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A Conversation with Amiri Baraka

Lazaro Vega By

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in November 1999.

All About Jazz: I'm just really happy to see that in the last year or so you've become a much more public figure outside of academia through the recording with Hugh Ragin, Afternoon in Harlem on Justin-time, that When Sun Ra Gets Blue, and the recording with Malachi Thompson, (Free-bop Now, Delmark), as well as the concert this past summer with Sonic Youth and the New York Art Quartet, and your appearance in the movie Bulworth. All of these things are fantastic. It's good to have you back out again.

Amiri Baraka: Well, thank you very much. Thank you. Well, I've been teaching school for 20 years while these kids, you know my children, got through school. And that's over with, most of it, anyway. I do have more time to do other things now rather than just...Because they had me in exile. I had to drive two hours each way to get to work. It was like an exile situation, not just a job.

AAJ: Where was that?

AB: I taught at The State University of New York at Stonybrook, which is in Long Island and I live in Newark, New Jersey, so that's two hours each way. That seemed to be the only job I could get for whatever reason, so, piff.

AAJ: Did you listen to WBGO on your commute?

AB: Yeah sure, oh yeah, absolutely: I listen to 'BGO all the time (chuckling) even though I harass them all the time. If they're playing corny music I call them up and ask them about it, certainly. They can tell you how I'd send them postcards. I used to carry postcards in my briefcase so if some stuff went down that was really corny I could stop and write a post card and send it at that moment (laughs). I wouldn't have to worry about it.

AAJ: Where you happy with that role in Bulworth?

AB: Well, yeah, I was happy with it. I mean, obviously, being a writer I asked Warren (Beatty) when he first asked me to do that could I write my own dialogue, but you know the man with the scissors is always in charge ultimately. I got to say one thing or two things, something like that. It was o.k. It was Warren's picture, and he did what he wanted to with it and I thought it turned out pretty well given the circumstances of working in Hollywood with somebody like (Rupert) Murdoch. Although I don't think Murdoch knew about it at the beginning. (Laughs).

I thought Warren did a good job given the straightened kind of circumstances of not being absolutely free, you know what I mean? As a matter of fact that movie probably will have a great deal of influence because of the elections coming up and all that.

I figure Warren must have counted on all that.

AAJ: What would you think of him running for political office?

AB: Warren had a press conference. I don't know. I think Warren... what he's done so far is pretty positive. I think what Warren did, and what I was trying to do by coming out and endorsing (Bill) Bradley so early, was trying to drive the thing to the left. And I guess the powers that be got the message, because now they've got (Pat) Bucannon to opt for running for the Reform Party. So what they're trying to do is keep it from going too far to the left by putting the Nazi in it and running it back to the right a little bit.

AAJ: It seems like he bailed on the Republicans because he didn't think they were going the way he wanted to, either. He left the Republicans as much as the Reform Party gained him, right?

AB: See, I think that Bucannon, he's got all this disingenuous claptrap about Hitler and stuff, and the Nazis. I think that he probably believes that there's kind of righty ground swell out there, you know what I mean?

Because it's true, there are more of these skinheads and Church of the Creator and Arian Nation stuff. The Republicans were always kind of an extension of them, at least the right wing Republicans were. So this is in a way a kind of continuation of all that. I think they know it, and they're trying to make use of it. (For) the same reason David Duke would come out and run, you know?

Of course there's a lot of kind of populace disaffection with the main parties for obvious reasons. So somebody like Bucannon can come out and talk some populist garbage and get a lot of people who are leaning in that kind of completely irresponsible direction. There are sections of the population of all nationalities that have that putschist, disaffected, irresponsible kind of mentality. Its just there's so many more white folks it makes it more dangerous when they go there.

AAJ: Things have certainly changed a lot in American politics since the 1960's when you had Martin Luther King and Malcolm X representing a completely different voice of the people.

AB: Well I think that they, the powers that be—you have to remember that the people that have the most money finally have the most responsibility for where the body politic is, because they're the ones that have the thousands of people writing, and making movies, T.V. and radio.

