Author Amiri Baraka Dies at 79
Amiri Baraka, a poet, playwright and social critic whose writing about blues and jazz in books like Blues People and Black Music helped reframe America’s view of the art forms, died on Jan. 9 at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, N.J. He was 79.
In a review of Black Music in the Oct. 30, 1969, issue of DownBeat, contributor Thomas Conrad praised Baraka’s poetic use of language. “America contains many people who write poetry, but only a few poets, and [he] is one of them,” Conrad wrote. “This gift, I believe, is his single greatest resource as a jazz critic … [he] brings to jazz criticism the same linguistic genius that characterizes his best poetry.”
Baraka was a contributor to DownBeat. His essay “Jazz and the White Critic” was first published in the Aug. 15, 1963, issue of the magazine. (The essay was also published in Black Music.)
“Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been,” he observed in the article, which goes on to trace the roots of the blues and jazz and their complicated social and cultural histories.
In Baraka’s view, white critics had failed to understand the black “attitude” that produced blues and jazz. “The major flaw in this approach to Negro music is that it strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent. It seeks to define jazz as an art (or folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy.”
Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark on Oct. 7, 1934.
He received his education at Rutgers University, Howard University and Columbia University and spent three years in the U.S. Air Force.
As a young writer, he changed the spelling of his middle name to LeRoi and later changed his full name to Amiri Baraka after converting to Islam.
In 1958, Baraka produced his first play, A Good Girl Is Hard To Find, and founded Yugen, a literary magazine, and Totem Press. He published his own work and books by Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Baraka’s first published collection of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, arrived in 1961.
Blues People, Baraka’s in-depth history of American blues and jazz music, was published in 1963. His plays from the period include The Toilet, The Slave and Dutchman.
Baraka continued to write about jazz for DownBeat and other publications, often covering musicians associated with the avant-garde such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Wayne Shorter. In the mid-’60s, Baraka wrote a column for DownBeat called Apple Cores.
Baraka taught at Columbia University, Yale and Stony Brook University, among other institutions.
He was New Jersey’s poet laureate from 2002–2003 but drew the state’s ire with his controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” which dealt with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Baraka is survived by his wife, Amina Baraka, eight children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
To read excerpts of Baraka’s contributions to DownBeat magazine, click here.