberal bohemian varieties of racism and national oppression and tried to deal with it as I could" (Home 6).
The East Village proved more progressive and emerged as a center of the black avant-garde. A kind of downtown Harlem Renaissance arose on the Lower East Side, with the Umbra writer's collective, Freedomways magazine, La MaMa Experimental Theater, and the Negro Ensemble Company foreshadowing the full flowering of the Black Arts Movement uptown in Harlem later in the decade. (1) Black writers and artists on the Lower East Side in these years included David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, A. B. Spellman, Tom Dent, Calvin Hernton, Lorenzo Thomas, Brenda Walcott, Sarah Wright, Emilio Cruz, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Bob Thompson, ant such "new thing" jazz musicians as Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, and Sonny Murray. The sound of the new jazz was, literally, in the air of the Jones's Cooper Square neighborhood, as Hettie Jones lyrically observes:
... the trumpeter Don Cherry would announce his arrival by playing a wooden flute, so clear it broke through the traffic noise. The acoustics of Cooper Square augmented every music: if it was warm weather when Archie[ Shepp]'s groups played, they'd open his studio windows and let the sound ricochet off the factories and repeat a millisecond later on the tenement wall on Fifth Street. The Five Spot was only a stone's throw away. Roi was always hanging out the window. The casual proximity to his life of his chosen frame of reference, the source of so many images, made him deeply happy. (172)
Baraka's first jazz writing, a piece on saxophonist Buddy Tate, was published in 1959 in Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams's Jazz Review, and by the early 1960s he was also appearing in Down Beat, Metronome, and in jazz LP liner notes. His liner for Coltrane Live at Birdland opens with one of the acerbic, paradoxical images characteristic of the new sensibility that Baraka brought to jazz letters: "One of the most baffling things about America is that, despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here." Coltrane's music, Baraka deadpans, "is one of the reasons suicide seems so boring." Brashly defying the strictures of New Critical formalism and the pleasantries of middlebrow journalism, Baraka turned jazz writing into a performance, an intense drama of sound, feeling, and movement. Here he is describing Elvin Jones's drumming: "The long tag of 'Afro-Blue,' with Elvin thrashing and cursing beneath Trane's line is unbelievable. Beautiful has nothing to do with it, but it is. (I got up and danced while writing these notes, screaming at Elvin to cool it)." The phrase thrashing and cursing rides the pulse of the music and endows it with human personality; Elvin Jones is a percussion warrior, waging battle in sound. The terse dismissal, then fleet embrace, of the concept of the "beautiful" pithily captures Baraka's ambivalent posture toward the Western art tradition; he'll accept the category, but insists on defining it on his own terms. No sooner than invoking the vocabulary of classic criticism, however, Baraka redirects attention to his own body and voice--he puts himself back on the stage, dancing and screaming, one with the music. (2)
Baraka was developing this new black critical voice for the new black music while still immersed in a white-dominated jazz writer's milieu. Years later, Baraka would underline his disgust with the reactionary racial politics of the Reagan era by looking back fondly on his jazz writing experience in the late 1950s/early 1960s:
Many of the white critics of the period, like Martin Williams, Larry Gushee, Frank Kofsky, Nat Hentoff, Frank Driggs, Ross Russell, were ready and able to go beyond surface interviews, gee-whiz-ism, and commercial puff pieces, to deal with intriguing aspects of the music technically, historically, aesthetically, and socially. The Jazz Review had a great deal of input from the musicians themselves. Metronome took up some of the burning social questions related to the music and its principal players. And there were quite a few black writers who left their mark on the development of an all-around American critical standard, such as Larry Neal, A. B. Spellman, James T. Stewart, and, a little later, Ron Welburn and Holly West. (Amiri and Amina Baraka, The Music 259)
That Baraka would continue to praise certain white critics even after his turn to black cultural nationalism must be borne in mind when considering Baraka's 1963 Down Beat essay "Jazz and the White Critic." Often read retrospectively as a proto-nationalist call for racial exclusion, the essay in it own time was instead a challenge to jazz writers of all backgrounds to reckon with the lived experience of black Americans and to consider how this experience had been embedded in the notes, tones, and rhythms of the music. Identifying class privilege as the key stumbling block, Baraka dissected the middlebrow attitudes he thought had prevented the white jazz writers the 1930s and '40s from understanding the fundamental emotional and psychological motivations of the black jazz musician.
