Amiri Baraka was a poet, critic, playwright, and teacher who wrote seminal works on African American music and was a leader of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. He was poet laureate of New Jersey from 2002 until 2003, and died in 2014. I interviewed him by phone on December 18, 2009, while he was at his Newark, New Jersey, home.
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, first of all, I don’t have that much time. But as far as my views on Beiderbecke, they remain pretty much the same. I think that he was a very singular kind of, you know, artist. But the point about Bix is that he represented a particular set of influences in the music and he brought a kind of, you know, singular lyrical style to the music. And then you know all the other story that would be heaped upon him to make myth out of it, you know, but I think the whole question of Beiderbecke, the Chicago style, Beiderbecke and Whiteman, the whole Bing Crosby cross-civilization. They’re interesting things to know about, you know, if you’re interested in American music as a total kind of statement, you know what I mean. There’s always been, there’s always been excellent white players in jazz from its inception. The point is that the racist nature of the society has always tried to make them the creators of it, the innovators in it, or just to leave out, you know, the real innovators and originators, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever said. A lot of the critics seem to be more intent on establishing a false kind of history of the music and its development than just evaluating what exists, you know.
BRENDAN WOLFE: Two critics that you’ve named in particular in that regard are James Lincoln Collier and Richard Sudhalter.
AB: Sudhalter. No, no, no, no. My thing about Sudhalter is him claiming that the music rose up spontaneously within the Afro-American community post-slavery and a white origination, which would either make slavery a common cultural background or at least diminish the influence that slavery and the Afro-American culture that developed out of that had on the rest of the United States. You cannot make them the same because the history is not the same. And if you try to make them the same, well, then you want to know, what’s the point of that? If you’re supposed to be a scholar, why are you doing that, you know? So. With Lincoln Collier, he’s just a straight-out racist, I mean his remarks about Duke Ellington are offensive, you know, and I’m saying about that, if he wants to make Duke a mediocre imitator of European culture then he’s got to fight with Stravinsky, who thought quite the opposite. Not to mention Ernest Ansermet. I mean it’s just, you know, it’s just outrageous. What’s outrageous is that somebody printed it in a book, but I guess that’s not unique.
BW: [chuckles] I think that’s right. When you say that Sudhalter was trying to make the black musicians and the white musicians the same, can you help me understand what you mean by that?
AB: No, he’s talking about the originators. He’s trying to make the ODJB and those bands, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He’s trying to make those white bands the originators of the music itself. I will say this. They might have originated what he knows of that kind of, the kind of, I won’t call it cooptation, but at least the reflection of original black music. He might see that as some original thing, and I can understand that in the same way I would say about Beiderbecke, you know, certainly that Chicago style. But I’m saying at the same time, that does not exist without the Afro-American origins of it. That’s all. And that should be obvious to anybody. I mean, you know. Unless you’re gonna tell me that that African music was known and appropriate before it got to the United States. Or that these white people were slaves and hence picked up the same traditions. Or even to say denying that even not slaves, that they were influenced by that slave music. I mean, you cannot have it, they cannot have the same lives, It’s like a, that a, what was that TV thing that played, before they let Michael Jackson, you know, there was a time when that TV thing that plays all that popular music wasn’t going to let Michael Jackson on there because he was black.
BW: Oh, MTV, you mean?
AB: MTV, right. But it’s like MTV saying, you know, producing a whole bunch of white singers who’ve been influenced not only by Michael but the whole music itself, denying that source and that influence, you know, or, or, or objectively denying it by refusing to admit it. You know, or to point it out. So to me, that was Sudhalter’s thing. I’m reacting particularly to an essay he had in the New York Times where he was, he was actually advocating this kind of common origins for the music rather than its actual history [see "A Racial Divide That Needn't Be," New York Times, January 3, 1999].
BW: Okay, okay. Because maybe I, I don’t think that I disagree with you, and my book is not interested in making an argument one way or the other but just trying to understand the arguments that other people are making. When I read Sudhalter, I always thought, and I don’t think I’ve read that New York Times essay that you mention, but I read him thinking that what he was saying was that some of those, or at least in his book Lost Chords, what he was saying was that these early white musicians, Bix being one of them, are not always given enough credit for their importance in the early history of jazz.
AB: [starts to laugh]
BW: But you’re saying, well you laugh. What do you think?
AB: No, I mean, if you’re gonna tell me that Paul Whiteman is the King of Jazz then we have to stop talking about it.
BW: [laughs] I didn’t mention Paul Whiteman.
