The Musical Legacy of Amiri Baraka: The Modern Jazz Critic As Cultural Historian, Creative Artist, Social Theorist, and Philosophical Visionary

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Author: Kofi Natambu
Date: Fall 2014
From: Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire(Vol. 14, Issue 2)
Publisher: Institute of African-American Affairs (IAAA)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,280 words

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This essay is dedicated to the memory and eternal presence of Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones (1934-2014) who was not only a great artist, mentor, friend, colleague, and comrade but also--like he was for so many others around the world--a towering influence on my art and life.

Leroi Jones has learned--and this has been very rare in jazz criticism--to write about music as an artist."

--Nat Hentoff, Jazz & Pop magazine, 1966

" ... Negro music is essentially the expression of an attitude, or a collection of attitudes, about the world, and only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made ... Usually the critics commitment was first to his appreciation of the music rather than to his understanding of the attitude that produced it. This difference meant that the potential critic of Jazz had only to appreciate the music, or what he thought was the music, and that he did not need to understand or even be concerned with the attitudes which produced it ... The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define Jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy ..."

--Leroi Jones, "Jazz and the White Critic," Downbeat Magazine, 1963. (later reprinted in his book of critical essays and reviews Black Music (William Morrow & Co. 1968))

"Jazz and the White Critic" was a challenge to jazz writers of all backgrounds to reckon with the lived experience of black Americans and to consider how this experience had been embedded in the notes, tones, and rhythms of the music. "

--John Gennari, Blowin Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

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.

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...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A393059771