By the time he published Blues People in 1963, Baraka's work had come to embody a racialized version of existential hip. In this book, Baraka's recuperation of African culture as the core of African American identity was a brief for racial solidarity that anticipated the black nationalist agenda. But it was also a modernist gesture redolent of the mass-culture critique formulate by 1950s' left intellectuals. In popular works like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950), William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956), John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, and Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuader, (1957), and in influential little magazine fare like the Partisan Review's 195 symposium "Our Country and Our Culture," Dwight McDonald's "Masscult & Midcult," and Norman Mailer's "The White Negro," leading social critics anguished over soul-deadening conformity, mindless materialism, and cultural sterility in postwar America. It seemed to these critics that America's triumph in World War II and emergence as a military and economic superpower had delivered nothing better than prefabricated ranch houses, packaged food, tailfins, specious advertising, and lifeless corporate bureaucracies. Baraka's voracious reading in the 1950s--he admits to stealing books from the Partisan Review offices when Hettie worked there--exposed him to these laments. Writing in 1959 of Ellison's Invisible Man, Baraka suggested that, while the book superficially addressed a "Negro theme," it was actually more concerned with the "horrifying portrait of a man faced with the loss of his identity through the weird swinishness of American society." Blues People, a racially inflected modern American jeremiad, abounds in references to "vague, featureless Americans," "the sinister vapidity of American culture," and the "shoddy cornucopia of popular American culture." In an echoing of Mailer's "The White Negro"--but without that essay's stereotyped equation of black culture with lack of inhibition and sexual prowess--Baraka insisted in Blues People that "Negroness ... is the only strength left to American culture." (3)
If the status and fate of this "Negro-ness"--where it comes from, who has it, who has lost it, who wants it, how it expresses itself in sound and attitude--is the central question of Blues People, the book always defines black music by its relationship to white culture. The full title of the book--Blues People: Negro Music in White America--provides an important clue: Baraka was interested in jazz's position at the seam between black and white culture, its status as a black-centered object of both white intellectual fascination and commercial commodification. While coming a perspective recognizably distinct from those of Hentoff, Williams, Ellison, Feather, Steams, Balliett, and Morgenstern, the Baraka of the early 1960s worked within the same general intellectual framework as these critics. Baraka sharply challenged the critical establishment, to be sure, but in doing so he embraced several of its fundamental purposes: establishing jazz's centrality in American national culture, honing tools of historical analysis and textual criticism, and guarding the music against the contaminating influence of mass culture. The challenge that Baraka took on in the early years of his jazz writing was to pull black music out of the triumphalist American ideology while still keeping it at the center of the national narrative.
There's not enough space here for a full exegesis of this complex, irksome, fascinating book, or of the famously surgical Ralph Ellison critique. But let me summarize the debate this way: Whereas Ellison affirmatively celebrates American culture as a triumph of miscegenation in which blacks and whites engage in a tussle of "antagonistic cooperation" that helps them bring out the best in each other, Baraka, by contrast, grimly sees the dynamic of American culture as black resistance against white corruption, a rearguard action made necessary by the American culture industry's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for appropriation and debasement. Ellison incisively underscores the pessimism inherent in Baraka's argument: If Baraka were right that black culture had been denuded of its authenticity, stripped of its essential properties, by its commodification in the American entertainment industry, then the "blues people" of twentieth-century urban America were trapped in a defensive, reactive posture, fatally consigned to having their cultural expression predetermined by forces beyond their control. The logic of this position, paradoxically, forces Baraka to acknowledge interracial contact as a defining feature of a music he wants desperately to claim as an emblem of racial authenticity.
