Black Music

January 01, 1970

Classics Renegade Reprint Series)




It was a time when music fans seriously argued about
questions of technique vs. creative content, when musicians had to find tiny
holes in the wall and odd venues just to be allowed to play their original
material, a time when the future came crashing into the present via a
reclaiming of ideas from the past. No, not the New Wave of punk rock and
assorted Bowery-based artists of the 1970s, but the New Thing of the ‘60s, the
Avant-Garde of jazz which divided the world into those who accepted music
outside the previous rules, and those who never would.


LeRoi Jones was probably the jazz writer most in touch with
what was happening in this musical revolution (which happened to coincide with
what was happening in the cultural revolution of the Civil Rights movement and
its varied strains of African-American consciousness). He certainly was the
jazz writer most capable of connecting the dots between the musical sounds, the
social contexts, and the sense that it was all changing somehow for the better.
Sure, players of such historical stature as Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler,
Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, and others were scrambling to find places to play in
front of audiences frequently numbered in the dozens, but Jones captured in
prose the sense that this music was full of meaning, and undeniably essential.


Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka and who
has since been one of the most controversial political and cultural thinkers of
the past 45 years, wrote for Downbeat and the black publication Kulcher, as
well as providing liner notes for some LPs. Black
was actually his second book of jazz writing, but unlike Blues People: Negro Music in White America,
which traced the history of music in the African-American community, this time
the focus was fully on the sounds of a specific place and time – New York City
in the early 1960s. As John Coltrane, Baraka’s musical patron saint (though
Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler come close in his pantheon),
led the way, a movement towards musical freedom received documentation from a
man who thoroughly understood what was developing, and could describe it with a
sense of humor, honor, and passion.


The newly republished (courtesy Akashic) book builds
towards an original essay, “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),”
in which Baraka posits a future in which all forms of black music will unite
into one ultimate expression of cultural meaning. This didn’t exactly happen,
as most of the musicians he loved so much either remained on the margins, or
changed to accommodate the public’s preference towards more obvious melodies
and simpler rhythms. But it’s impossible to read Black Music without wishing you could have been there soaking up
all this creativity, or at least without wanting to throw on some free jazz and
feel the waves of emotional power, rhythmic expression, and sonic urgency
that’s clear on every page.


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