Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, Polarizing Poet and Playwright, Dies at 79. Margalit Fox, L.A. Times.

His political awakening was soon manifest in his work. His first major book, “Blues People,” published in 1963, placed black music, from blues to free jazz, in a wider sociohistorical context.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, the folklorist Vance Randolph said, “The book is full of fascinating anecdotes, many of them concerned with social and economic matters,” going on to commend its “personal warmth.”

I’ve loved some of what I’ve read by him (mostly some chapters in Black Music, which I purchased a reprint of several years ago), but don’t know his work well enough to say a lot right now. Interested in reading more of his work, and I hope his music criticism specifically is delved into more in the days ahead (it seems to be receiving scant notice in the few obits I’ve perused). His story is told well in a different book I’ve recommended in the past (one of the best books I’ve ever read about criticism, in fact), John Gennari’s, Blowin’ Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics.

Richard Meltzer wrote the following about Baraka in 2009 (bizarrely, the article, which I’ve linked to before, is attributed now to someone else. But I guarantee you, the author is Meltzer):

As fate would have it, I didn’t read On the Road as a teenager — didn’t read any Kerouac, in fact, till I was 35 or 36. The first writing I encountered by someone I would later recognize as Beat was a series of jazz pieces in Down Beat by LeRoi Jones, as Amiri Baraka was then known. In a mag serving mainly as a tepid trade sheet that routinely shilled for the likes of Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson, Jones’ bold, passionate support for such fire-breathers as John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor stood in high contrast. With diamond-eyed focus, he championed these musicians not as “iconoclastic” contenders, contentious blips on the mainstream jazz radar, but as full-fledged, fully-formed artists whose musical agendas were seminal and necessary. (At 17, I hadn’t read anything that so viscerally spoke to me, and surely it was Jones’ model that enabled me to truck in music-crit myself in the years that followed.)


3 thoughts on “Amiri Baraka

  1. Thanks for the Meltzer! Hadn’t seen that, but always thought he might be an inspiration, certainly a forerunner, for all the Noise Boys, def incl. Bangs, considering the polemic response to his close listening and descriptions: “Here’s the music, the way it is on records and live, frequently in conflict with club owners and ‘critics'” with the implied, “What do *you* hear? And where do you go?” Bringing everything he had, including his poetics, into focus on what music and the times were becoming (Bangs said he didn’t understand poetry, but pretty sure he understood Blues People and Black Music). I didn’t know his other writing then, but did sometimes suspect he was using his stance as critic to settle other scores; becoming, as Frank Kogan later said, “a man positively addicted to Us vs. Them.” Little did we know—-but no matter how often he went off into brainskronk (the 9/11 speech being only the most notoriously vile example), his drive as an artist did manage to fight its way back into bursts of clarity, some of them compelling, all of them cage-rattling, once in a while. Something in him always wanted to free the music, but never making it look easy. No free naked lunch, mofos. Read Blues People and Black Music, people!

  2. Dog nose,”brainskronk” can be as compelling as music skronk, though not necessarily in a good way; also, can have its own clarity of expression, coming out of scrambled thought processes all too clearly. Let’s contrast all that with bursts of *lucidity*, then—like sanity or somethin.

  3. Thanks, Don, great stuff. A nice (related) passage in today’s NYT from Questlove: “He thought about many things over the years, but one thing he kept returning to was culture and social change, and how one might help create the other. ‘Blues People,’ which he published in 1963, when he was still LeRoi Jones, tried to make sense of the musical aspects of the African-American experience, and it’s musical itself, at the level of the prose.”

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