Baraka's black high modernism and anti-mass-cult ideology leave him unable to deal with the popular: hence, the claim that big-band jazz "developed into a music that had almost nothing to do with the blues" and "had very little to do with black America"; the conspicuous absence of even a single mention of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, which at the time of Blues People's publication was on its way to becoming the best-selling jazz record of all time; and the summary dismissal of rhythm-and-blues and the funk/soul jazz movement as retrogressive forms with "no serious commitment to expression or emotional profundity." These critical positions, coupled with his deep immersion in the avant-garde scene, put Baraka at odds with many in the black community. As A. B. Spellman said at the time, "The man standing in line for the Otis Redding show at the Apollo almost certainly never heard of tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, and wouldn't have the fuzziest idea of what he was doing if he did hear him" (167). When Baraka elaborated on his hard bop critique in a caustic review of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in Jazz magazine, a black reader from Philadelphia named Ben Page took him to task:
When Jones first appeared, being a Negro writer and all I was very happy indeed and had hoped that be might develop his capacities and evolve into perhaps the first major Negro jazz critic. But instead he has merely found a forum for his "new thing" type vernacular (which might explain his preoccupation with "new thing" musicians).
Page took exception to Baraka's tone:
... he really did it when he referred to the effusive Art Blakey as "Massa Blakey." If I were Art I'd have to speak to him about that. Or better yet, I'd give him a nice fat shunk in his unbaptized mouth, a la Mingus. Jones should be happy he is a Negro when doing something like that; otherwise he would be open to very, very many and sundry racial charges none of which I care to mention here.
This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the complicated personal politics of Baraka's move out of Greenwich Village, the costume change from Afro-Edwardian Brooks Brothers to righteous African dashiki, the transformation from bohemian to black nationalist to Marxist political guerilla. Instead, let me briefly note the change in register in Baraka's voice as a jazz writer. If "Jazz and the White Critic" was a manifesto and Blues People a larger historical brief for a jazz criticism more attuned to black experience, the deeper black aesthetic poetics of Baraka's post-1965 jazz writing signal an engagement with the music that defies and seeks to transcend the strictures and boundaries of jazz criticism altogether.
One finds this new rhetoric in Baraka's famous 1966 essay "The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)," a piece that also filters Baraka's perennial anxiety about white influence through his newly heightened concern about divisions of taste, style, and cultural identification in the black community. Like a free-jazz solo he wanted not merely to describe but to imitate, Baraka's essay is a long, intense performance, full of bardic voicings and a sweeping epic vision. The point of the essay is to evangelize the coming of a "unity music" that combines virtually the entire panoply of black musical expression into a new "social spiritualism." Where earlier Baraka had ridiculed the black church as a tool of white power, here he adopts a funky avant-Baptist sermonizing idiom to call for a black music communalism that dissolves the border between sacred and secular and transcends social divisions and stylistic differences. Reversing his earlier dismissal of the 1950s' funk-groove-soul revival, Baraka now praises Horace Silver and Ray Charles for using gospel influence to " 'rescue' the music from the icebox of cool jazz" (204). The avant-garde and rhythm-and-blues, he writes, "are the same family looking at different things. Or looking at things differently" (211). The difference between the avant-garde and "what the cat on the block digs" is a difference in the level of self-consciousness, not in fundamental emotional and physical reality. Surface stylistic differences among James Brown, John Coltrane, the Supremes, and Albert Ayler are insignificant compared to the platonic blackness they shared. As ever, Baraka defines what this racial identity is by what it is not: Blackness for him is something that is lacking in whiteness, an emotional and spiritual authenticity--almost invariably masculine in his imagination--that blacks see whites desperately seeking but never achieving. The black in James Brown is the dose of male hormones and mystical soul that a latter-day minstrel performer like Mick Jagger would need to be James Brown.
In 1967, in his magisterial study The Crisis of the Black Intellectual, Harold Cruse rued that Baraka, after the success of Blues People, did not take the next step of founding a black jazz publication and a jazz institute in Harlem. "The problem here is that, despite Blues People, the white jazz critics are still deciding the status and fortune of Negro jazzmen," Cruse wrote (540). In fact, Baraka did make gestures in the direction of institution-building and community outreach. In Harlem, the Black Arts initiative--aided by government and mainstream foundation monies--included the Jazzmobile, a gerryrigged truck and banquet table stage that delivered the new jazz to the people. John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and other black players--integrated groups were discouraged and boycotted--became part of a floating, street-corner multi-arts festival that filled Harlem with music, dance, poetry, and painting. "People danced in the street to Sun Ra and cheered Ayler and Shepp and Cecil and Jackie McLean and the others," Baraka remembers, scorning the idea that the new music was inaccessible (Autobiography 212).
