In the 1950s, before LeRoi Jones would change his name to Amiri Baraka, the poet soaked up the sounds of jazz in bars throughout the East Village. Clubs like the Five Spot Café, where Jones was a regular patron, featured jazz legends like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. Their performances helped inspire Jones to write Blues People, the 1963 groundbreaking study of African-American music.
To further honor LeRoi’s time in the East Village, we spoke to three members of the era’s jazz scene.
David Amram, Multi-Instrumentalist
We met in the middle ’50s; he was a young guy, a really wonderful writer and poet. He appreciated the beauty of jazz and had a deep understanding and pride in African-American culture. At the time that term didn’t exist.
A lot of other authors and artists admired his work. I worked with Langston Hughes and Langston, who was of a completely different era, mentioned how talented he thought Baraka was. Most of us understood that.
And he was very outspoken. If he felt that somebody was being disrespectful of another person in the room because they weren’t of a certain social status, he would let them know about it immediately. He never tried to be politically correct or diplomatic. He just said what he felt and how he saw it.
At the time that he received attention for saying things that were confrontational, society was looking for angry, confrontational people as a form of entertainment. A lot of the fantastic things that I’ve heard him say at art museums and colleges, where he gave incredible talks about his life and all that he went through, about poetry, music and society, were never documented because they didn’t fit into that particular 1960s gestalt of the “angry black man” stereotype.
By changing his name, I think he was doing what all of us from that period were trying to do: search for who we were and who we could become, not who we were as defined by other people. As a result, he achieved the amazing things he did because he refused to accept the role that he was assigned by society.
He understood that jazz was taken from the everyday lives of African-American people and became this unique, beautiful, deep art form. He heard Charlie Parker and he understood what the music was about: it was something that couldn’t be defined but had lasting value. Baraka understood there was music that transcended the billion-dollar music industry; that a recording was a document of an experience worth treasuring forever just as he hoped his poetry and his plays would be.
He was like all of us at the Five Spot; he appreciated just being there. He admired Lester Young, who played there later on in his life, and Billie Holiday, and Monk and Coltrane and Mingus. He was able to hear what anyone had to offer. He had an innate understanding of the music: the spontaneity, the sanctity of the moment.
He understood that there was a whole generation of musical geniuses creating extraordinary work that we all felt would have lasting value, yet this great art was created in the most modest and wretched of circumstances, the only places where this music was occurring. Jazz musicians transcended that. They turned all these barrooms and various dumps into temples of art while the music was playing.
And then of course he committed the greatest crime possible in American culture: he fell out of fashion. Because that is assuming that whatever you do, you’re passé. Fortunately, he understood all that and kept doing what he was doing up until the very end, as a community activist, as a writer, as a speaker and as a terrific poet. He did a lot of things to open the doors for all people, not just African-Americans, to speak out and make a contribution and change things.
David Amram has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber music works, written scores for Broadway theater and film and is a multi-instrumentalist and pioneer player of the jazz French horn.
Bill Cherry, Bartender
When I started tending bar on the Lower East Side in the ’60s, he was known as LeRoi Jones. He used to hang out at all the jazz clubs where I worked.
The first bar I worked where I saw Baraka was the Annex on Avenue B and 11th Street. Then Pee Wee’s, a bar on 13th Street and Avenue A, which is two blocks up from Paradise Alley. Then of course Slug’s down on Third Street, a famous jazz club.
Everyone recognized him, he was well known on the Lower East Side. A lot of us knew him originally as LeRoi Jones, then he changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Back in those days a lot of people wanted to get more into their roots, so that’s what he did. People had Afros, dashikis came out, the whole Black Power thing was going on. A lot of the guys down on the Lower East Side, that’s what they wore.
People acknowledged him, people knew him but one thing that’s nice about the Lower East Side is people don’t go out of their way to talk to celebrities. There were a lot of people coming down to the Lower East Side, Miles Davis and people like that, but people didn’t gather around and try to talk to them. Charlie Mingus and all these guys lived down there, there were great musicians down there, but they walked the streets by themselves and people didn’t annoy them at all. Nobody was trying to get autographs from these guys.
Baraka was a real jazz enthusiast, he was always very pleasant, he wasn’t on an ego trip that I could tell. I never saw any confrontations or arguments. On the jazz scene he was just recognized as a poet and a supporter of the music.
Bill Cherry, jazz aficionado and bartender at Manhattan’s jazz clubs, now lives in New Hampshire.
Buell Neidlinger, cellist and bassist
I knew LeRoi Jones, or Roy as we used to call him, when I first played at the Five Spot with Cecil Taylor. Whenever Cecil played, Roy would always be around and they were very close friends. I always thought of him as kind of a progressive person, someone who seemed to have a vision for the future of how people could get together no matter what color they were.
There was a group of people we called the Five Spot Modern Jazz Society. Some were musicians who were working at the Five Spot and had intermissions so they’d be out in front of the club. Other musicians would come down there and hang out with them. They’d meet out on the sidewalk and talk about music. Usually met between eleven and two. LeRoi Jones used to be out there; he wore a suit and tie back then.
He was one of the first jazz writers to write favorably about me. Even though I was white, he included me in the same breath as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Wilbur Ware, musicians like that. I appreciated that.
His writing absolutely advanced the jazz scene. He was writing about people that Downbeat and all the others were ignoring, with a deep sense of responsibility for the musicians. He was always worried because they weren’t working.
When I heard that he was gone, I had the same kind of feeling I got when I found out Ellington was gone or Armstrong or Monk or musicians like that. Even though you don’t see somebody for years, just knowing they’re in the world makes you feel good.
Buell Neidlinger has played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, has been section leader on hundreds of Hollywood film music sessions and bassist for seven years with pianist Cecil Taylor. Neidlinger is the co-founder of K2B2 Records.
East Village resident Frank Mastropolo is a freelance producer and journalist. You can find his concert photography here.