Book Review: Digging: The Afro-American Soul Of American Classical Music
by Amiri Baraka
Publication Date: May 26, 2009
List Price: $52.95
Format: Hardcover, 436 pages
Imprint: University of California Press
Publisher: University of California Press
Parent Company: University of California
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
The literary legacy of award-winning writer and poet Amiri Baraka continues to thrive as he releases another new book, Digging: The Afro-American Soul Of American Classical Music for his huge following of readers. Truthfully, there is possibly no Black writer not indebted to the mammoth influence cast by Baraka’s incisive intellect and lyrical pen in letters and criticism throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He was the spiritual and political guru of the Black Arts Movement. With his seminal works of Black Music and Blues People, he set a very high standard of excellence in analysis and insight of our music and culture, but with his latest volume, the word sorcerer has completely surpassed himself.
This is a more mature, introspective Baraka in these pages, re-examining the past while seeking meaning and truth from the present and the future. In a mix of memoir, cultural history and political re-appraisal, he begins his best non-fiction book with a collection of provocative, impassioned essays on the vital role African Americans have played in the history of our music and culture. Some of the most rigorously incisive passages of Baraka’s writing career occur in such essays as ’The ’Blues Aesthetics’ and the ’Black Aesthetic’: Aesthetics as the Continuing Political History of a Culture;’ ’The American Popular Song: The Great American Song Book;’ ’Black Music As a Force for Social Change:’ ’Ritual and Performance,’ and ’Random Notes on the Last Decade.’ His two tributes to Newark, his base of operations, capture the verve and spark of the city.
Also, Baraka blasts the hypocrisy and blatant racism found in jazz criticism with him naming names in both essays on the poison-pen art form. He singles out white prominent jazz writers Len Lyons, Jack Chambers and Lincoln Collier for their miscues. Baraka’s work in the second part of the book dealing with great musicians is nothing short of extraordinary, blending biography and musical achievement in a review of the most memorable of our jazz pioneers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Tatum, Max Roach, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Jackie McLean, Albert Ayler, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Don Pullen, Abbey Lincoln, and Fred Hopkins. This is a portion of the book to be truly savored, read slowly and absorbed.
In the book, there are a few farewells which are excellent celebrations of the musicians’ lives, noting personal reminiscences and contributions to the canon of Classical American Music. Like all great poets, Baraka has a way of distilling truths and common sense wisdom. He is also a wizard of nuance, style, timing, and complexity, such as speaking of the blues in the essay, ’The Blues Aesthetic and the Black Aesthetic:’
’It is Black life historically, politically, and socially, the form and content of the Blues, as Langston says, the signifying is what revealed us as higher forms of animal, and as yet we were the first to raise up off all fours, it appears humanity is still some ways off. But without the signification, the meaning, the tale to swing, the story of the seeds, where we come from and where we going loses its significance.’ (pg. 26)
In the last section of notes, reviews and observations, Baraka pays tribute to some of the best albums and performances of the last 20 years by such artists as Andrew Cyrille, David Murray, Ravi Coltrane, James Moody, Pharoah Sanders, George Adams, Alan Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell, Vijay Iver, and the New York Art Quintet. Again, he shows great depth and sensitivity in these brief capsule pieces while cramming them with fact and opinion that never fails to inform and intrigue.
This eclectic collection of essays and reviews further
affirms the high standing of Amiri Baraka among his capable contemporaries
still practicing their craft and the young lions just beginning
on their literary odyssey. This is among the best he has yet
will provide countless dialogues on our music and culture.