What is also important to recognize is that Baraka, Larry Neal, Al Young, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, Lorenzo Thomas, and other Black Arts poets elevated poetry and performance above jazz criticism, or, at their best, figured out how to embed criticism in poetry and performance, to communicate meaning, perspective, and memory in dialects, rhythms, and intonations drawn from the lived experience of the black masses. Since the 1960s, Baraka' influence in jazz letters has not been limited to the debates about his jazz criticism: It flourishes through his work as a jazz-mad romantic artist. In the liner notes for New Music--New Poetry, his 1981 record with tenor saxophonist David Murray and drummer Steve McCall, Baraka observes that "Black poetry in the main ... means to show its musical origins. Just as Blues is, on one level, a verse form, so Black poetry begins as music running into words." In poetry-jazz songs like "In the Tradition," "The Last Revolutionary," "Class Struggle in Music," and "Against Bourgeois Art," Baraka thrashes and curses capitalism, racism, and America. (4) It is this Amiri Baraka--the one who sensed that the musicians are ahead of the critics in expressing the contradictions and conflicts of the age, the one who fervently hoped that the galvanizing beauty of John Coltrane's playing might erase the nation's "essentially vile profile"--who remains the most challenging figure in 1960s' jazz letters.
(1.) Baraka discusses his Greenwich Village period in The Autobiography (124-201). For an overview of black artists in Greenwich Village during these years, see Panish 23-41. See also the essays by Norma Rogers, Lorenzo Thomas, Sarah Wright, Tom Dent, and Calvin Hernton in a retrospective on the Lower East Side in African American Review 27 (1993): 569-98. Also useful on the cultural history of the Village during this period are Watson; Miller; Sukenick; Wakefield.
(2.) The liner notes for Coltrane Live at Birdland (1964) are reprinted in Jones/Baraka's Black Music 63-68.
(3.) Baraka's discussion of Ellison's Invisible Man is in the Jazz Review June 1959: 33. The citations from Blues People are on 124, 181, 200, and 220. For overviews of the 1950s' mass culture critique, see Ross 42-64; Frank 1-52.
(4.) Amiri Baraka, liner notes for New Music--New Poetry (India Navigation, 1048, 1981); Baraka (LeRoi Jones) New York Art Quintet (Esp, 1004, 1965). For treatments of Baraka's jazz/poetry performances, see Harris; Wallenstein.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1972.
Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. New York: Freundlich, 1984.
--. Black Music. New York: Morrow, 1968.
--. Blues People: Negro Music in White America, New York: Morrow, 1963.
--. "The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music)." Black Music 180-211.
--. Home: Social Essays. New York: Morrow, 1966.
Baraka, Amiri and Amina. The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues. New York: Morrow, 1987.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Black Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership. New York: Quill, 1984.
Dixon, Bill. Letter. Down Beat 2 Jan. 1964: 24.
Early, Gerald. "The Case of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka." Tuxedo Junction: Essays in American Culture, New York: Ecco P, 1989. 199-207.
Frank, Thomas. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Ginsberg, Allen. Interview. With Josef Jarab. Unpublished ms. 1988.
Harris, William J. The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1985.
Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Miller, Terry. Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way. New York: Crown, 1990.
Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings. New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1989. 62-78.
Page, Ben S. "Relevant Opinions." Jazz July-Aug. 1964: 28.
Panish, Jon. The Color of Jazz: Race and Representation in Postwar American Culture. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 1997.
Ross, Andrew. No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Sollors, Werner. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism". New York: Columbia UP, 1978.
Spellman, A. B. "Not Just Whistling Dixie." Black Fire. Ed. LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal. New York: Morrow, 1968. 159-68.
Sukenick, Ronald. Down and In: Life in the Underground. New York: Beach Tree Books/William Morrow, 1987.
Wakefield, Dan. New York in the 50s. New York: Houghton, 1992.
Wallenstein, Barry. "Jazz and Poetry: A Twentieth Century Wedding." Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991): 612-15.
Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
John Gennari is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Vermont and is a past contributor to the African African Review. This essay is excerpted from a chapter in his book Canonizing Jazz (forthcoming from the U of Chicago P).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Amiri Baraka|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
|Previous Article:||Politics, process & (jazz) performance: Amiri Baraka's "It's Nation Time".|
|Next Article:||"Pat your foot and turn the corner": Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and the poetics of a popular avant-garde.|