If you study American history you'll see that they do that. Each time there's a gain, that's what (E.B.) Dubois said: he called it "The Sisyphus Syndrome." That every time we rolled the rock up the mountain, like the Civil War thing. By the 1870's they had gotten rid of Reconstruction. By the 1890's 'separate but equal' was the law of the land. So the same thing in the '20's we rolled back up the mountain again: people like Garvey and Dubois, even the Communist Party, African Blood Brotherhood. But by the '30's it was rolling back down. Same thing in the '50's with Martin and Malcolm.

But remember the people who run this they talk a lot about America this, America that, but remember all four of those people, Kennedy/Kennedy/King and Malcolm, were murdered. That's to show you, first of all, the kind of hypocrisy about people talking about America the great democracy; and number two that there's a body of folks in this country since the Civil War who are determined that it's not going to be a Democracy.

Those people didn't die with lightening bolts from God, you know. And I defy anybody to tell me that they know the whole story of either Malcolm or John Kennedy or Robert Kennedy or King's assassinations.

AAJ: Right. It's never been clear. When I came to this interview I knew we would be talking about many, many different things because your life is so multi-dimensional, but one aspect of your life that deeply affected me as a young man—I'm 39 now and I'm on the radio 30 hours a week playing jazz—was when I was growing up in Grand Rapids I had heard about East Lansing and what was going on at Michigan State with Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell living in Bath, the AACM. And I really didn't have much to go on in terms of trying to find out about the music of the Civil Rights era that preceded them, except for your book Black Music and Blues People. Eventually I read both of those, as well as the book by A.B. Spellman, Four Lives in the Bebop Business, and it really shaped my understanding of the music of John Coltrane and Archie Shepp and even Albert Ayler.

AB: Yeah well that's good. Do you get a chance to play that now?

AAJ: All the time.

AB: Yeah! Well good Where are you, what state? Grand Rapids, Michigan. I see. That's great because they're taking the music on the same trip that they're taking politics (laughing) Kenny G for President!

AAJ: Well, trying to put the music of the AACM in perspective, and I wasn't a music major, so hearing what Roscoe was doing was a mystery to me. But understanding it as a reaction to the energy music that John Coltrane and Albert Ayler exemplified put it in context. That really helped me out to understand this advanced form of musical expression. I just owe you that.

AB: Well thank you very much. That's the writer's gig, whether he fulfills it or not, that's certainly what it is: letting people know what's going on. I think that this is an era where that work has (laughing) to be done again.

AAJ: Yes it is. I heard George Lewis the trombonist is writing a book on Anthony Braxton. Roscoe told me that. It's going to knock this entire current neo-conservative thing down and put Braxton up where he belongs as the Beethoven of our time.

AB: Well, I'd like to see it. George is an enormously skilled player. Yeah, I'd like to hear that. I don't always agree with the results of their musical concerns, but certainly George is one of the most skilled trombonists around.

My problem is now I think that people have to not throw away the grand sort of profundities of the tradition in search for things. I just got through talking to a musician about this. There's a treasure chest that we have rarely taken advantage of. I mean, like for instance what's his name? Wynton (Marsalis) is doing the music of Duke and the music of Bud Powell and the music of Monk. I think that's very positive. But there are a lot of people who are putting that down who are confusing what is obviously a conservative kind of approach with the idea of, you know, (whiny) 'we need a place to play, we gotta have venues, we can't have this old shit.'

Well, I don't know. The point is that you've got to make your own place to play in rugged, individualist America, apparently. I'm just happy that, you know, we can hear the music of Duke Ellington, the music of Bud Powell, the music of Charlie Mingus and so forth, done as a regular repertory staple, because that's the way it's supposed to be done.

