In this rare interview with poet, playwright and Black Liberation Movement activist Amiri Baraka, Val Wilmer offers an insight into his immeasurable contribution to 20th century Afro-American thought and his 'commitment to humanity' in building the black New World. This article was originally published in The Wire 10 (December 1984).
If you want to know what it was like – what it was really like – in the days when the honking tenor players ruled the roost, there's a story about saxophonist Lynn Hope you should read.
It's called "The Screamers" and tells of a night when the beturbaned legend tore apart the Northern industrial city of Newark, New Jersey. It brings alive the atmosphere of the joints where raunchy R&B horns operated, describes the audience's inter-relations – their smell, even. And behind it all, the constant presence of the city' s overseer cops.
The story comes in a book called Tales written by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. He grew up in Newark, knows the place and the music inside out. His primary work has been as poet, playwright and activist in the Black Liberation Movement but his writing, whether concerned directly with music or only peripherally, has always offered unparalleled insight into its feeling and function and the conditions that surround its being.
Baraka's classic Blues People, published in 1963, advanced the theory that African-American music changes as the people change. It was, incredibly, the first full-length work on the music from a black writer. (Langston Hughes had previously written a jazz primer for children). Blues People was followed by the compilation Black Music and there were other writings about music in various Baraka/Jones anthologies. Now he is putting the finishing touches to a substantial study of John Coltrane which promises to be as significant as Blues People.
On his fiftieth birthday, two months ago, Max Roach and Archie Shepp were among the many luminaries of black American music who paid him tribute at a special concert. His play Primitive World, about musicians surviving World War Three, has been running at New York's Sweet Basil Club with music by David Murray.
Baraka, who visited London earlier this year  for the Third Black Book Fair, is anxious to explain that when he writes about music he does so from the perspective of a listener, never an "authority" nor, despite an early flirtation with the trumpet, a musician.
"The best commentary I know on music was written by W.E.B. Du Bois. He wasn't a musician but in The Souls Of Black Folk the whole thing he did called 'Of The Sorrow Songs' was really a basis for an analysis of the music from then on."
As Baraka pointed out, a strong focus on music exists in the work of all major black authors. He cited Frederick Douglass's Slave Narratives and the works of Langston Hughes; to these could be added writers with concerns as diverse as Ntozake Shange, Ralph Ellison, Toni Cade Bambara.
"They're all influenced by it because music is the nature of our culture. Our culture exists in a very specific musical framework. And the reason why it's so specific is because it's in contrast to the larger one. People might exist in the larger one and not even know it - I'm talking about Americans. But for the Afro-Americans, our particular music exists in such relief to the other and is so much more emphasised in the community because one of the only things black people can get a chance to do is to play music."
When Baraka, as LeRoi Jones, appeared in Greenwich Village, New York, at the tail-end of the Beat era, he was quickly noticed as a writer to be reckoned with. His poetry and plays like Dutchman combined the zappy anarchism of the Beats with growing black anger. At its most dramatic, there was a lot of hatred in his work; at its most passionate, a lot of love. In his recent autobiography he described the painful processes he went through during this period and his decision to move away from the white world to work on the building at home - 'home' meaning both the black community and Newark itself specifically.
But, when he changed his politics, Baraka was written out of many history books. He has received countless awards and fellowships, taught at several universities, yet in some circles is still seen as a crazy-headed agitator hellbent on getting his ass put in jail.
Sadly, he is one of the best-kept secrets in the 'jazz' world, a world where his profound analysis is sorely needed. Always provocative, his words formed an appropriate literary backdrop to the tumult that was the 1960s New Wave, spearheaded by Coltrane, Coleman, Shepp, Sun Ra and Taylor. He has appeared in London three times recently [in 1984], taking time off from his post as Associate Professor of Africana Studies at New York's Stony Brook University.
The Coltrane book, long in gestation, has not been without its problems. Baraka used Marxist analysis in his attempt to study Coltrane by situating him in his place as a member of the working class. His publisher called this 'too political'. A compromise has now been reached and the book will be out in 1985.
Baraka stresses that it is not a biography. "I'm trying to write a theory of art, you know - why the music sounds the way it does at any given time and why it changes. The way I outline my approach to it can't be done without a very close political analysis as well. Basic bourgeois theory says that everything is disconnected which is not true. Everything is connected - even if you don't know how.
"Take today: if you talk about the emergence of reggae, for instance. You say, well, how come reggae developed where before there was calypso or something like that? What I do is line up a whole series of historical facts that occur at the same time - what was happening in painting, in dance, in politics. And with that kind of approach try to zero in on all the things that possibly create a new form. Because the new form will be distinct from the old form in several ways. I try to see what has changed and then try to isolate what caused that change."
This being so, it seemed like he might have a good explanation for why the music, once so revolutionary in the 60s and early 70s, seems to be going backwards - not so much a part of a consolidating process where the roots are examined and cared for but in what often seems a careless way - reactionary almost.
"Really it's the same thing that's happening generally in society: there's a reorganising. In Blues People I explained how the music changed as the people changed. The Black Liberation Movement was attacked in the 60s and 70s and our leadership destroyed. But in that stopping of that movement you'll notice also that the music goes through some severe changes. On the one hand it gets to be ultra-metaphysical where you get a lot of 'Om-m-m-m-m' in it. And then there's the development of a whole lot of non-blues-oriented 'avant garde'.
"The whole looking back at the roots is a re-grouping. It's a reaching back for the elements that will make certain that the music itself doesn't disappear. At this point the music is going through a struggle between those who want to make it an appendage of European concert music and the others who are relating it to the whole Afro-American experience in a way that is both related to the traditional culture and at the same time making new statements. I mean, if you're going to play what we call 'jazz' just to let me know that you have heard John Cage, you're not going to say anything new. For many people, I think they're looking back to go forward."
But in the 60s of course, when the politics of black nationalism influenced the direction of the music, when as Baraka wrote, "The black musicians who know about the European tempered scale (mind) no longer want it - if only just to be contemporary", there were still many people who had worked for years to achieve concert platform status for their music. 'Back to the roots' created conflicts in the musicians' community. The philosophy was anathema after a lifetime of moving on from the corner bar-room.
"It's essentially the same kind of class struggle going on," said Baraka. "The struggle to be on the stage with the white musicians was essentially a legitimate struggle but, once you get on the stage with them, that raises the level of democracy that you just struggled for. The next generation don't have to make that struggle. So they're sitting on the stage with the white musicians and they find out, 'Hey, the music ain't swingin'!' They say: well, how can the music swing? I know we got to go back in the community again."
And, finally, do you agree as Linton Kwesi Johnson has suggested that disco music reflects the current state of play in Afro-America?
"Disco music is a watered down rip-off patterned after popular black music which is blues, any kind of blues. In the main, it's a commercial music put out by the corporations in the same way that all propaganda is. The fact that black people would go for it means there's a confused political state. And when the bottom fell out of disco, they tried to pump that shit up and get all these instant little rock bands. The only thing that put the bottom back in, that made the whole pop music business restore itself was Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson is pimping off Stevie Wonder, y'understand, but making the lyrics backwards."