Amiri Baraka — “Beatnik, Black Nationalist, Marxist”

January 14th, 2014


Amiri Baraka, the poet, author, playwright and activist who, as described by the New York Times, “spent his early career as a beatnik, his middle years as a black nationalist and his later ones as a Marxist,” died on January 9 at the age of 79.   In Blowin’ Hot and Cool:  Jazz and its Critics, John Gennari called him “the pioneer and preeminent symbol of the 1960’s black cultural revolution” who, along with Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton gave “black power a distinctive masculinist intonation.”

As a jazz and blues writer, he was brilliant, essential, astute and polarizing.  Of Baraka’s writing in the 1960’s (while LeRoi Jones), Stanley Crouch — himself a brilliant and polarizing jazz writer — said that he was “the first Negro voice that sailed to the center of my taste by combining the spunk  and the raw horrors of the sidewalk with the library, then shooting for an elegant mishandling of the form.”   In 2002, Crouch called his work after the 1960’s “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”   Baraka’s website touts that he used his writings as “a weapon against racism.”

Blues People: Negro Music in White America — his classic 1963 book on jazz and blues — was praised at the time in the New York Herald Tribune by Nat Hentoff as “the first attempt to place the entire continuum of the black man’s music in this country in the context of his cultural history as an American.”  Conversely, Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison wrote of the same book:  “The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this music is enough to give even the blues the blues.”

Blues People was one of the first “jazz books” I ever owned, and I often imagined myself discussing it with him.  It is with great regret now that I was never able to summon the courage to approach him about an interview — maybe it was because I couldn’t ever quite convince myself that I was properly prepared for the experience…

There are several informative tributes and obituaries worth reading:

New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox

Poet Carl Hancock Rux pays tribute to Baraka

Questlove writes about Baraka in the New York Times

“In Defense of Amiri Baraka,” by Joshua Furst

“Amiri Baraka’s First Family,” by Hilton Als in The New Yorker


blues people
Read a book excerpt



Democracy Now‘s documentary on Baraka’s life


Share this:

One comments on “Amiri Baraka — “Beatnik, Black Nationalist, Marxist””

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

photo of Sullivan Fortner by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…


photo by Michael Lionstar
In a wide-ranging interview, Nate Chinen, former New York Times jazz critic and currently the director of editorial content for WBGO (Jazz) Radio, talks about his book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century,, described by Herbie Hancock as a “fascinating read” that shows Chinen’s “firm support of the music

Short Fiction

photo by Alysa Bajenaru
"Crossing the Ribbon" by Linnea Kellar is the winning story of the 51st Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest


photo of Stan Getz by Veryl Oakland
Seventeen poets contribute to the Summer, 2019 collection of jazz poetry reflecting an array of energy, emotion and improvisation

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

Pressed for All Time

In this edition, Michael Jarrett interviews producer Nat Hentoff about the experience of working with Charles Mingus at the time of Mingus’ 1961 album. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus — recorded for Hentoff’s short-lived label Candid Records


"Dreaming of Bird at Billy Bergs" - by Charles Ingham
“Charles Ingham’s Jazz Narratives” — a continuing series


Painting of John Coltrane by Tim Hussey
“broken embouchure” — a poem by M.T. Whitington


photo of Chet Baker by Veryl Oakland

Jerry Jazz Musician regularly publishes a series of posts featuring excerpts of the photography and stories/captions found in Jazz in Available Light by Veryl Oakland. In this edition, Mr. Oakland's photographs and stories feature Yusef Lateef and Chet Baker


photo by Francis Wolff, courtesy of Mosaic Records
Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, discusses her late husband’s complex, fascinating life.


photo from Pixabay
“The Fibonacci Quartet Plays Improv” — a poem by Gerard Furey

Short Fiction

“The Stories of Strange Melodies” a story by Vivien Li , was a finalist in our recently concluded 51st Short Fiction Contest.

In the previous issue

Michael Cuscuna
Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records co-founder, is interviewed about his successful career as a jazz producer, discographer, and entrepreneur...

Contributing writers

Site Archive