Blues People: The Negro Experience In White America And The Music That Developed From It by Amiri Baraka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“This book should be taken as a strictly theoretical endeavor. Theoretical, in that none of the questions it poses can be said to have been answered definitively or for all time, etc. In fact, the book proposes more questions than it will answer.” ~ Amiri Baraka from the Introduction to “Blues People”
There are some moments when I find myself reading a subject of historical analysis that I am filled with a desire to ask the author if they would provide a multimedia study guide to follow along with the text itself. One has the work citations and the bibliography, but what I am considering is a chapter matched outline of books, films, and albums that one should study in order to garner an even deeper understanding of the material that is being discussed within that chapter.
Baraka’s writing in this text has the flow of a great uncle who finds it particularly irresistible to not dispense forth a stream of history when he has access to even a single listening ear. At certain times, it has the language of a diatribe as Baraka decries the varying periods of blues and jazz innovation which inevitably lead to mainstream acceptance and the eventual commercialization which eliminates the emotional nuance of a formerly “negro music”. At other times, it reads as a doctoral thesis with Baraka casting forth a jargon heavy exultation of the changes brought by the geniuses of strings, woodwinds, and keys that gave birth to blues and jazz movements in ragtime, dixieland, brass, swing, bebop, cool, hard bop, avant garde and other musical forms of that ilk.
When you are finished, you won’t be an expert on the subject of blues or jazz music, but he does manage to fill you deeply with a sense of ownership and responsibility for holding and transmitting the history. I had an initial criticism of his coverage of “The Modern Scene” at the time of reading because the chapter was so voluminous compared to how neatly Baraka had broken down the other chapters, but I had merely to remind myself that when the book was composed, he was awash in the fresh memory of that modern musical movement whereas I am looking at the work of Coleman, Coltrane, and Rollins with an eye towards the past as one of the new antiquities of music.
For lack of a film directly from Baraka himself, I would offer up for analysis the documentary series “Ken Burns’ Jazz” though for a different reason than you might think. Ken Burns’ perspective on jazz music and the criticism that his documentary received actually serves to highlight one of the issues that Baraka covers in the text. It stands to portray that where initially the newer innovations made in jazz music are derided and given little appreciation, they are in time shelved and then rediscovered to be given their glory in the future.
In a sense, the present era keepers of jazz classify certain forms as “anti-jazz” and toss them aside only to have the future keepers of jazz say “Hey. That was genius.” It is an exercise described throughout the book that I might classify in accordance with the title as “negro music navel gazing”. Only the cool that was cool yesterday is acceptable to the mainstream when initial innovators have already moved on to something new.
In that respect, the attention give by Burns to the swing era and more classical Dixieland styles, his lack of attention to more modern and progressive forms is symbolic of this sort of navel gazing in practice. That does not mean that the documentary is without historical merit, but one should always be aware the everyone has an angle and even when they are trying to be objective, they inevitably shine the prism brightest on the corner of the room which they like the best.