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The Gig: Amiri Baraka, Blues Person

Remembering a poet and playwright of incandescent power

Amiri Baraka

There were a lot of contested vantage points in the appraisals that surfaced in the wake of Amiri Baraka’s death, on Jan. 9, at 79. This was probably inevitable, and possibly fitting. Not to imply that Baraka-a poet and playwright of incandescent power, and a critic of dauntless conviction-should be reduced in memoriam to a firebrand. While he inhabited that role at times with a kind of fearless relish, his was a far more thoughtful, nuanced and necessary voice than any of his detractors could allow. The mere fact of that dissonance speaks to the central preoccupation of his life, which was the struggle of African-American society against systemic forces of oppression-and all of the ways in which black art held the tools of transformation, or resistance. How you received that message had a lot to do with how you saw the struggle.

Baraka was a jazz man to the bone; he recognized in the music an unsurpassingly potent and radical means of cultural expression. His writings on jazz, especially in the landmark 1968 essay collection Black Music, shed penetrating light on both the art form and its social context, which he understood to be more or less inextricable. His poems often made use of jazz rhythm, whether they were conveyed on the page or onstage. No one was ever better at bringing modern verse into performative contact with improvised music, as I was reminded most recently by portions of the superb five-LP set Call It Art: New York Art Quartet (1964-65) (Triple Point). (Reading his poem “Western Front,” Baraka sounds dispassionate but urgent, his intensity stretched taut just beneath the surface.) He had little patience for fashions du jour, and even less for the structural biases that slipped by under the guise of conventional wisdom. When he was wrong-everybody has his or her own tally of these moments-there was usually some value in determining precisely how wrong, and why.

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