Still dreaming, still inspiring. January
17, MLK Day, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco: poetic justice, indeed.
more like a rumpled, professorial version of the Wizard of Oz than the
dangerous black man Sarah Palin’s army of Tea Party dimwits might label him (if
they even knew who he was), Amiri Baraka poked his head out between Yoshi’s
expansive satin curtains. He ambled out front to raucous applause from a Martin
Luther King Day crowd to announce that before he and Roscoe Mitchell got things
rolling, local poet/playwright Marvin X would be reading a poem. Twice the size
of Baraka, X rumbled through a short, heartfelt work that gave new meaning to
the question “What is God?”
a battered fedora, Baraka, who has outraged as many folks as he has converted
admirers with his brutally honest writing, soon re-appeared with Mitchell in
tow and began sorting through a thick stack of papers and a few softcover books
stuffed in a large black bag, the kind doctors used for house calls, long ago.
Mitchell, onetime co-founder of free jazz legends the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which also
included fellow reed man Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist
Malachi Favors, picked up a small pair of mallets and began softly tapping away
at a battery of African percussion instruments affixed to what sounded like a
paperwork for tonight’s reading now somewhat collated, Baraka reminisced about
his childhood in Newark, N.J. “I was a weird kid,” he said.
“I used to read Japanese and Chinese poetry. And then I discovered
Haiku.” That was when he decided to adapt the pithy, stylized verse form
(the Twitter of its day with much better content) to black culture, to create a
poetic form he would dub “Loku.” Jumping quickly from subject to
subject, Baraka skewered George W. Bush like a kid with a frog spear: “The
main thing with you is you ain’t in jail.” He also put pop-music history
in proper perspective: “If Elvis Presley is King, what is James Brown?
classical musician with one eye on the conductor, Mitchell shifted from the
tiny sopranino sax to his usual horn, alto, to the rarely-seen bass sax as the
perfect accompanist to punctuate Baraka’s inspirational readings. So bulky
Mitchell didn’t even try to pick it up, the bass sax, noticeably larger than
the baritone, has a bottom register that might blow the shingles off your roof.
Mitchell played the instrument while seated.
and potatoes tonight was a brilliant 45-minute timeline of the civil rights
battle, beginning with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in rural Mississippi and
Rosa Parks challenging segregated seating on a Montgomery. Ala.
bus later that year, up to the murder of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther
King in Memphis
in 1968. Like Lennie Bruce once did with Arkansas
governor Orval Faubus, Baraka spiced his narrative with the actual words of Selma, Ala. sheriff Bull
Connor and Alabama
governor George Wallace. From riots in Detroit and the “burn baby
burn” uprising in Watts, Calif. to the bombing death of four little girls
attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, Baraka had all the
heart-wrenching details down in black and white. In addition to singing bits of
old hymns like “We Shall Overcome,” and “Battle Hymn of the
Republic,” he loaded his piece with telling quotes from J. Edgar Hoover
labeling King a Communist dupe, William Faulkner expressing doubts about
integration and Lyndon Johnson, urging King not to undermine his civil rights
work by also protesting the Vietnam War. It was a breathtaking, kaleidoscopic
thirteen-year trip accomplished by nothing more than the passionate voice of
one man with an armful of documentation and another with a stage full of horns.
personal note, Baraka, back in 1965 when he was known as LeRoi Jones and penned
an essential monthly column in #Downbeat#
magazine that introduced readers to the improvisational fire at New York City
loft appearances by Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, John Tchicai, Pharoah Sanders,
Roswell Rudd and Archie Shepp, kindly answered a letter I sent to him. It was
one of the reasons I decided to write about music. And tonight’s thrilling
performance made me feel less guilty about all the times I intended to ride the
Freedom Train from San Jose to San Francisco, but didn’t. I can’t think of a
better way to honor the work of Martin Luther King and the genesis of the
ongoing struggle for civil rights.