NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 43

Despite its ill-informed detractors Blues People also firmly established Baraka as a major intellectual and literary force to be reckoned with because he was not afraid of expressing a strong and independently assertive viewpoint alongside a persistently sharp critical analysis of what the music has meant to black Americans from the standpoint of not only individual citizens or artists but also of the mass culture generally. He insisted on an interpretive pov that saw class relations as well as “race” in terms that established a clear hierarchy and division of attitudes and values that informed one’s deep affinity for or relative indifference to the various forms and expressions of the Blues as creative/stylistic form and artistic identity as well as a distinct and thus substantive and independent sensibility in the larger society as a whole. Consequently Baraka declared that the purveyors of the Blues sensibility and its primary cultural progenitors were not only the artists and the intellectual connoisseurs of the form (i.e. critics, academicians, and scholars) but the so-called ‘ordinary citizens’ who loved and represented and embodied the art themselves (the actual “Blues People” of the book’s title). Therein, Baraka insisted, lay the music’s true power and ultimate potential as both a creative and social/philosophical force. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE An essential aspect of Baraka’s critical writing on Jazz however is also rooted in a deep consciousness and visceral understanding and love of the rural and urban blues/rhythm and blues traditions not only in formal and aesthetic terms but as a complex and historically cumulative social and cultural statement about the ongoing meaning(s) of the content of these musics in both their structural and lyrical dimensions. Thus an appreciation and respect for the ideological complexities and contexts of African American culture as an important economic, social, and political reality as well as an essentially protean artistic force is integral to fully engaging and grasping what Baraka is primarily focused on and concerned with in his writing about the music.  Thus it is not surprising that Baraka’s first book about the music, originally entitled Blues People: Negro Music in White America became a seminal, widely acclaimed, and subsequently never out of print historical text. Published by the then 28-year-old writer in 1963, the book was also importantly subtitled in at least a few of its other many editions as The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed From It. Disdained and even dismissed in some quarters by some haughty and self-important highbrow critics, both white and black, as being too steeped in what they perceived as a fundamentally reductive sociological emphasis in Baraka’s analysis of the Blues as art and history (a highly inaccurate and quite dubious line of argument echoed in a particularly patronizing and intellectually self-serving manner by the celebrated African American novelist and cultural critic Ralph Ellison) Blues People clearly marked a major new turning point in not only the history of Jazz and Blues criticism in the United States but in its perception and intellectual appreciation and understanding by music critics generally. Not surprisingly this new consciousness was also beginning to be reflected to some degree in its public reception by audiences. 41 In the name of sheer historical accuracy and perhaps even ultimately a triumphant kind of poetic justice the following emphatic statement bears repeating as often as possible: For fifty years from 1963-2013 Amiri Baraka (also known as Leroi Jones) wrote and published the most profound, influential, and strikingly original body of musical criticism in the United States, as well as some of the most significant — and enduring — cultural and social criticism generally that this country has produced since 1945. This is especially true of his stunning and groundbreaking work in the musical genre of ‘Modern Jazz’ and his extensive, dynamic, and typically incisive examination of the music’s rapid evolution since 1900 in both its visionary “avant garde” modes as well as its more traditional vernacular styles and expressions.