They do in these opera houses. They're still doing Europeans in the main. You might hear every once in awhile Aaron Copeland or someone like that, Morty Feldman, rarely. But in terms of a repertory of American music, you see? And that's the same thing with all the culture. We're still laboring under a kind of colonial restriction; do you know what I'm saying? You go to Broadway. They've changed now a little bit because we've been harassing them for the last decade, but when you go to Broadway you see most of those are English plays. Where are the great American authors? Where are the Tennessee Williams and Arthur Millers? Where are the Langston Hughes's? Where are the Lorraine Hasburys, you know what I'm saying?

But see I think the problem is those really profound works say some things about this country that, you know, the people with the money don't necessarily want to hear. They want to know why the kids in Columbine start killing people; why there are gangs in the inner cities. Those plays will tell them a lot more than those committees that they get.

AAJ: Yes, they will. Artists have always been social critics in America and that has been one of the troubles with it, I mean, in terms of support and visibility. It's like struggling against the same organizations that are going to fund them, or otherwise have the bread.

AB: Yeah.

AAJ: The two percent who have the concentration of wealth is often the group that is being criticized in, for instance, plays by Eugene O'Neil.

AB: Yeah, well, see what they'll do, they'll do O'Neil's works, to my way of thinking, after his expressionist and social realism. They start doing his works when he starts moon worshiping. They might do The Iceman Cometh. But some of O'Neil's earlier plays are really profound and much more revolutionary. Something like The Hairy Ape. He did a lot of plays about the sea, seamen, and those kinds of family/social situations. They don't want to see those things anymore.

Like Tennessee, the great Tennessee Williams: there's something to be said for Tennessee being one of the most profound American playwrights. They don't want to tackle Tennessee too tough. They just put a new play of his that was not done before, but...

The Americans, we need a repertory of music, a repertory of drama; I mean a regular American repertory that has a permanent place and also travels. We need to be able to hear the great American composers, and we need to be able to see great American theatre and film. There needs to be a regular repertory, like we're looking at the (Italian) commedia dell' arte, you know what I mean, or Comedie Francais, you know what I'm saying?

But they still think art is another form of money making rather than a form of revelation and education.

AAJ: Listen, I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about your discography with jazz musicians? I know there's The X is Black on Mercury.

AB: 'The X is Black.' That was done in, oh, what was the name of that thing? A poetry thing that was put together and had, I think, about 50 or 60 poets in it?

AAJ: Wasn't it The U.S. of Poetry?

AB: Yes, that's what it is.

AAJ: So you're just in an anthology there. Well, I have the original New York Art Quartet vinyl ESP record. I've got a copy of Black Dada Nilismus.

AB: Oh, way back when, yeah. We have another record out, I guess it will be out in January called Reunion of the New York Art Quintet with Reggie Workman, Milford Graves, John Tchicai and Roswell Rudd. It's a very fine record. I've just heard the tapes. Even though a guy in Jazz Times wrote he said that he hated, you know he saw the live thing we did, he said that I had managed to drown out the band. No if you can drown out Milford Graves alone (laughs). I mean that's just bizarre, man.

AAJ: When I heard that I remembered that Sonic Youth opened the show, right? So you were dealing with a sound system oriented towards vocalists. I mean, you probably weren't on stage in a jazz setting, wasn't it a big concert?

AB: Yes, it's a big concert hall, but I think he heard words he didn't, I'm not talking about profanity, but I think he had such ideological (pause) trauma that he thought he couldn't hear it. I mean, unless there was something actually wrong with the sound system. But there's no way in the world I can drown out musicians, that's just bizarre.

AAJ: I didn't pay that any mind. Because the UICA had already booked this concert you're going to do in Grand Rapids when that review came out, and I just didn't pay it any mind at all.

AB: I started to write an answer, but then I looked at the answer and the answer was so unforgiving and relentlessly, I said well, really, maybe I ought to just let him slide, you know?

AAJ: That's right, because the record will speak for you.

AB: Yeah, that's what I thought. That's essentially what I was saying. I don't know why he couldn't hear it, but it's probably because he didn't appreciate what I was saying. These people are very sly. He says, 'He comes on like Chuck D.' Now what is it? Is that because people finally accused Chuck D. of having some anti-social, even anti-Semitic kind of ideas? Is that why you're going to try to infer that somehow? That's to me so low. If you don't like this stuff tell us why you don't like it, don't say, (mocking) 'He came on like Chuck D.' What does that mean? That's an

association in somebody's mind.

