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Black Music

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The long-awaited reissue of the sequel to Amiri Baraka's seminal work, Blues People.

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Reviews of Black Music

Overall customer rating: 4.000

Jazz Avant-Garde and the New Music

by rejoyce on Aug 16, 2007

LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) brought a poet's sensibility to his jazz criticism. Here he writes about the singer Billie Holiday in the piece "Dark Lady of the Sonnets": "Nothing was more perfect than what she was. Nor more willing to fail. (If we call failure something light can realize. Once you have seen it, or felt whatever thing she conjured growing in your flesh.). At the point where what she did left singing, you were on your own. . .Sometimes you are afraid to listen to this lady." Anyone who has listened to Lady Day knows that she used her voice as an instrument (Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were her main influences), her phrasing was impeccable, and she could become one--assuming the translucence of light--with a song's ebullience or gloom, making the listener feel the same. Such mastery involves risk. And the listener feels that too. It gets under your skin. Her final album, "Lady in Satin," is painful to hear, yet even her cracked voice carries the mood. Jones' title allusion to the Shakespearean sonnets points to the mystery behind that dark lady's identity as well as Billie's art. Flannery O'Connor said that a good story tends toward mystery. Holiday told stories. The author manages to convey all of that. In addition, Jones is a reliable guide through the shoals of the Sixties jazz avant-garde and new music, highlighting such important innovators as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Albert Ayler, Sun-Ra and others. Here Jones writes about the album "Coltrane Live at Birdland": "There is a daringly human quality to John Coltrane's music that makes itself felt, wherever he records. If you can hear, this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things. You might even become one of them." Technically, the author also makes comprehensible to the reader Coltrane's harmonic experimentation, Coleman's theory of harmolodics, and Cecil Taylor's exhausting marriage of Western classical technique and spontaneous improvisation. At a time when neo-conservative traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch present an official history of jazz that marginalizes the avant-garde's contributions--that view dominates Ken Burns' documentary about the music (which, as always with Burns' films, ends on a trite note of American triumphalism)--Jones' recognition that "innovation is the tradition," as the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Lester Bowie said, is that much more vital. Having said that, like its predecessor, Blues People, Black Music isn't perfect. If Ralph Ellison criticized the sociological approach to the blues found in the previous volume, at times Jones the black nationalist ideologue trumps Jones the clear-eared poet. After Malcolm X's assassination, Jones, who was associated with the Beat poets, moved from Greenwich Village uptown to Harlem, changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka (later dropping the Swahili name), and became intensely involved with the Black Arts movement (as later he would become mired in "Marxist/Leninist/Maoist thought"). For the more astute reader, Jones' criticism should be augmented by the writings of Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams. While there's no denying Jones' claim that innovators from Louis Armstrong to Coleman have been African American, his shrill insistence on racializing the music causes him to deride or neglect white musicians like Art Pepper, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and Paul Desmond when, in fact, the latter two might be seen as acolytes of black saxophonists such as Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. In addition, Jones dismisses the entire British rock invasion (and rock 'n' roll in general) by claiming that the groups' names reflect their distorted white self-identities: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, etc. In doing so, he ignores the fact that such bands often credited black musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Little Richard as primary inspirations (the Stones taking their names from a Waters song), leading to revitalized careers for many blues musicians who had been unjustly neglected before then. Those reservations aside, Black Music is an important book about the experimental jazz of the 1960s, particularly for younger readers who may be curious where the music went after bebop and about one of the fugitive sources for punk's sonic white noise. Listen to Coltrane's "Ascension" or Ornette's "Free Jazz," and you'll find out.

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