NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 45

— The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (William Morrow, 1987) BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE “We take for granted the social and cultural milieu and philosophy that produced Mozart. As Western people the socio-cultural thinking of eighteenth-century Europe comes to us as a historical legacy that is a continuous and organic part of the twentieth-century West. The socio-cultural philosophy of the Negro in America (as a continuous historical phenomenon) is no less specific and no less important for any critical speculation about the music that came out of it…this is not a plea for narrow sociological analysis of Jazz, but rather that this music cannot be completely understood (in critical terms) without some attention to the attitudes which produced it. It is the philosophy of Negro music that is most important, and this philosophy is only partially the result of the sociological disposition of Negroes in America. There is, of course, much more to it than that.” (Italics mine) The long awaited arrival of Amiri’s third full volume of music criticism in 1987 published some twenty years after Black Music and twenty-five years after Blues People was not only well worth the wait but added still more brilliant wrinkles to his long-term critique of the music, its artists, and the larger social, economic, and political contexts in which it existed and persisted. Both a dynamic synthesis and extension of previous writing about its historical identity as well as a celebratory examination of its contemporary expressions, The Music is divided between a series of poems that center on Jazz and the blues by both Amiri and his wife, Amina Baraka, which takes up a third of the text, an extraordinary political play entitled The Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Musical by Amiri that uses both “avant-garde” as well as more traditional Jazz and blues elements, techniques, and styles in an updated and innovative operatic context. Most of the actors in the production are the musicians themselves who both play and sing their parts. Such important and highly accomplished ‘avant’ Jazz musicians of the post-1970 era as the tenor saxophonist David Murray, drummer and percussionist Steve McCall, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and the pianist/ organist Amina Claudine Myers acted and played in this production. 43 Dedicated to “John Coltrane, the heaviest spirit” Baraka’s Black Music posed a tremendous intellectual and artistic challenge to a entire generation of artists, critics, and cultural/political activists (and I might add is still doing so some two generations and 45 years later!) to begin to seriously address and attempt to resolve many of the major structural and institutional problems and crises facing not only our creative artists in the realms of music, literature, dance, filmmaking, visual and media art, etc. but our larger communities as well. Toward that end, the book provides an important ongoing sub-textual narrative about the insidious political economy of the music business. He shows the direct and indirect effects on the musicianswho not only have to withstand and tragically negotiate the oppressive and exploitive impositions of white supremacy/racism in all its guises but the even more comprehensive venality of corporate capitalism in the studios, clubs, theatres and general commercial venues where the music w as being recorded and/or performed for various live audiences during an era when Jazz especially, despite its growing richness and vitality in a creative sense, was suffering economically as a result of its clearly limited reception and appreciation in larger society. This unfortunately also included the growing commercial interest in and support for pop, rhythm and blues, and rock musics (resulting in the increasing exclusion and marginalization of Jazz and blues) in the national black community.  Finally, the flagship essay of Black music that opens the volume contains one of the most prescient, eloquent, historically significant, and intellectually honest essays ever written about the “Modern Jazz” dimension of African American music. Entitled “Jazz and the White Critic,” the piece had originally appeared in Downbeat the largest national ‘mainstream’ Jazz magazine in the country in August, 1963 just before the appearance of his first book on the music Blues People later that year. What remains essential about this prophetic essay is its analytical insistence that the philosophical and cultural aspects of African American music, like that of all major aesthetic traditions throughout the world is key to acquiring a genuine knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the art. As he states in his concluding paragraph: