Bassist and Free Jazz Pioneer Charlie Haden Has Left the Planet

On July 11th, at the age of 76, Charlie Haden passed away. Described by Time magazine as “one of the most restless, gifted and intrepid players in all of jazz,” Haden left his mark on hundreds of records as both a member and a leader. He was the anchor of the Ornette Coleman Quartet and helped define The Shape of Jazz to Come. In recent years he struggled with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, and up until 2010 he was still in the studio and performing live. A month before his passing ECM released Last Dance, a set of informal songs between Haden and Keith Jarrett recorded at Jarrett’s Cavelight home studio in 2007.

While Haden is known as one of the most significant bassists in jazz, his influences and recordings touch on many musics, from classical to his own country, spiritual, and bluegrass roots. His early music roots culminate on his 2008 recording Rambling Boy, an album that features his immediate family, all of whom follow his musical path. His music and art will live on and continue to inspire others. As Haden once said, “We’re here to bring beauty to the world and make a difference on this planet. That’s what art forms are about.”


The renowned African American poet, writer, and activist Maya Angelou has left the planet. She was 86. She is most known for her bestselling autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which gets its title from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s line “I know why the caged bird sings” from his poem, “Sympathy.” Dunbar’s “Sympathy” was a cry against slavery of all forms, as well as about the shackles that imprison the poet amid cyclical prejudges he feels incapable of destroying. Angelou’s own work was about dispelling prejudices to envision a more just society.

She writes, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she describes how her mother told her that she must “always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” These lines are an important reminder, especially for us hyper educated types, that we don’t have all the answers. The notion of absolute authority can be extremely dangerous—for who gets to decide what is true is a mater of power.

Education takes many forms, as Angelou poignantly points out that her education was an improvisatory process that often took place outside the classroom: “my education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert of the gap separating the written word form the colloquial […] It be’s like that sometimes.” She was truly an inspirational person, who endured and overcame much, and although she is now gone, she leaves  a lasting literary and civil rights legacy.

For a brief video on Angelou’s life, click here.

Featured Image: Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance on the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Hughes’ ashes were buried beneath the floor, in New York, Feb. 22, 1991. 

“Poems are bullshit”: Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright of incendiary rage and collective insight, who went from Beat poet to Black Nationalist and finally Marxist-Leninist, died today in Newark. He was 79. Among his most known works are the poetry collections The Dead Lecturer and Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1965), his plays Dutchmen and A Black Mass, and his various works on Black music, such as Blues People and Black Music. Along with Ezra Pound, Amiri Baraka remains one of the most controversial and least understood American poets. As M.L. Rosenthal wrote, “No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action” (qtd. in Baraka Reader xxi). For Baraka, art was a weapon of revolution. Further, Baraka wrote some of the most insightful works on African American music, appropriately referring to the music as American classical music. His poetry was always musical, for as he states in Blues People, the poem must “swing—from verb to noun.” The “changing same” was his designation of the interplay between tradition and the individual talent in Afro-American music.

His creative writing shows how poetry can move through blues and jazz to black chant and graphic sound. His poem, “In the Tradition,” dedicated to alto saxophonist Arthur Blyth, opens with a slick alliterative line, followed by a quick twist that recalls music as a resistive province to slavery: “Blues walk weeps ragtime / Painting slavery” (Transbluesency 199). “In the Tradition” is an epic poem concerning historical events; like much of Baraka’s work it carefully wields together traditions to assert poetic agency. Baraka’s poem “Black Art” charges forth like a gorilla and  provides an Umwalzung—that is, a revolution—through a complete overturn of prior poetic systems, enacting one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on the page. Anti-Semitism aside, which the poem sadly has in abundance, “Black Art” is an improvisatory chant in the form of a free jazz poem. Baraka’s poetic violence disavows lyric voice in favour of a gruffer, more militant poetics: “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or tress or lemons piled / on a step […] Fuck poems […] We want ‘poems that kill.’ / Assassin poems” (Transbluesency 142). While I can’t condone much of the poem’s content, its form, along with Baraka’s opus, altered the course of African American literary culture. It didn’t merely blacken the canon: it blew it into a million pieces.

