Amiri Baraka, Black Music

Ornette Coleman

The Alpha and the Omega.  Still playing, too.

I had just read Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane, and become very, very upset.  Needing a helping hand, I next read LeRoi Jones‘–Amiri Baraka’s–Black Music.

Baraka is less concerned with market demographics than with actually saying something valuable that helps people understand the music in question.  That music, in Black Music, is New York jazz of the late 1950’s and, primarily, the 1960’s.  The latest piece in the book is dated 1967.  In any event, more than anything Baraka focuses on the New Thing, so-called, or “free jazz” once Ornette Coleman put out the album of the same name.

Baraka to be sure is not afraid to take a clear, adversarial stance in what was at the time a very brutal conflict within jazz and jazz criticism over the new music, and while I tend to be much more open to the best of the hard-boppers (and less than the best, too, I’ll say), and while I’ll look at that below, he defends music and musicians worth defending.

Jazz is, Baraka argues not quite explicitly (as my memory serves) but very clearly, a way of being, being free, now.  As circumstances change, so changes jazz.  In hindsight I wonder–surely he has written about it and if anyone knows the citation I’d appreciate it–what he thinks about jazz after Coltrane, not only fusion but the whole Marsalis conundrum as well.  I can surmise the broad strokes but it’s the details I’m after.

He clarifies his project in the first piece, “Jazz and the White Critic“:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help and all.  Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgement and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (20)

That about sums up my own feelings about how one ought to approach art, or anything else for that matter.  Understanding begins from local conditions and builds out, not from arbitrarily grafting foreign conceptual frameworks onto whatever happens to be the object of one’s inquiry.  Or of one’s conquest: look at the clusterf*** that has been and continues to be the Americas when European social and economic formations were grafted onto these continents after the soon-to-be syphilitic Columbus showed up.

Baraka consistently, whether dealing with true giants like Coltrane, Monk, Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or lesser-known figures as in an absolutely wonderful piece on the drummer, Denis Charles, one of, to me, the highlights of the book, contextualizes the artists as they exist in their actual contexts, geographically, socially, economically, and culturally.  This is a beautiful, beautiful because it contains truth, stretch of prose:

He [Denis Charles] seems not to be certain, or maybe it’s just the stackup of dreary tenements and beatout folks makes any “success story” seem very very shaky.  And even when Dennis [sic] is working, he knows it’s a very brief shot, and that soon he will be sitting back up on 118th Street without even anything to play on.

But when you see and hear him play, there is no doubt in your mind.  This young man can really smoke…(90)

The liberal white critic would have only written that first paragraph.  The conservative white critic would have written about the Philharmonic and bemoaned the lack of support for “the arts,” despite having heard a publicly-funded, corporate-sponsored performance the night before.  Baraka, however, correctly contextualizes Charles, and by proxy both the New Thing and jazz generally.  Yes, it’s a tough row to hoe, above all because of the hateful context of North America, but doing so is the practice of free existence.

I said I’d touch on this earlier: Baraka has little patience for musicians he feels are stuck in the past, i.e., in formula.  Jazz is, for him, freedom in the present.  I concede the point, and it’s certainly true that we get more from Coltrane than from Cannonball Adderly, toward whom he’s fairly uncharitable.  I am not the biggest fan, either, but I will say that a) a man needs to work and Cannonball worked, and b) there’s a whole lot of hard-bop or more R&B-influenced jazz from the ’60’s that, while not precisely pointing the way forward, or more importantly being truly of the moment, is fantastic and a genuine representation of who the people were who made the music.  Witness “The Sidewinder.”  It’s the genuineness that gets me, that, and Billy Higgins.

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