Amiri Baraka: Perspectives on Music and Race
Additionally, Baraka observes that, "Robert Palmer of the New times (a good ol' Ivy-type good ol' boy) suggests that Bill Evans was the major stylistic innovator and primary influence on contemporary jazz pianists. In reality, Miles wanted Ahmad Jamal; Evans was one of several pianists who approximated that style." Baraka goes on to explain, "Plus Evans was given a lot of ink. The white musician who is skilled and plays with the kind of historically important group such as Miles's will receive all the publicity there is. But to say that Evans was the innovator, the primary influence on recent jazz musicians, is to reverse Evans's role and to belittle Jamal, not to mention the great and influential Red Garland and McCoy Tyner, nor does it take into account Cecil Taylor of the avants. And of Evans's peers, surely Wynton Kelly was one of the pure swingingest mo'fo's on the set, and Tommy Flanagan could match Evans's sensitivity for sensitivity of his obvious contemporary peers." This is an argument that will probably never go away in our lifetime. [Read the August 17, 2009 Slate article "Kind of Blue" on how Bill Evans was hired.]
There is no question that "some" writers were both blinded and influenced by his pigmentation, but what was Bill Evans supposed to do, walk away from music? It must also be understood that this racial hatred has blinded many to not only the greatness of Bill Evans, and he was great, but to those he is compared to. When comparisons are made between great artists, it only diminishes or takes away from the uniqueness of the individuality and spirit of both creators. It's also important to note that after Bill Evans left the Sextet, Miles asked him to return to the studio for the recording, Kind of Blue. Miles also asked Wynton Kelly to play, but only on the track, "Freddie Freeloader."
Who am I to say what Baraka should or shouldn't write but it would be educational and beneficial for all if more time was spent on the positive contributions of the great pianists such as Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Cecil Taylor and let's not forget the late great Andrew Hill.
In brief, Digging isn't entirely saturated in bitterness. Braraka reminds us that Monk was Bebop before Bird and Diz, and his chapter on Nina Simone is sentient and heart warming, expressing the beauty and complexity of a brilliant soul. And it is here where Baraka expresses the most beautiful words, transforming them into music while inviting us inside, into the spirit of these giant artists.
"Sometimes in the cabin, or at our house in Newark, upstairs on the third floor, Nina would sing. High and lilting, vulnerable as a worn and gorgeous dream. She sang and sang. Especially, when she was happy of lighthearted, she sang, and her song still filled the space with warm perception and the sensitive heart."
"Her songs spoke of stronger, more conscious times, when people our age thought it might be possible to smash injustice forever within our lifetime but the songs put us in touch once more with the "sweetness" of struggle, the self-conscious dignity. Digging Nina, then, was really digging all ourselves at perhaps the top of our acts! The crowd rose again and again, celebrating Nina and ourselves."
My intent for this review and discussion was not to diminish the reputation of Mr. Baraka, though it may appear that way to some, but to reveal how deep the scars are within us. To have said nothing was not the answer. We need to stop and at least try to understand our differences and find a way to focus on the positive aspects of each other, and not on the matter that separates us. In the end, I find myself wanting to believe that music can break through the bridge of cultural intolerance; yet Digging only proves how far we yet have to go. And just perhaps, that's not such a bad omen.
"How to measure this world we find ourselves not at all happy with, but able to understand, and hopefully one day to completely transform." Amiri Baraka
Note from the author: I would like to point out that there are a number of various definitions of "racism" and the list is growing. Rather than try to explain all the vast interpretations and definitions, which is not the intent of the paper, I selected one definition to use as a point of reference. Granted, the reader may come from a different reference point.
I would also like to thank Barbie-Danielle DeCarlo for sharing her time and thoughts in conversation on this paper and topic. Though we may not agree on the definition of racism and certain related aspects of it, I think we agree that discourse on this topic is of utmost importance.
"Spiritual transformation through music, empathy and understanding..."
Lloyd Peterson is the author of the book, Music and the Creative Spirit and the future publication, Wisdom Through Music.