Baraka is one of the most important poets and music critics of the twentieth century: full stop. The controversy and backlash over his public reading of his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” as well as some of the homophobic, anti-Semitic, and misogyny of his middle period poems, often overshadow the incredible firebrand prowess and construction of Baraka’s cerebral and polemical thinking. Baraka lived a very tumultuous life and his poetry and social activism reflect that. He showed many young poets—across cultures and generations—that poetry could be a call to arms, as well as a tool to adequately express lived experience. His uncompromising, engaging, and, at times, problematic voice will be missed.

Check out this 2004 piece on why Amiri Baraka matters by poet Saul Williams in Fader.

Check out Baraka reading from “Why’s/Wise”:


Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones Reader. Ed. W.J. Harris. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991. Print.

—. Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/ LeRoi Jones (1961-1995). Ed.  Paul Vangelisti. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. Print.

Photo of Amiri Baraka from Wikipedia Commons.

Mandela, Rest in Power

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
-Nelson Mandela

On December 5th, 2013, the world lost one of its most principled heroes in the struggle against oppression. Nelson Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African politician, anti-apartheid revolutionary, and among many other things, a philanthropist who served as South Africa’s first fully representational and democratically elected President from 1994 to 1999. Mandela’s government focused on dealing with institutionalized racism, inequality of all strands, and fostered an environment where racial reconciliation was possible. Truly, this was affirmative and improvisational territory born out of Mandela’s love for justice. Politically an African Nationalist and a democratic socialist, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his unrelenting and activist position towards the abolition of apartheid. In 1993 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He is held in profound esteem around the world, and in South Africa he is often referred to as Tata (“Father”): “the father of the nation.”

Predictably, Canadian media coverage of Mandela’s death has been rather untrusthworthy, as it is important to remember that Mandela, while a man of peace,  also commenced a three-decade-long armed struggle after non-violent avenues had been shut down. Further, while many people living in Canada did resist apartheid,  the Canadian government only opposed the racist system rather late in the game.  The fact remains, as Cecil Foster argues, that the apartheid model in South Africa was largely based on Canada’s successful colonization of First Nations people with the Canadian constitution providing a model to control the undesirables (Race 41; 95).

Mandela importantly remains a force who taught the world about the power of resistance, redress, and reconciliation.

Have a listen to South African jazz artist, Abdullah Ibrahim’s moving composition, Mandela (1985)

Also, check out this very touching Mandela tribute, which came from a rather unexpected place:


Works Cited

Foster, Cecil. Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity. Toronto: Penguin, 2005. Print.

“living roots awaken in my head”: R.I.P Seamus Heaney


I was sad to learn that Seamus Heaney, Irish poet & Nobel Laureate, died this morning. I first encountered the work of Heaney some six years ago in an undergrad English class entitled, “British Poetry, Lately.” The class examined recent developments in contemporary British and Irish Poetry. In the class we engaged with poets such as Eavan Boland, Kathleen Jamie, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Tom Raworth, and, of course, Heaney—all masters of tone, language, subject matter, working with/against the long British devotion to rhyme and meter.

Poetry in the twentieth century has largely been about defamiliarization (ostranenie (остранение)), the artistic technique of persuading the audience to see familiar things in an unfamiliar or strange way, often using metaphor to help depict the mechanics of the world we inhabit. Heaney was a master of using incredibly rich and dense metaphors. He was also a master of listening. Ever the attentive poet, Seamus Heaney made use of melopoeia (charging words beyond their normal meaning, like the cadences of music) as a part of his fluidity to create his dense rhythms. In Glanmore Sonnets he stands and listens to the mysterious corporeal sensualities that surround him to cultivate words: “Words entering almost the sense of touch / Ferreting themselves out of the dark hutch — / ‘These things are not secrets but mysteries’” (II).

Yet, it was in “Digging,” a poem full of onomatopoeia and poetic excavation, and the first poem from his very first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), where Heaney first displayed his poetic method:

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Heaney, and it’s unfortunate that it took his death for me to reread a couple of his well known poems, which I still remember so well from that undergrad class. He was a poet of the highest order and will be missed. His poetic cultivations and living roots charge on.

Check out Heaney reading his poem “Digging”:


Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. New Selected Poems. London: Faber, 1987.