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Amiri Baraka Dies at 79

Renowned poet was also a respected jazz critic and advocate

Amiri Baraka
(l-r) Gary Bartz, Amiri Baraka, Lee Konitz, Ravi Coltrane, Adam Rogers
Amiri Baraka presents the Jazz Journalists Association's Lifetime Achievement Award to Willard Jenkins at the JJA's 2013 award ceremony in NYC

Amiri Baraka-poet, author, activist, playwright and jazz critic-died today, Jan. 9, at age 79 in Newark. N.J. A cause of death was not reported but Baraka had been hospitalized for about a month. Outspoken, controversial, brilliant and insightful, Baraka, who was also an educator, was often honored for his work. Among his many awards, he was New Jersey’s Poet Laureate in 2002-2003.

Within the jazz sphere, Baraka was highly regarded for his books of criticism, including 1963’s Blues People: Negro Music in White America, 1968’s Black Music-both written under his birth name Leroi Jones-and The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987). He also published The Book of Monk, a poetry volume, in 2005.

Everett LeRoi Jones was born Oct. 7, 1934 in Newark. (In 1965, as the black power and civil rights movements came into the fore and following the death of Malcolm X, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka.) After graduating college and serving in the Air Force (from which he received a dishonorable discharge for reading Communist writings), he moved to Greenwich Village and began writing and editing. In 1958, he founded the magazine Yugen and published works by Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso. A radical leftist who led the Black Arts Movement, Baraka traveled to Cuba in 1960 and began writing what was then termed Negro literature. His first volume of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published in 1961.

Baraka taught at Stony Brook University from 1980-1994, and also taught at a number of other universities, including Yale, San Francisco State and the New School for Social Research. Named New Jersey’s Poet laureate in 2002, he was accused of anti-Semitism for his post-9/11 work “Somebody Blew Up America.” The position was abolished while Baraka was still Poet Laureate.

A selection of Baraka’s writing for JazzTimes can be viewed here.

Originally Published