Blutopia is not the first of Graham Lock’s books I’ve read. I’d gone to the library, having started a Sun Ra kick (transformed, over the read, to an Ellington kick, to Braxton), and found this on the shelf in the section, which unfortunately doesn’t actually have a straight biography on Ra. This worked.
Put briefly, the book relates–out of chronological order, significantly–the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton through their relationships to ideas of the Black past and future. While Ellington might superficially seem the odd man out, I was aware enough of his agenda (“agenda” sounds pejorative, but it’s not) to know that while he comes from a different era he fits with the other two in the sense of taking an approach to music as not only making a bunch of records but making, as do Ra and Braxton, philosophical, ethical, and historical arguments.
An undercurrent in the book involves the general inadequacy of actually-existing critical writing on Black music generally and what we call “jazz” in particular. Critics are generally white and the best-intentioned carry with them a cultural baggage that leaves them prone to misinterpret the music and musicians. Lock as much as any white critic I’ve read successfully self-corrects for his own baggage and given this alone is worth the read. There is a type of anti-racist white person who displays his or her understanding of race, which may be very solid on its own merits, in an attempt, impossible at this moment, to extricate himself or herself from white privilege, or at least from the subjective feelings of guilt it brings. It’s a clever form of the classically white privileged sense of personal purity. Anyway, this really doesn’t seem to be Lock’s motive. Above all, he is moved by the experience of the music and by a sense that his role is to learn from the musicians, for whom he clearly has a deep, genuine respect and, in the case of Braxton with whom he has worked closely over decades, real friendship.
In a nutshell, then, Lock’s point is that none of the three musicians here understood their own music by correlating their work to some European aesthetic, despite the fact that the white critical establishment viewed and continues to view all three precisely through that European aesthetic lens. Sun Ra, then, becomes a kook, if a talented one. Ellington and Braxton both somehow become “less black” in their aesthetic. Ellington’s lengthier work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” to take an example, becomes an attempt to adopt European symphonic norms in a jazz band setting, while the influence of Stockhausen and Cage on Braxton is overemphasized to the extent that it obscures all other discussion of how his music developed. Lock takes the radical step of suggesting that what these people said about their own work and selves should be taken seriously. “Black, Brown, and Beige,” far from looking to European symphonic models, was to Ellington of greater length than his previous work and more complex in its structure for the simple reason that he was telling a longer and more complex story, that of black people in America. Braxton for his part stresses that his is not an intellectual music but a spiritually functional one, and that his drawing from cosmopolitan sources is an entirely African approach.
I treat myself by getting a book out of the jazz section of the library to read. It’s rare that I don’t plow through it quickly–only when I find the basic argument offensive will I not bother finishing it, and while I will at times disagree with an author it’s rare that I find one genuinely offensive. Lock, though, I knew from past experience and I trusted him. Blutopia did not betray that trust. Truthfully, given the paucity of writers on his particular subjects (save Ellington, and particularly with Braxton), he’s essential reading.