AAJ: That allusion escapes me.

AB: Chuck D. was with Public Enemy. There was a big flap about him doing some anti-Semitic stuff. So I thought this guy by saying 'Like Chuck D.' was trying to imply some stuff without actually coming out so somebody can see that he's just lying.

AAJ: The thing is if he's going to come out and say critically what he really means, he has to get his writing chops together if he's going to talk to you.

AB: Yeah.

AAJ: Because it's going to be Ali and Foreman, I mean you guys are going to go at it, and you better be ready for that. You really have to sharpen your thoughts to the point you really want to make, because if it's at all vague, you're just going to eat him alive.

AB: (Laughs). I just, yeah (piff) the guy's got nothing else to do. It was that bad lead, I mean (laughs).

But the whole question of words and music, 'word music' I call it, it's I think going to come into it's own in the mainstream and like anything that comes into the mainstream some of it will be co-opted as soon as it appears. That's what happens.

There's a big gathering this weekend in Newark, down at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and then our own group, Kimako's Blues People. So there's going to be hundreds of poets in Newark this weekend, and hundreds of musicians. So it should be pretty valuable.

I think I'm working with David Murray on Sunday with that group called Fo Deux. We made a record about three years ago called Revue where he uses a lot of the African musicians and stuff.

AAJ: That's on Justin-time. I know you also did a record with Murray in the 1980's on India Navigation, right?

AB: Right, way back, right. But the thing called Fo Deux is a great record, by the way. Even though I'm on it. But I would say that's one of David's great achievements to mix African American and African genres of music together like that and still make it come out a whole. I thought it was a wondrous accomplishment. I'm just sorry that it didn't get as big in the U.S.

I have to say it's probably my fault it didn't get as big in the U.S. as it got in Europe. In Europe the record was a number one seller for months. But here, you know, because I was talking about slavery in the stuff that I did. And everybody knows there is no such thing in America as slavery, so they get a little fragile when you talk about it (laughs).

AAJ: Was there profanity on it?

AB: No, there's nothing. It's just a question of slavery. It's just a question of slavery. See, the once you find out that, you know, its like Jesse Jackson running. Although he's since sort of defected from reality.

But when he was running and people said well they're just doing that because he was black. Well that might have something to do with it, but mainly it was because of the political lines that he was taking. Do you know what I'm saying? That they were left of the establishment; therefore he could have been a white Anglo Saxon Protestant, as we will soon see with Bill Bradley.

But if you take certain positions, aye, that's...Or you could be Bruce Springsteen talking about born in the U.S.A. There are certain positions that the establishment is not comfortable with.

AAJ: I'm looking forward to hearing that. I also know you cut a record for Enja that's only available in Europe that's coming my way, too.

AB: Well I wish you'd get me one, hu-huh. Real Song you're talking about. But you see those records like that they put them out, the distribution is somewhat limited and a minute later they're gone. So it's very frustrating here. But the New York Art Quintet record is coming out. The Hugh Ragin record (An Afternoon In Harlem') I liked a great deal.

AAJ: Your poem to Sun Ra is interesting. When you're going on saying Sun Ra's name over and over it's as if you're trying to evoke everything about Sun Ra by just saying his name.

AB: That's right, right. Well that's the Ancients. The ancient Africans thought that you say the name and the spirit will appear. That's what I was doing; I was trying to call his spirit up. And, well, I'm not going to speak on that any further because if I start saying I did then they want to lock me up.

AAJ: Well, I loved Ra. I saw Ra in Detroit, East Lansing, Chicago and Ypsilanti, probably six or seven times in all.

AB: Sun Ra was a great to me. Really, all these people leaving out the world suddenly and together is very disconcerting.

AAJ: Sun Ra was the epitome of big band tradition.

