When I reviewed Bruce Boyd Raeburn’s New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History, I thought that I would be able to offer more insight into what I have been reading for my M.A. at Rutgers. Life has since intervened, but after finishing Blues People by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) last night, I am compelled to revive the concept.
The book, the first book on jazz by an African American author, offers a compelling and comprehensive narrative based on what he calls “the Negro experience in White America.” Working chronologically forward from early slavery, Jones offers prescient analysis and a cohesive framework for thinking about jazz and its African American legacy.
Despite the academic language, the book overflows with the author’s passion for the music. The author’s love for his favorite musicians — Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in particular — is deeply felt. He even offers some musical analysis that resonates with the musician in me — a true rarity among most jazz writing. Furthermore, the concepts that Jones lays out in the early chapters carry through into his analysis of more modern music, and the changes in context that he documents are fascinating.
Along the way, Jones also makes some useful observations about white America and their relationship to African American music. For example, he assesses the Dixieland revival movement as having “revived quite frankly, though perhaps less consciously, the still breathing corpse of minstrelsy and blackface.” Even Raeburn doesn’t go that far in his analysis of the movement, and I appreciate Jones’s boldness. He does, however, cross the line every once in awhile — I laughed out loud after reading his incisive condemnation of Cold War policies which concludes, “the fifties were their spawning ground, and the generation who would have to be fully responsible for them was not yet fully grown. Perhaps they were in college, as I was, listening to Dave Brubeck.” I dare you to find someone else who implicates Brubeck in fomenting the Vietnam War!
Jones’s perspective is held back by his conflation of race and class, leading to some oversimplification. Of course, any linear historical narrative will be reductive; still, I believe this to be the main site of the book’s limitations. As I am doing my thesis research on Jack Teagarden, a working-class white musician who developed proficiency with the blues early in his career, I know that the race/class dualities are often more complicated than Jones lets on. Teagarden is not mentioned in the entire book, nor are other white musicians from lower-class backgrounds. Perhaps this is because such examples would contradict his assertion that “The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer.”
But these limitations do not take away from the powerful story that this book tells. Written nearly 50 years ago, in 1963, it still offers perhaps the most captivating and insightful history of jazz contained in a single volume. Like any work that purports to be historically comprehensive, it needs to be approached carefully, but Blues People still belongs as one of the bedrock texts in jazz history.