AB: No, but I’m saying, that’s what Sudhalter’s denying. By him saying they’re not getting enough credit. I mean, how does Benny Goodman get to be the King of Swing? I mean, if they’re not given enough credit. You know the point. I’ll say this: I don’t resent them appropriating the music. What I resent is the fact that the black musicians don’t get paid the same thing. Otherwise they can take all they want to. Everybody learns from somebody. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the social context that makes it, you know, abusive.
BW: So there’s two things that we’re talking about here: one is a kind of critical reception to people like Bix. And in your book, Blues People, you make an argument about the importance of, and the social context of Bix’s music versus Louis Armstrong’s music independent of their critical reception over the years. And I wrote something that I think, in two sentences, tries to sum up your argument that you make there. And I want to read you that and have you tell me whether I’ve got it right or whether I’ve got it terribly wrong.
BW: I say, “For Baraka, the bottom line is that these two men—Bix and Louis—different as they were, came together—figuratively—to create a fully American music. And Bix Beiderbecke played a critical role, maybe even the critical role. He took Louis Armstrong’s African-American music and made it American.
AB: Well, see, the point is this: It’s all American. The point is, what Beiderbecke does, he is recognized as a kind of avatar of a great thing. But the point is, you cannot make that a separate thing. You understand what I’m saying? They’re both playing American music, but Beiderbecke is recognized as playing American music. Louis is then made into some kind of extension of American music that ain’t really American music, and that’s not true. They both American music. What distinguishes them ultimately is the social context that they created in. You know, Beiderbecke might have amaze people to be playing, quote, jazz then, you know, which made him, I guess, to a lot of people unique and very interesting. But you know Louis Armstrong was a great figure in that music from its mainstream. You understand, from the mainstream of Afro-American music he was a great figure, and therefore, he was a great figure in American music. It’s just that how they come by that is what’s important. How they come by that. You know. You listen to Bix, you listen to what Bix knows about the world and how he does it. Now what they’re going to do with that in American society [chuckles] is another thing. But you can’t possibly, like say, you know like Langston Hughes but I don’t like William Carlos Williams. That’s not an intellectual argument, you know what I mean? But the point is you have to acknowledge where they are coming from each to get what they got. I mean, to me, a more important musician, in terms of American music, is obviously Louis Armstrong. But I’m not gonna deny the importance of Bix Beiderbecke. That’s crazy. But then, you’re not, you’re closing one of your eyes, you know, you’re not looking at the whole thing. I mean, if you say, music in the forties— Now, when I came up in the fifties, people like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Warren Marsh, those were, we took those as great musicians. They were playing the music. That’s what was happening. You know what I mean? Lee Konitz. Those people. But now to try to make one of those some unique plateau of excellence while the rest are just some colored musicians, that’s [chuckles] that’s neither accurate nor is it, you know, fair.
BW: And are people doing that?
AB: They’ve always done that. I mean, in terms of evaluation in the sense of, particularly recently when you can’t even find black musicians a whole lot in these clubs, even in New York, you know, I mean, it’s like hit and miss. But it’s just the tendency of the racist nature of society more than anything else, you know.
BW: Have you read the new biography of Louis Armstrong? Terry Teachout’s biography?
AB: [scoffs] No, no. Maybe I should. I been reading Robin Kelley’s book on Monk. See, I wonder, I know that Teachout writes for, what is it, the Wall Street Journal.
BW: That’s right. He’s the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and the music critic for Commentary magazine.
AB: Oh, I’m not hip to that. Didn’t the whole thing about jazz is dead—that steered me away from him maybe. Maybe I should go back and look at him, but that piece should be dead by the time we hear it for the eight billionth time, you know, it’s very funny. How can you say jazz is dead on the one hand and on the other write a biography of Louis Armstrong?
BW: One of his main points about Louis Armstrong is that he’s not given, well I think he’s trying to rehabilitate Armstrong from people who criticized him for his, um—
AB: What, his sort of, kind of submissive attitude to America?
BW: Or the way he mugged on stage.
