Writer's block is a luxury that few working writers can afford — least of all Amiri Baraka, who, at 75 years old, remains one of the most prolific authors in the world. Luckily, he's one of the few who doesn't suffer from mental snags or insecurities. Over a career that spanned six decades (and counting), Baraka became known as a social critic and agitator — Beat, then Black Nationalist, then Third World Marxist, then staunchly independent, but always political to the point of being acerbic. (The word "controversial" appears in the first sentence of his Wikipedia definition, and nobody's ever taken it out.) But his writing has an immediacy that draws you right in, whether or not you agree with the content. More importantly, he has the one thing that every other writer in the world strives to attain: He has a voice.
No wonder Baraka is so often compared to a free-jazz artist. "Amiri has a very lyrical way of speaking, a very rhythmic way of speaking. ... Hearing him talk is like a conversation between Coltrane and Elvin Jones," said saxophonist Howard Wiley, who will back the poet at Yoshi's in San Francisco on November 9. Wiley went on to say that Baraka's rhythmic command isn't limited to the stuff that's written down or performed. It's right there in the intonation of his speaking voice. "His rhythm, the space between the words. He talks the way — you know, when you see soul brothers walk down the street all the time. He talks the way soul brothers walk. He talks the way Miles Davis plays."
Generally, Baraka prefers to speak over music. It's a form he's known since childhood from listening to old talking blues 78s and hearing the pastors at his old church. ("When they preached, people always played behind," Baraka explained.) He first saw it done in a jazz context when Langston Hughes performed with Charles Mingus at New York's Five Spot club, some time in the 1950s. His Yoshi's concert — with Wiley on sax, Sly Randolph on drums, and David Ewell on bass — will feature classic be-bop tunes like "Misterioso," "Giant Steps," and "Straight No Chaser." When no band is available, Baraka sometimes intones the "Misterioso" bass line by himself.
Born in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey, Baraka grew up listening to gospel, spirituals, and big bands on his parents' record player. When he was about thirteen, a cousin turned him on to be-bop, and the following year Baraka started amassing his own collection. His first purchase was Dizzy Gillespie, the second was Charlie Parker. Words often eluded the poet when he tried to describe his attraction to that particular form of jazz. With all those weird harmonies, intricate rhythms, bent phrases, and corkscrew runs, it was obviously difficult to play. But the best players made it sound loose and free. As he later wrote in the 1993 essay "The High Priest of Bebop" (part of his new collection, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music), Baraka wasn't just struck by the musicians' technical mastery or seeming lack of inhibitions. Rather, it was the whole scene that enchanted him. "I was fascinated by the weirdness of it all," he wrote. Not only the names, Bird, Klook, Max, Bud, Miles. Damn! And Monk's middle name was, what? Sphere! But the music, for that first wailin 78, maybe it was Max Roach and his Be-Bop Boys. I was all the way in it."
That sensibility quickly bled into his writing. For years Baraka wrote with records playing in the background because they created what he calls "a sympathetic environment." He became a be-bopper in his own right: spontaneous, improvisational, full of zig-zaggy phrasing. And like a jazz musician who gets bored of playing through changes, Baraka doesn't cotton to the rules of expository writing. He's a blurter with a fondness for exclamation points. (One of the essays in Digging is called "Duke Was a Really Great Pianist!") When possible, he likes to write things in one sitting, then be done with them.
"I'll tell you the truth, I hate to do revisions," Baraka said. "That's not the last thing you're gonna write, so why torture that particular thing, you know what I mean? Writer's block is something I haven't had much experience with." Since he came up in the 1950s and 1960s, Baraka began his professional career on a typewriter. In the late 1950s he founded a small press company to publish Beat poetry collections. In the 1960s, he wrote liner notes for Prestige Records. He's owned a computer for the past twenty years, but you can tell from the tempo of his writing that he's much better suited to pouncing on typewriter keys than pecking at a keyboard. The ideas always come at a fast clip and hit hard on the page, as though they were hammered in.
"A critic who praised Bunk Johnson at Dizzy Gillespie's expense is no critic at all, but then neither is a man who turns it around and knocks Bunk to swell Dizzy," Baraka wrote in his famous essay "Jazz and the White Critic," which was as much about the role of writers in assigning value to things as it was about racial hegemony. In that sentence, Baraka denounced a huge cross-section of his peers — basically, any writer who followed the trend of dividing jazz artists into "schools," so they could be falsely pitted against each other. There's a huge argument at stake there and few have ever articulated it in such a jazzy way. It's not just the consonance of words like "Bunk" and "knock" that makes this sentence crackle; it's the rhythm, the percussiveness, and the sense of a palpable human being behind the page.
Nowhere is his voice so present than in the poem "Somebody Blew Up America," which prompted former New Jersey governor James E. McGreevey to contest Baraka's 2001 state Poet Laureate title. Attacks on various Bush cabinet members, (e.g., "that Skeeza Condoleezza") and the suggestion of Israel's involvement in 9-11 made it his most contentious work to date. But it's also his most musical — not only because of the phonetic quality of the rhymes but because it's structured like an incantation. Baraka repeats the word "Who" over 170 bars, with lyrics that change from show to show: Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying/Who talk about democracy and be lying/Who/Who/Who/Who?
"You know that poem that he always gets in trouble for saying?" asked Wiley. "That one, he always makes it relevant to the time. It still has that timeless quality." It's not clear to what extent Baraka writes things out ahead of time, and what just comes out on the spot. Oftentimes, a great deal of the poetry sounds improvised. Wiley says the group will even get onstage without a set list or game plan, and not trip about it. He says all the great jazz musicians did it that way.
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