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A Review of "Blues People" by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Updated on February 15, 2015

Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)

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The Most "American" of Art Forms

Blues People, by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), is a historic narrative that chronicles the journey of a people through its music. The music in question, jazz music, is as uniquely American as it is African. Jones brilliantly intertwines the historical journey of the African slave, the Negro and the modern-day African-American, with the origins and inevitable progression of slave music into jazz music.

The First African-“Americans”

Jones initially focuses on the plight of the African slave. He contrasts the circumstance and mentality of second-generation slaves from the first generation. Jones emphasizes that the first slaves that were brought here, brought their customs and native languages, along with their music and spirituality. Much of what these slaves carried with them were systematically banned and suppressed within the institution of North American slavery. Consequently, later generations were left with whatever remnants of old (African traditions) and beliefs their enslavers felt were “charming” and non-threatening. Little did anyone know that the African slaves were leaving an indelible mark on mainstream American culture.

Origin of Jazz Music

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Jazz’s Humble Beginnings

From the “field hollers” to the Negro spirituals, jazz was slowly being nurtured and stoked within the oppressiveness of slavery. What started out as the field songs and moans of the weary, spiritually-worn slave became the blues of the newly-freed slaves—the vagabonds who travelled the countryside after their liberation only to find themselves living harder lives because they had to, now, earn their keep in order to survive. As in any situation, economics played a heavy role in the oppression of the American Negro. A social attitude among the Negro elite concerning its rejection of its own African identity and self-image also left its mark on the music. The creoles of New Orleans made up a higher echelon of Negroes who were referred to as “colored” because of their mixed ancestry. They were classically trained musicians and didn’t associate themselves with the “darker,” Jazz-playing Negroes. As the Jim Crow laws were tightly enforced in New Orleans, creole musicians found themselves playing in jazz bands with their “darker” brethren because they were no longer allowed within classier, White venues. The mix of classical-style of play combined with the untrained, improvised style of jazz gave the music a finer touch. Most importantly, the music was able to become acceptable to a wider audience. Ultimately, the very thing that made jazz (i.e. Black music) a pariah to many, both White and Black, was the very thing that gave the music its appeal—its Africanness, which is truly African and African-American.

Ma Rainey: A Jazz Legend

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The African Subterfuge

Blues, Negro spirituals and eventually jazz, were reflections of a way of life. To refer to it as mere “art” would be a literal slap in the faces of many jazz greats like Ma Rainey and (Bessie Smith). Early jazz was raw, gritty, authentic and true like many of its singers, both known and those in obscurity. Their life was the music and the music was their life. Jazz music was not an abstraction, but a reality. The music proved that the American Negro did not exist devoid of all his earlier African customs and values that were supposedly lost within the cruel institution of North American slavery. He had, unwittingly, imposed them upon a brain-dead and unsuspecting, “Roaring Twenties” public. According to Jones, early jazz dances like “the Charleston”, were actually derived from (West African tribal dances).

To back up his theory, Jones makes several references to (Melville Herskovits), a noted, Jewish-American anthropologist and creator of the very first American, collegiate program dedicated to the study of the African diaspora as a discipline—during the era of Jim Crow. Herskovits, through careful research, proved that the concept of race is not biological, but sociological. This, in turn, proves the authenticity of jazz music. African-Americans did not lose all the customs and habits of their ancestors when they were stolen from Africa and enslaved in America. Jazz music, however morphed and white-washed it may have become over the years, is still authentically African in its DNA, as well as authentically American.

Out of the Ashes

Jones alludes to the fact that jazz is the only Negro form of expression to first gain acceptance within the American mainstream. For many Negroes who couldn’t find work doing what they wanted to do, jazz was a way out (much like hip hop is today!) It was referred to as “the Black Man’s Business.” Jones takes his cues from jazz, a uniquely African-American construct, and builds his own sanctuary of Black expression. Jones poetic writing drips and flows with a jazz style that’s hip, cool and urbane. His participation the “beat” culture of the 50’s allowed him to use the music he loved so much as an alternate meter in which to create, instead of the mainstream Western rules of poetic and prose writing. However, after the murder of Malcolm X, his poetry became edgier and more violent. At this time, Jones searched for a way to use his gifts and talents to express the rage within. The “beat” community was not a suitable enough outlet. Therefore, out of his need for uninhibited expression from his own perspective—a Black perspective, came the brainchild called the Black Arts Movement. His venue was the Black Arts Repertory Theater (BARTS). Jones became a pioneer for the promotion and validation of free, uninhibited Black expression, much like jazz music had been. Also like jazz music, he used bona fide, American institutions, like the theater, film and literature to purvey Black art in all its wretchedness, rawness, truth and authenticity. Blues People is the birth of that pioneering endeavor.

Bibliography

Baraka, Amiri. Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1965. Copyright 1995, by Paul Vangelisti.

Holley, Eugene Jr. Black History Meets Black Music: 'Blues People' at 50. (July 26, 2013). Copyright 2014, NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2013/07/26/205541225/black-history-meets-black-music-blues-people-at-50.

Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Copyright 1963 by LeRoi Jones.

Smethurst, James Edward. The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Copyright 2005. The University of North Carolina Press.

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