When Amiri Baraka listens to music, he hears things that might escape us if we could not depend upon him to point them out with his eloquent insistence, indignation and anger. He hears political oppression, capitalist exploitation, racist duplicity and class struggle. The beauty in the works of the great jazz masters comes to him transformed through Marxist-Leninist dialectic into ideology and sociology. That may seem a grim and joyless route to music appreciation, but Baraka has been following it for more than a quarter of a century in poetry, plays, essays, reviews and album liner notes.
This collection is made up of work from each of those categories. It has the brilliance of Baraka at his analytical best, with musical and extra-musical considerations in balance, as in his essay on Miles Davis. It also has him at his polemical worst, as in this passage, from a piece about the drummer Max Roach, on commercial exploitation of innovations by the great creative giants of black music: “And each time, the same corporations that had got over exploiting the African’s tragic willingness to sell off pieces of weself (sic) to anybody who had the necessary trinketry, these same villains would reappear to scoop out the insides of our hearts and sell them for super profits and then convince us that the scooped-out portions of ourselves existed as such because we had never been whole, never, we had only and always at any time in anybody’s history been simply Niggers .”
When his spleen is less exercised, Baraka is capable of educating with great clarity and a sense of history: “Jazz incorporates blues, not just as a specific form, but as a cultural insistence, a feeling-matrix, a tonal memory. Blues is the national consciousness of jazz--its truthfulness in a lie world, its insistence that it is itself, its identification as the life expression of a specific people, the African-American nation. So that at its strongest and most intense and indeed most advanced, jazz expresses the highest consciousness of that people itself, combining its own history, as folk form and expression, with its more highly developed industrial environment, North America. Without blues, as interior animation, jazz has no history, no memory. The funkiness is the people’s lives in North America as slaves, as an oppressed nation, as workers and artists of a particular nationality.”
Baraka is largely correct when he writes that . . . “if non-African-American who played the music had not played it, it would not change the essential history of African-American music.” Yet, that position would be strengthened, not weakened, were he willing to allow more than a crumb of recognition of major white jazzmen. His attempt to downplay the influence of Bill Evans is made ludicrous by the inconvenient fact that Evans, a white man, was the last great mainstream jazz piano innovator in a line of stylistic development that runs from Earl Hines through Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell to Evans.
Baraka is helpful in explaining how the current jazz avant-garde was born and why he believes social, cultural and commercial conditions have always made necessary the creation of a next avant-garde movement.
He writes about poetry as a form of speech and music, an understanding that is helpful in dealing with his own poetry, which makes up about half of this book. (At the beginning of the volume, there is also a short selection of poems by Mrs. Baraka.) His poems are full of rhythms and subliminal meanings that cannot possibly be grasped by a silent reading. At its least self-conscious, Baraka’s poetry has a surprising stateliness, as in the love poem, “For Sylvia or Amina (Ballad Air & Fire).” When it attempts to reproduce musical sounds . . . “uuuudeeeelyah uudeeeelyall/yaboom rabbababab . . . " it encounters difficulties that have plagued poetry at least as far back as Vachel Lindsay. Baraka evaluates music based on its quotient of authentic funkiness, that he convincingly traces to its source in the blues. It is apparently impossible for him to consider music without passing judgment on its makers’ presumed political and racial convictions and intentions.
For the reader who is interested simply in learning about the music and who does not go all the way with Baraka on racism, imperialism and exploitation, his political message can be a barricade. His answer to this objection is that you can’t have all of one without all of the other, “Your aesthetic is created by your deepest politics, whether you are consciously making political choices as such or not. In other words, what you think of as ‘hip’ is essentially a political choice.”
Years ago, I heard the great bassist Eugene Wright talking backstage at a Dave Brubeck concert with a group of younger musicians. Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Sonny Rollins were on their minds, and funky music was under discussion. “Absorb it, feel it,” Wright told his admirers. “Then get past that funk thing, man, and all of music will open up to you.”
Baraka has never been able to get past that funk thing, and he may well believe that a musician like Eugene Wright, by expanding his musical aesthetic to encompass more than the social and political, has sold out to . . . “the corporations that . . . scoop out the insides of our hearts and sell them for super profits. . . .” But that is not Eugene Wright’s problem. Or mine. Or yours. It is Amiri Baraka’s.