Open Letter to Amiri Baraka aka Leroi Jones

I wrote this as the dedication to my curriculum blog when it begun in 2008, withdrew it, revised it and posted it again in 2013. I never got it to him but I think this is the right context in which to re-dedicate my curriculum, which has always been a homage to, for instance, the conversation over black music and the blues of Amiri Baraka, Ralph Ellison and Steven C. Tracy's brilliant follow up of the Dialectic in Langston Hughes and the Blues University of Illinois Press 2001.

I hardly know where to begin if you are actually going to be reading this but you and your work, in particular Blues People and the new introduction to it you wrote, have been in my thoughts recently. I've been putting together a new curriculum.  I wanted to do something which would focus upon how important the blues aesthetic (and or philosophy) of our folk, our ancestors has been, was and continues to be to the American experience and landscape. 

I've been thinking about a course called Blues People: African American Culture in the 20th Century, but as broad as possible given that it must be broken down into never very lengthy readings for undergrads who work and have a million other things pressing on their young lives. In fact, I taught this course in the fall of 2008 and also in the spring of 2009 in double sized classes (60 students). Also, I have done Blues People in an M.A. version in the fall and in a Ph.D. version in the spring of 2009.  The Ph.D. version was magic once I gave it over to the music as much as I wanted having the opportunity to work with Music Ph.D. candidates who were able to back up my lack of musical expertise.

For a long time I have been using visual culture and music to animate the literature and get it across in the classroom. The opportunity to teach this at the level of a global discourse is very appealing to me because I have been conceptualizing it that way for some time. At Cornell, I also had access to an expense account to purchase the materials, as well as world class technological support. I will always be grateful to Salah Hassan for that because it is just impossible to conceptualize what is possible with the technology if you have never had a chance to experiment with it. Now I am back at the City College of New York, which is lagging  a little behind the rest of the university system so far as technology.  I think it may be that some english professors don't believe that they are really supposed to supplement the text in any way.

So I imagine myself to be a little army of one to create from the ground-up this complex curriculum composed of music, literature, visual art, film and photography. I just discovered that my longtime colleague Joanne Hamilton has been teaching a course on the Blues Aesthetic for years, and that we can strategize together, although it seems her focus has been primarily on the visual arts.   I am very much into visual arts too but it is difficult to do justice to both the music and the visual arts in a single class, particularly when there are so many technological drawbacks.The very best way to do all of this is to be able to get online in the classroom, for both the teacher and the students, but alas this is still quite difficult on most of the City College campus.

Perhaps because I get to see so few African American students, and so many students of color from all over the world--India, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America-- I feel like I have to represent for the ones who are absent (in jail and so forth) until we can get this situation together and get our children back in school.  I am returning now to your insistence all those many years ago that the blues (the music) was the cornerstone of our culture.

Besides, to tell you the truth, I am thinking racial phenotype isn't nearly so important to disseminating this message of humanity as it is that the receiver of it have a supple mind.  Many young people by the time they reach 20 are already hardened in their prejudices. But I feel that I may have figured out how to teach the art, the photography and the literature using the music as the base structure, and that when one does this--everything becomes much more coherent, especially for young people.

Okay, so all of this is old news for you, the father of us all but wanted to share. Also, in a sense what I want to build is the bridge between the Blues People you wrote in 1963 and the introduction you attached to it in 1999. And in fact at this point our young people (from all over the world) are so lost that almost anything they are handed is a great deal more than they can currently expect to get in the course of their college years.


Jazz Icons has issued a second series of DVDS, including one beauty of Duke Ellington doing a concert in Amsterdam in 1958.  I think of it as 60 minutes of pure liquid perfection, and a perfect illustration for the astute of how the folklore and the folk blues of African Americans was transformed through cultural performance into something quintessentially American and, at the same time, obviously in keeping with the fanciest kind of presentation you could imagine. Mother says it is classical music. Indeed, or so it seems because with my Zora Neale Hurston and Afro-Am Folklore class the semester before last on Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m., by the time the concert was finished, only me and one other student remained. When it ended, I said to him (his name is Evan and he is a wonder, a poet) I guess we can tell who the jazz lovers are around here.

Something about that film in a darkened room made all 20 of them (graduate students no less) feel as though it was a good time to leave early and get home. Each one said goodbye to me quietly, as though they couldn't conceive that I would mean them to stay. This kind of behavior really baffles me except that I think it is possible that some people simply do not like music. Mom says you have to learn to listen when you are young, just as you must learn to look at art and photography and read when you are young, which is why she writes so many children's books.