AB: Aw yeah, well, you know, when I was a kid I did that, too, especially when I was coming up in the fifties and sixties. But Louis Armstrong proved to be a much more authentic personality than a lot of other people who might have came off much fiercer [chuckles] in terms of their resistance to American oppression. I heard Louis in an interview, did you ever hear that interview he did with Willis Conover? He’s on with Willis Conover, and so Conover asks him, “Mr. Armstrong, how can you tell me in the last fifty or sixty years of you know music and fame and so forth, how did you do that? What would you say to a young musician who wanted to know?” And Louis in his best way, says, and his manager, Joe Glaser is on there with him, and he says, [imitating Armstrong’s gravelly voice] “Well, you got to find yourself a white man and make yourself that white man’s nigger. Ain’t that right, Joe? Ha ha ha ha.” Now, see, if you been waiting fifty years to say that [chuckles] you know, or that thing he told Eisenhower, that he need to go down there with them kids in Little Rock, you’re facing one, a personality who has adapted a stage persona to what he perceives as the social mores of a racist society on one hand, and a lot of times, Louis is being Louis [chuckles], that’s the way he is. That’s the way he is. Maybe my generation coming up, we didn’t appreciate that because we thought you had to be Miles Davis–type of, you know, stone face in the front of racism. But at the same time, ain’t that much difference [chuckles], finally, in the way that they acted, you know, Miles had a more stone faced perception on the outside, but Miles was no more militant, ultimately, than Louis.
BW: Earlier you were contrasting Bix and Louis in terms of their different experiences and what those experiences meant in terms of their music. How do you react to the Albert Murray–Stanley Crouch argument that, if I have it right, suggests blues is the defining characteristic of jazz, and the way to define blues is, in part, that distinctive experience.
AB: Well, I mean, I would say that I agree to this extent, that without the blues I doubt that there is such a thing as jazz, that the blues is the fundament kind of, what can I say, repositioning of the African, via Afro-American, nationality. Without the blues jazz has no national origins, you know. That’s its American face. You know, blues is a Western music, jazz is a Western music, you understand. Those are its creations in the West, the blues, its earliest secular creation in the West. Before that there was slaves. You know the first secular music, or I should say, post-slave music is the blues. The strongest, and the most persistent, you know. And without the blues I don’t think you have jazz, I don’t think there’s such a thing. You know, people have tried, whatever kind of confection they think up. But without the blues—like for instance, when you’re listening to Duke Ellington, you’re always listening to some aspect of the blues, always. You know. And that’s the thing, you know, in this book of mine, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, all those composers, whether you’re listening to Cole Porter or Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern, you know, in that music is the blues. Somebody’s appropriation of it, how they feel about it, you know. You know what I mean? You can listen to Cole Porter all night, man, what you keep hearing is how he keeps taking the blue strain—which is not just twelve bars, which is a feeling, you know. Like you cannot tell, they won’t let you tell the story of America, nineteen-twenties, for instance, [chuckles] without the blues. You can’t look at a film noir [chuckles] without the blues. But it’s just a fundamental part of the music itself, and it’s the foundation, and whether even if you listen to black religious music, you listening to a form that’s close to the blues.
BW: So how do you connect that to Bix?
AB: To what?
BW: To Bix?
AB: It’s that he’s influenced by it. He’s an American. See, the problem with Americans they don’t understand their own culture. American culture—Africa, European, the native peoples, that’s the mix. Which means you can claim any of that, whether you claim the blues or salsa or, uh, what do you call that, country and western! You’re still claiming American culture, and it has some mix at the bottom of it, you know, I mean there’s African slavery, that’s definitely at the bottom of it, and that influences everything. But people came over here from, you know, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, you know, and Italy, so there’s that mix in it that’s American, but people always want to separate that mix rather than see its confluence, you know. But anyway, I hope I helped you in some kind of way.
BW: One more question. What if anything, either to you or to American culture, does Bix Beiderbecke mean today?
AB: Well probably he should mean research [chuckles], by these people who don’t even know what happened in the sixties, you know. It’s a necessary reconstruction of American culture and its development, because if you’re talking about Beiderbecke, you’re talking about what happened in the twenties, you know, how did the music get from Mississippi plantations through these New Orleans and then up to Chicago to a white community. You’re studying the history of America, is what you’re studying. I’m just looking at Stanley Finkelstein’s Jazz: A People’s Music, and that’s a great text about the difference between the music, as its created, and the commercial obstruction and destruction, you know.
BW: That’s the second time you’ve talked about the commercialization of jazz and you mentioned Paul Whiteman. Was that a tragedy for Bix that he joined Whiteman?
AB: No, everybody gotta work. No I’m just saying that to me that was not his most profound appearances, but like I say, everybody’s gotta work. It’s what it is. You know, you have to then winnow out his, let’s say, greatest impact in the music from him just playing in various ensembles. I’d say that about almost anybody. [cell phone rings] Okay, I’m gonna have to run.