Thursday, November 19, 2015

Amiri Baraka's DIGGING: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music Reviewed by Kirpal Gordon

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009 / 436 pages/ ISBN 978-0-520-25715-3
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) was certainly a brother on a mission, but which mission has been the question over the years. In Tonight at Noon: A Love Story, Sue Mingus recounts that Allen Ginsberg, having just “married” Sue & Charles at a Manhattan party per the composer’s request, expressed concern that Baraka had brought very young children to the stage after his reading to chant "We hate whites" & raise their arms in a black power salute. Mingus mentioned that Baraka had no army & no guns. Ginsberg retorted that Baraka had a voice; Mingus said for letting off steam. That happened in the mid-Sixties, around the same time the photo of the cover of Baraka’s new book, Digging, was taken. Ever since, it seems Baraka has been met by an unsettling either/or: moral outrage at his (ab)uses of language (Ginsberg) or a knowing nod to a cat letting off steam & maybe blowing some “out” notes in the heat of his solo (Mingus).

In Digging, however, Baraka's lifelong mission has never been clearer: 1) to expose troublesome either/ors, from a) the basic think/feel split (Descartes) to b) the double consciousness (du Bois) which makes being black & American two things & c) from writing about jazz (critic) to writing that is jazz (performer); 2) to celebrate a spiritual wholeness that exists in the music beyond the wrath of a jealous theocrat, the poison of a colonial mind, the greed that drives the music & lit industries & the exploitation of talent in late XXth century-to-now capitalism.  

Similarly, the method of his mission couldn't be clearer. Chapter 1 opens with a very defined model: “... Afro-America is inextricably bound not only to Africa, but to the U.S., Pan-America (the Western Hemisphere, the actual ‘Western World’), &, through its Pan-African diaspora (pre & post & always, right now, modern), international culture. So the word Griot, the poet, musician, historian, story teller, is getting known all over the world. Though ‘French’ as transmitted ‘symbol,’ it is the best-known term for the West African Djali (or Djeli, but Djeli ya also means the Djali’s act, his ‘getting down’ to take us up & out), the Central & South African Imbongi, the East African Mshairi or Ngombe (rapper), the Yoruba Iiala, all carry the same general meaning...” (p 5).  With its emphasis on expression, humor & improvisation---“Another name for the Djali is the Gleeman …not a ‘Town Crier,’ he’s a Town Laugher” (p 6)---the griot/djali is the vehicle by which Baraka seeks to restore the oral as the primary mode of our literary & musical heritage just like it used to be for most of our human history & will be again. 

At his best Baraka blows beautifully Whitmanic, long-limbed, blue-black, ancient-to-the-future prose choruses from a deeply lyrical place of great mother wit & be-bop charm: funky, nutty, then bird-like in flight. It’s at once in the music, a commentary on the music & a key to the music’s spirit & root. His deepest & most memorable passages are tone poems of Ellingtonian elegance---intimate, knowing, insightful; a tune you knew that you now know better. Check his word solos on “The Great American Songbook,”  “Rhythm,” Newark’s “Coast” & “Influence,” his addendum to Blues People, his knock-out “When Miles Split!,” his double takes on Trane (why his legacy continues) & his eye-ear-memory to Art Tatum, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughn, Albert Ayler, Monk, Duke, Nina Simone, Bill Cosby & Abbey Lincoln. He mixes musical critique, personal anecdote, behind-the-scenes confessional, fan notes, the ride over to the gig & “bopera theory” to create that you-are-there sense just as it’s going down, son.

Divided into three sections---Essays; Great Musicians; Notes, Reviews, & Observations---Digging is theory, scholarship, autobiography, criticism, historical perspective, journalism & free verse in continuum. Its intent does not seek “the myth of objective consciousness” (Theodore Roszak) but to swing trope-a-dope vibrant like an after-hours jazz hang. The writing style is far-fetched, contrary, multi-dimensional, etymological, signifyin', unnerving, outrageous, pun goofy, spirit-talkin’ spooky & driven by song, dance, movement. He’s not summing up like a dead lecturer; he’s in the momentum invoking the living spirit of the music (as he does on stage), stirring the alphabet pot in order to re-view/re-new figure & ground as an interactive Gestalt that challenges our given notions of black, brown & beige, fact & fantasy, art & artifice, time & space.

Digging, however, also serves up some unnecessary challenges as well. For one thing, this “talking book” is “crying out” for an editor. Forget words! Entire sentences, paragraphs & arguments repeat verbatim more than twice. Granted, many of these 84 chapters first appeared somewhere else as liner notes, poems, reviews, interviews or magazine features, & like any improviser, Baraka pulls out some stock riffs, beats, runs, honks, hooks & alternate fingerings in his flight gear to get us up & out. However, left unedited, these knee-jerk repetitions of inventive language become one-note clich├ęs. When he quotes the same lines of his own poetry in different essays, it’s clear he needs more than an editor. At its worst the book reads like a garage sale with his meandering asides promoting unrelated projects of his own as well as his family members’. 

In addition, a few of the musicians in Part Three happen to be leading bands that AB's sitting in with on the show or record date he’s reviewing! Call it an honorable hustle or a lagniappe, but more perplexing, from a reader’s point of view, is what’s missing: Some chapters end with a date, but some don’t, particularly his vexing views on Springsteen & Wynton Marsalis. Too bad the UC Press krewe (this is the thirteenth volume in Music of the African Diaspora) didn’t put some shade on these inconsistencies & excesses or at least include an acknowledgments page or an index in the back for reference. This unique jazz elder & gifted performance poet who this reviewer has seen blow so many audiences away, from school kids to the square & cynical, deserves more editorial rigor in print, especially to celebrate his thesis that poetry is music.

For those who already know, go right to the last entry, dated 4/10/06, “Jackie Mc---Coming and Going,” which reveals an autumnal side to Baraka, the man & the mission. While Gil Noble reminisced at McLean’s funeral about growing up with JMc in Sugar Hill to the sound of Bird & the message of Bop, AB realized, “… that Jackie and I are of the same generation, me about to be 72 by the time this comes out” (p 408). His mind wandered back to his days with Jackie & Dolly on the Lower East Side & the song Jackie wrote for his daughter, “Little Melonae,” on Let Freedom Ring, how that cry rang throughout the world & the free jazz that followed. “Alas,” Baraka writes, “it is no more today, which is why the superpowers run amuck throughout the world and Greenwich Village looks like Coney Island and hip Soho resembles nothing so much as Tiffany’s garden”  (p 411).  

Regardless of the changing times, Amiri Baraka (RIP) was still out there, on the scene, on the bandstand, on the one, writin' like he’s talkin' to ya & running that voodoo down. Digging goes a long way to restore what is essential in his larger gift to us.


An earlier version of this appreciation appeared in American Book Review.