AB: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. He was just in tune with the space age, that's all. He definitely was a traditionalist. I think in his last years he played a lot more of traditional big band music, in his own inimitable way. But still.

AAJ: I heard him play "Queer Notions" by Fletcher Henderson.

AB: Oh yeah, well he used to be Fletcher Henderson's back-up pianist. That's how old Sun Ra is. Sun Ra's older than dirt, man. So when he says he played with Fletcher Henderson then you know how old he was. He was an old guy.

That book that just came out by John Szwed is a very enlightening book if you're interested. Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra it's called. It's a very informing book.

I think there are two books out on Sun Ra now. One from a guy in Germany, Art LeBrechts I think his name is, and then the one by Szwed who's at, where is he, Harvard or Yale, one of those places? But it is good to see that there is some kind of more incisive and analytical criticism and analysis of the work. Rather than, 'I like it, I don't like it.' Or the 'gee-wiz' brand of criticism, you know.

AAJ: Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman came on the scene at a time when music reached a point where anything was possible.

AB: Well you see the problem with American music is that the most inventive and creative aspect of it is always the most oppressed, and so it never gets to be as ubiquitous, say, as Kenny G. It's never heard as much. In the real world Duke Ellington has set the tone for American music for a long, long time, 50 years, anyway. Too often our young players don't have the benefit of understanding that, or knowing that. Many do. But if you'll check somebody like Sun Ra, you'll hear a lot of his solos come directly out of Duke (especially) a lot of those band pieces. People as thought as way-out as Monk, for instance, a lot of these people are coming straight out of Duke Ellington.

To the extent we can appreciate Duke Ellington we can certainly appreciate all of the kind of vectors from his gigantic body of works.

AAJ: Sure, Cecil Taylor as a pianist originally was in some ways out of stride.

AB: Sure, oh, absolutely.

AAJ: He did a song called "Wallering" for Fats Waller.

AB: Yeah. No, no, no, no: it's impossible. See, that's the point. When I say great people in anything, it means there are some people that it's impossible for you to ignore. In other words, it's impossible for you to ignore Duke Ellington and really be in the 20th Century. You might be walking around talking about, 'Oh, I like Monk! I like Monk!' But if you dig Monk, you'll find Monk is Duke Ellington.

So it's a question of how do we absorb the resources of our culture? In America it's funny because a lot of people don't even understand that their culture is African, European and Native. You know what I mean? It's broader than the establishment would have it be, obviously. To really absorb it you have to understand that you are all of it. And a lot of people don't because of racism, or people are not well educated, don't know much about the world. This is defiantly a culture that's deep and rich, and richer and deeper than people even understand.

If you have Africa and Latin America and Europe to draw on, I mean effortlessly, as your psychological and historical kind of cultural development and you don't know that, well, then you'll settle for Kenny G. (Laughs). You'll settle for something you don't have to, I'll tell you.

AAJ: Or you just won't do the work to find out what's underneath that.

AB: That's right because it's deep; it's very deep. But look here I'm going to have to run, I'm sorry, but I've got to get out of here right now.

AAJ: Oh, that's too bad. I was hoping we could talk a little bit about some of the poems you'll be doing with Malachi Thompson.

AB: Oh, o.k. go ahead. I've just got a box load of stuff to do that I'm not doing and I need to be doing it. Go ahead.

AAJ: I understand. Malachi mentioned that when you're performing, and I guess you've been performing together since 1983 or so, that you have a repertoire of poems about certain jazz musicians, Billie Holiday...

AB: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact I want to bring out a book on each one of them called The Book of Monk, The Book of Duke, The Book of 'Trane, who else? I've got The Book of Miles. And then I've written individual poems, a suite of poems to Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell. I've written a whole reconstruction of Willie "The Lion" Smith's life. I've done something for Sarah Vaughan. And then I've done a theatre piece for Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln together, a theatre piece for those singers.

So I've been working on stuff, a lot of stuff on the musical. We just put together a new band. I've been working with bands for a long, long time, but we have a new band now. It's all part of what I do. The music is an organic part of my whole approach to literature and art.

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