- Interview with David Linx
David Linx is an award-winning, Belgium-born jazz singer, instrumentalist, composer, and songwriter. He has worked with many notable musicians, including Steve Coleman, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Ibrahim Maalouf, Kenny Wheeler, Roy Ayers, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Toots Thielemans and the Count Basie Orchestra, Natalie Dessay, and many others. His recent albums include A Different Porgy and Another Bess (2012), Follow the Songlines (2011), and Rock My Boat (2011), all released on the Naïve label. In the early 1980s, the teenaged Linx met Baldwin and lived with the writer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, near Nice. Between September 1986 and September 1987, Linx, along with Pierre Van Dormael, recorded A Lover’s Question, which features narration and vocals by James Baldwin. The album was released to critical acclaim by Les Disques du Crépuscule in 1991 and later re-released by Label Bleu in 1999 in a version which includes the entirety of Baldwin’s poetry volume, Jimmy’s Blues (in English and French) and “Gypsy,” a narrative poem written for one of Linx’s birthdays. On the record, Baldwin reads selections of his unpublished poetry (“A Lover’s Question, parts 1 & 2” and “Inventory on Being 52.”). Baldwin also sings a rendition of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.”
The album is testament to Baldwin’s willingness to experiment with new artistic forms, even as he approached the end of his life. A Lover’s Question is also a reminder that Baldwin collaborated on a number of projects with other artists including the literary magazine This Generation in 1945, his photographic-text experiment Nothing Personal (1964) with Richard Avedon, and his collaboration with Yoran Cazac on Little Man, Little Man (1976).1 Here Baldwin collaborates with David Linx, an established jazz musician and composer, but then unknown.
The music in the album is more than just a backdrop for Baldwin’s spoken-word performances. It works with the poetry as Baldwin works with the music. “My country / ‘tis of thee I sing,” Baldwin begins “A Lover’s Question,” where the haunting refrains of “false lover,” capture and distill some of the writer’s most pressing themes and preoccupations in his wider work (liner note 22). Both music and spoken word are charged on the album; there is a restless energy with no time for pity or release, rather simply a haunting questioning. Baldwin’s voice here is resonant, joyous, but at times dark, and to use David Linx’s adjective, “vehement.” His performance is instantly recognizable: we hear straight away that it is Baldwin, but his performance gives us another side of the writer, here as frustrated singer.
The Baldwin-Linx collaboration has been overlooked by Baldwin’s major biographies. There is no mention of A Lover’s Question in the Leeming, Campbell, and Weatherby biographies, just as there is scant critical writing on Baldwin’s poetry. Aside from D. Quentin Miller’s essay “James Baldwin, Poet,” there are few, if any, critical essays that consider this genre of Baldwin’s writing. Miller ponders the reason for this neglect, pointing out that scholars have spent so much time debating whether Baldwin was an essayist or novelist that they have sidelined his contribution as a poet. For Miller, Jimmy’s Blues “could (and perhaps should) be an introduction to Baldwin rather than the book one reads when one has read everything else” (234). Miller is right to call attention to Baldwin’s seldom-read poetry, arguing that “[t]hese spare, pointed verses—markedly different from his prose works in style and tone—are his blues, as the title of the collection makes clear” (234). [End Page 731]
Although Miller’s essay provides a convincing argument for revisiting Baldwin’s poems, and while it is true that Baldwin’s work has suffered from critical pulls in different directions, it is also not difficult to see why Dial refused to publish this collection. There is a poetic intensity evident in Baldwin’s prose, but his writing does not always seem at home in the genre of poetry. Baldwin’s writing is animated by the poetry of prose, the music of the...