Amiri Baraka’s death at the age of 79 was announced today. Almost 50 years ago, when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, his book Blues People and his “Apple Cores” column in Down Beat magazine helped reshape a lot of thoughts, including mine. He wrote about Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Sunny Murray, John Tchicai. He saw this music — the “new thing” — as an expression of social and political as well as cultural revolution.
I bought his books of poems (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, The Dead Lecturer), his essays (Home, Tales), his plays (Dutchman), his novel (The System of Dante’s Hell), which contained paragraphs like this: “Blonde summer in our south. Always it floats down & hooks in the broad leaves of those unnamed sinister southern trees. Blonde. Yellow, a narrow sluggish water full of lives. Desires. The crimson heavy blood of a race, concealed in those absolute black nights. As if, each tiny tragedy had its own universe / or God to strike it down.”
Later in the ’60s he got less lyrical, more angry, and became an activist. A few years ago, at St Mark’s Church on East 10th Street in New York City, I heard him read a poem about Rudy Giuliani that was truly shocking in its directed fury. After 9/11 he’d ruffled a lot of feathers — and lost his post as the poet laureate of Newark, New Jersey, his hometown — with a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America”, which was easily and sometimes wilfully misunderstood: here he is reading it in 2009 at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, with Rob Brown playing Monk on the alto saxophone.
“One of the most baffling things about America,” he wrote in 1964 in his sleeve note to Coltrane Live at Birdland, “is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?)” Vileness and beauty: both present and correct in the work of an irreplaceable figure, a man of his time.