I use Blues People as part of the insight in all of my courses. Thanks and I just loved the new fiction.
(revised and updated August 9, 2013)



Recommended Films and Reading

The Great Jazz Day, Photo by Art Kane, Esquire 1959

Music Films--For Reference 

"The Portrait Collection of Louis Armstrong," Decca UM--DVD 2008
Compilation Documentary Film, 1930s through 1960s
Song Titles:
Includes: I Cover the Waterfront
When Its Sleepy Time Down South
Basin Street Blues
Mack The Knife
Black and Blue
TV Interview

"They Filmed The War in Color (WWII)"
Color Footage in the Pacific including Pearl Harbor.  Amazing.
Dir: Rene-Jean Bouyer, Koch Vision DVD 2000
ISBN 1-4172-2922-5

*Documentary Film: "A Great Day in Harlem."
B&W Video 60 minutes
DirProducer: Jean Bach, Castle Hill Productions/BWE Video 1995
ISBN: 1-57742-283-x
This isn't such a great film but the event from a photographic and historical point of view is highly instructive.  First, that so many key figures in music gathered at the same time on a Harlem street, and then second the distinctive manner in which they consented to take a picture together and the various embedded narratives in the image.
Book: The Great Jazz Day edited by Charles Graham, Da Capo Press 2000
Essays by Dan Morgenstern, Whitney Balliet, Gary Giddins and Ralph Ellison
Photographs by Art Kane, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Hinton
Cover Photograph for Esquire: The Golden Age of Jazz, January 1959

Jazz Icon Series:
Duke Ellington, Live in '58, B&W Holland, 80 minutes
AVRO, Commentary by Sjef Hoefsmit
Concert Film: Performance at Concertgeboux, November 2, 1958
Johnny Hodges(alto sax), Russell Procope (alto sax & clarinet), Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Ray Nance (trumpet, violin, vocals)
Clark Terry (trumpet), Sam Woodyard (drums), Ozzie Bailey (vocalist)

"At Amsterdam in 1958, throughout the first concert, Hoefsmit watch AVRO cameramen plot their angles, note soloist positions and time solos to prepare for smooth, efficient operation during Concert Number Two. Apparently Ellington noticed, too, and, not wanting to be considered predictable or be taken for granted, altered the program in the second concert, sending the men with the cameras scrambling."

Sarah Vaughn, Live in '58 & '64
Concert Films; Sweden (SVT July 9, 1958), Holland 1958 (AFRO June 16, 1958), and Stockholm, Sweden (January 10, 1964)

Dave Brubeck, Live in 64 & 66
Concert Films: Belguim 1964; Germany 1966, 2007

Documentary Film: "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice," 84 minutes color
Dir: Stanley Nelson, Firelight Media 2005 DVD www.firelightmedia.org
Subject: Civil Rights Movement, Gospel and Spirituals, Protest Songs, 
Bernice and Toshi Reagon

Documentary/Fiction Film: Warming By The Devil's Fire, 106 minutes
Dir/Writer: Charles Burnett, Vulcan Road Movies DVD 2003
Subject: The Blues, Willie Dixon, New Orleans

Documentary Film: "Only the Strong Survive: A Celebration of Soul," 96 minutes
Dir: Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker, Miramax DVD 1993
Subject: Rufus and Carla Thomas, Jerry Butler, The Chi-Lites, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wilson

Concert/Documentary Film: Wattstax, Fantasy, 103
Director: Mel Stuart DVD 1973
Subject: Isaac Hayes, Richard Pryor, The Staples Singers, Johnny Taylor, Luther Ingram, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Emotions

Documentary Concert Film: Happy Day, 2004 60 minutes.


Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues, The Da Capo Press 1976.
Marc Miller ed., Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, Queens Museum 1994. 
ISBN: 0-295-97382-8
Michael Cogswell, Louis Armstrong: The Offstage Story of Satchmo 2003. 
ISBN 1-888054-81-6


Purvis Young: The Artist, The Film

I watched a film today I really really like about the artist, Purvis Young called Purvis of Overtown.  It is a documentary film about an African American artist who comes from the black community of Overtown in Miami.  The film is a lovely, easily watched confection of documentary footage, original music by Otis Taylor, and the images of Young's paintings, which are a reflection of the environment he has lived in all of his life.

He was born in 1943 and his work is featured on the cover of the second volume of Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art assembled by William and Paul Arnett and published by Tinwood Books in 2001.  His paintings are exquisite to look at, his life instructive on the status of the outsider as an artist in the black community.  To some degree, all artists are subject to outsider status within black communities, regardless of class identity.  This phenomenon continues to be a mystery to me, about which I will have more to say later.  The blues is one of the key themes for both his work and the documentary about him.