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Chapter 3 Free Jazz and Black Nationalism Amiri Baraka heard the news at the Eighth Street Bookstore in New York City during a book launch party. An increasingly acclaimed and notorious writer, Baraka—known then as LeRoi Jones—had made his name as a poet and playwright in the interracial Greenwich Village bohemian scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. By 1965 his close acquaintances had narrowed somewhat to the more radical black men formerly associated with the literary groups Umbra and the Revolutionary Action Movement, the second wave of free improvisers, and the new African American painters. Although he had lately developed a reputation in the press as an anti-white militant, for controversial positions staked out in interviews and at public forums, he maintained close institutional and personal ties to New York’s academic and publishing circles. On Sunday February 21, as the celebration got underway, he exuded a charm and ease that stemmed from his thorough integration into the avant-garde arts world.1 That dynamic changed irreversibly when Leroy McLucas, a photographer who had worked with Baraka and some of the younger musicians, entered the store weeping. ‘‘Malcolm is dead! Malcolm is dead! Malcolm ’s been killed!’’ he repeated between sobs. As Baraka huddled with other African American guests for support, he felt a sense of shock and emptiness sweep over him. ‘‘I was stunned, shot myself,’’ he later recalled. ‘‘I felt stupid, ugly, useless.’’ His response to Malcolm X’s assassination was immediate and revealing, the culmination of a growing disenchantment with his attachment to the white downtown world by work, residence, and marriage. The following day Baraka called a press conference at which he announced plans to launch the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem. Conceived as a combination cultural center, arts workshop, and performance space, the venue would offer an oasis of black drama, music, art, and history. Attempting to provide African Americans with a source of group identity and an antidote to political division, Baraka envisioned taking the Black Arts to the streets in public happenings that he imagined connecting artists and intellectuals to the community.2 94 Chapter 3 Within a few days of the announcement, Baraka moved out of his family ’s apartment in the Village and identified a four-story brownstone on West 130th Street as the future home of BARTS. He returned to Manhattan twice the following month to raise funds for the venture, most notably on March 28 for a major jazz benefit concert at the Village Gate. Recorded by Impulse! and issued in part as New Wave in Jazz, the event featured appearances by some of Baraka’s closest friends and acquaintances , including Marion Brown, Archie Shepp, Sonny Murray, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and John Coltrane. The willingness of these and other instrumentalists to offer their services throughout the spring and summer speaks to a growing desire among black artists to pursue a voyage of self-discovery, a voyage uptown to Harlem and beyond to the nonwestern roots of their music. That their journeys took them through BARTS reveals the intersection between an emerging Black Arts Movement for which Baraka provided a figurehead, the radicalization of free jazz musicians who played a critical part in BARTS fundraising and outreach programs, and a black power philosophy embodied by Malcolm X but dating back to the 1930s in cities all over the United States.3 Conventional narratives of the civil rights movement erroneously position black power as a mostly psychological phenomenon born out of frustration and disillusionment with the shortcomings of the southern campaigns for voting rights and anti-discrimination laws. Recent studies of postwar urban development suggest by contrast that civil rights leaders in northern cities had largely framed their struggle in economic terms since the ascendancy of New Deal liberalism. In Philadelphia, for example, African American leaders convinced the city’s Republican mayor and City Council to adopt one of the nation’s first municipal fair employment practices laws as early as 1948 and to ban racial discrimination in municipal employment, services, and contracts in the City Charter of 1951. When it became apparent that these measures had not countered growing racial inequalities in employment, housing markets, and public schools, black ministers and the local chapter of the NAACP launched a civil disobedience campaign and consumer boycott to successfully force the city and a number of businesses to reevaluate their hiring policies. By 1963, black clergy led by Leon Sullivan shifted their efforts...


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