THE MUSIC Reflections on Jazz and Blues By Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Amina Baraka Morrow. 332 pp. $22.95
What's happened to Amiri Baraka? As LeRoi Jones, Baraka was arguably the most influential black poet and playwright of the 1960s. But his influence on younger black writers extended far beyond his books, and so did his fame. He was a man of words who became a man of action, a revolutionary in deed as well as rhetoric.
For a period in the early to mid-'60s, Baraka also was an influential jazz critic, a proselytizer for the new music of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor whose word carried considerable weight because he was the first black author of any literary renown to write regularly about black improvisatory music. As a jazz critic, Baraka was strident in his enthusiasms and overly harsh in his denunciations, but his tone conveyed the rising tide of black consciousness within the music itself, and his judgments have proved sound. Most jazz critics, regardless of race, would now accept as gospel Baraka's contention that it is impossible to discuss black music without discussing its matrix in black society (one of the central themes of his "Blues People," published in 1963).
"The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues," Baraka's first book on jazz in almost 20 years, is a messy collection of essays, speeches, poems and an "anti-nuclear jazz musical." The book is hardly likely to enhance his reputation as a jazz journalist. Part of his appeal in the '60s was his receptivity to the new, the feeling that he would always be in shouting distance of the men with the horns. But time, which has a way of catching up with all jazz listeners, appears to have finally caught up with Baraka, who thinks he sniffs the taint of European refinement in recent developments: "... now within the music, a struggle is going on ... between the legitimate tradition made new of Afro-American music, called jazz, and middle-class elements who think the music needs to be defunked and deblacked and creep around as an exotic tail of European concert music ..."
Accusations that jazz is becoming "too European" (e.g. too white) are almost as old as the music itself (older, if one counts Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy). More specifically, Baraka seems to object to the jazz vanguard's increasing preoccupation with composition (and, presumably, its concomitant regard for form in improvised solos). But it could be argued that these developments, which have already resulted in much thrilling music firmly rooted in jazz tradition, have less to do with middle-class leanings than with the delayed influence of such black jazz composers as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Mingus.
One suspects that what causes Baraka to turn a deaf ear to this exciting music, and to pine for the days when men were men and took 40-minute solos, is his brand of Marxism, which is more like Bohemianism in its naive assumptions that class struggle is somehow about taste and revolution is somehow about testing the bounds of middle-class propriety (you can take the poet out of Greenwich Village, but you can't take Greenwich Village out of the poet).
Baraka's poetry has become an exercise in hollow sloganeering ("DEATH TO ALLIGATOR EATING CAPITALISM/ DEATH TO BIG TEETH BLOOD DRIPPING IMPERIALISM") and has bartered its taut voice in futile simulation of jazz improvisation. "The Music" also includes a selection of likable, if inconsequential, poems by Baraka's wife Amina (it's hard to resist someone who declares "i love the Working Class of all Nationalities" in the same litany of love objects with fried dumplings, antique rocking chairs and Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath").
But in this miscellany, the poetry is secondary to the critical essays, the overwhelming majority of which should not have been included since they were commissioned by record companies as liner notes, a financial arrangement that can preclude a writer's independence -- it is surely no coincidence that Baraka refrains from voicing his distaste for the pianist Anthony Davis (one of the black musicians he castigates elsewhere in the book as a not-black-enough or not-proletariat-enough "Tail European") in his notes for the vibraphonist Jay Hoggard's "Mystic Wind," an album on which Davis performs as a sideman.
Baraka is still capable of fleeting but incisive musical and social commentary. In his lengthy appreciation of the trumpeter Miles Davis, for example, he accurately traces both free-form and soul jazz (the musical correlatives to the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, the saxophonists in Davis' small band of the late '50s. And commenting on white objectification of black style -- the blackening of white culture -- he observes that "the significant change in minstrelsy is that it more and more purports to be real white life."
But the Davis chapter is pointlessly digressive and self-referential, and Baraka now writes as though too distracted by dogma to develop his most trenchant thoughts beyond the length of flippant asides. It's doubtful that "The Music" would have been published if its author didn't use to be somebody.
The reviewer is the jazz critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of "In the Moment: Jazz in the 1980s."