This weekend, Bohemian Caverns hosts a special, two-day performance series in honor of Black History Month. It is only appropriate that the iconic founder of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka, should be a part of it.
The Black Arts Movement started in New York City in the 1960s, and developed in a time when Blacks all over the globe were in a period of transition. In Africa, many nations were tossing off the shackles of colonial rule, and in America, Blacks were beginning to stand en masse against systematic racism from both the government and the people. The Black Arts Movement was a facet of this resistance against oppression.
“It started, really, with the assassination of Malcolm X. All of us were living down in the Village, but decided to move to Harlem to be in the center of Black life,” Baraka told me in a phone conversation yesterday.
Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, was a part of a group of revolutionary individuals, all involved in various artistic endeavors, struggling to establish a distinct realm apart from white mainstream culture. This was an act of affirmation of Black identity and consciousness in the wake of race riots waged in most American cities.
“We try to illuminate poetry with the musical experience,” Baraka said.
Baraka is no stranger to jazz performance. He has appeared on numerous albums, including a recitation of his famous poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” with the New York Art Quartet. He was a staunch supporter of the so-called “New Thing” in 1960s avant-garde jazz, organizing performances for an array of Black musicians and poets. To Baraka, the music helps to uplift the poetry, giving it new life and greater strength.
On Friday night, he will be performing alongside jazz stalwarts René McLean on saxophones, Alan Palmer on piano, James King on bass and Rudy Walker on drums. I saw this group during its last D.C. appearance, and the music these musicians create is nothing less than stellar. Notably, McLean, the son of legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean, exhibited a tone and technical mastery of his instrument while expressing emotions with the same fervor as his father. Also, Palmer is known in D.C. and New York as one of the masters of modern-day hard swing.
On Saturday, Baraka will join the seminal free jazz bassist William Parker in his presentation of “The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield.” This Parker-led project brings together some of the best names in avant-garde jazz to pay musical tribute to Curtis. To Baraka, Mayfield’s music represented a new level of consciousness and intensity in his generation. His poignant lyrics spoke directly to oppressed Blacks in the 1960s.
The aim of the “Inside Songs” project is to examine the topics and feelings of Mayfield’s music in the context of 21st-century America. “What does ‘Keep on Pushing’ mean today, what does ‘Freddie’s Dead’ mean today, what does ‘We the People who are Darker than Blue’ mean today?” Baraka explains.
This legendary performance will feature vocalist Leena Conquest, saxophonists Sabir Mateen and Darryl Foster, trumpeter Lewis Barnes, pianist Dave Burrell and drummer Michael Wimberly. Upon first listen to the recorded versions of these performances, it felt strange to me to hear Mayfield’s songs played in this fashion, especially by these musicians. However, upon watching a YouTube video of one of the performances, I was immediately sold. This is definitely a performance to see in person.
Amiri Baraka and his band perform on Friday night at Bohemian Caverns. Baraka joins William Parker to present “The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield” at Bohemian on Saturday night.