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Poets of Action: The Saint Louis Black Artists' Group, 1968-1972 (Part 2-4)

By Published: December 19, 2004

Collective improvisation symbolizes the recognition among musicians that their art is not an affair of individual 'geniuses,' but the musical expression of an entire people-the black people in America. ... In every respect the combined social-musical revolution in jazz amounts to a repudiation of the values of white middle-class capitalist America. This is most obvious from the statements of the musicians themselves; but it is also apparent (to those who trouble to listen with open ears) in the wild and exciting music which the revolution is producing.

While many critics and musicians would dispute the far-left analysis of writers like Kofsky, several of BAG's members did see a strong connection between the new musical dialects and emerging social phenomena. J. D. Parran remembers that the intense new music, with innovations such as "open tonality and form as well as unmetered rhythmic momentum ... excited some while it confused and horrified others, musicians and lay listeners alike." Yet jazz radio host Owsley claims that, due to the city's conservatism, groups in St. Louis found it difficult to present a set of ideas overtly tied to the Black Power or other radical political movements. Parran recalls, "Early Afro-centric Free Jazz could not find refuge in traditional venues such as black churches and public schools," remembering also that the conservative St. Louis society, including many blacks as well as whites, frowned upon "Afro"-styled hair and dress.

But the city's relative social conservatism did not prevent the group from displaying more subtle aspects of the Black Power movement's philosophies. Madden asserts, "Presenting themselves as serious artists and intellectuals, the collectives were living up to the examples of respectability that had been set by popular figures like Coltrane, King, and Malcolm X." Indeed, an important component of the Black Power movement was a conservative notion of personal responsibility. The often-aprocryphal stories surrounding jazz legends such as alto saxophonist Charlie Parker unfairly presented the black jazz musician as a drug-addicted womanizer, and members of BAG worked hard to counteract these derogatory stereotypes. As Oliver Lake recalls, BAG members were acutely aware of these images, and actively sought to avoid them: "We're not going to eat any pork, not going to take any drugs... We were responsible, and still are."

Musicians in BAG also counteracted negative stereotypes surrounding black jazz musicians by holding daytime performances in their own building and performance spaces, separating the music from what was often seen as the "illicit atmosphere of nightclubs and the attendant drugs and drinking." Indeed, members of the group seemed always to prefer non-club settings: from the Circle Coffee House in LaClede Town and the BAG building in Gaslight Square to the American Center in Paris and the mid-'70s "loft-jazz" scene in New York City. With its own building, BAG changed the traditional context of jazz performance. "Rejecting traditional modes of jazz performance carried an ideological dimension that was consistent with the unique musical philosophy of the collectives," contends Madden. By collaborating with artists in other fields, creating new performance venues to replace static nightclub appearances, and operating a school, BAG members expanded their positions to empowered and inclusive roles such as—in the words of J. D. Parran—"musician/educators" and "cultural ambassadors."

In a similar vein, scholar and trombonist George Lewis—a member of the AACM—has claimed that an expanded role for the black artist became necessary in the face of "a wide-ranging denial of African histories, [which] could well result in the erasure of cultural memory." BAG and AACM members functioned not only as artists but also as scholars, historians, educators and cultural critics as part of an intervention in this process. Elliott, in his 1971 Black Theatre Notebook (both acting manual and cultural critique), commented on BAG's increased orientation towards the needs and experiences of its own community: "Black arts is family and the black arts movement considers any concept that places the black artist outside of his community as a western corruption of that natural unity of aesthetics and ethics." The group's artistic focus on its local context thus exemplifies what sociologist Les Back has called "community as a narrative achievement."

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