Exclusive: Amiri Baraka and Henry Grimes’ Idea of Rhythm

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The frigid wind whipping across Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal rendered Issue Project Room that much more inviting, as a throng of radicals, jazz heads, and literati poured in from the cold last Tuesday to experience an evening with Amiri Baraka and Henry Grimes. Part of the IPR’s Littoral Reading Series, which explores the intersections of music and language, Tuesday’s program paired two of America’s greatest living talents in a freeform encounter between poetry and jazz.

Baraka is a founder of the Black Arts Movement, a prolific poet, playwright, and essayist, and a godfather to America’s revolutionary left. A seasoned provocateur, he has courted controversy for decades with fiery political rhetoric and a stubborn refusal to self-censor. Baraka transcends the empty sloganeering practiced by many of his peers through a profound sensitivity to language; for him, the expression of a radical black aesthetic through music and literature is an integral part of the decolonial struggle.

Grimes is one of the world’s greatest living jazz bassists. A free-jazz pioneer and relentless innovator, he has played with everyone from Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Thelonius Monk to Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler. In the late ’60s, at the zenith of his powers, Grimes disappeared. For nearly 35 years, the legendary musician was presumed dead — until he was discovered by a social worker in 2003, living in a tiny Los Angeles apartment with volumes of poetry and no bass.

Click here part two in this series, which features an in-depth conversation with Henry Grimes.

After the jump, find a detailed account of this rare meeting of minds, photographs of the performance, and our exclusive interview with Amiri Baraka.

Baraka and Grimes are very different men with intriguing similarities. Baraka exudes a political intensity grounded both in history and in current events, while Grimes’ quieter disposition hints at a complex and individualistic spirituality. However, both men remain passionate about their work, channeling powerful waves of artistic energy that belie their years (Grimes is 73; Baraka is 74). While Baraka moves in a slightly stooped shuffle, his voice retains its vitality, sounding like that of a far younger man. Grimes, meanwhile, speaks softly and with a halting cadence, although the raw physicality of his performances would seemingly tire a man half his age.

Performing individually and together, the two men took the stage to warm applause. Baraka began with an assortment of “lowku” — “Afro-American haiku, without time to count syllables” — which drew peals of laughter from the audience. (An example: “If Elvis Presley / is King / Who is James Brown, / God?”) Baraka then proceeded to guide the crowd through a panoply of moods, shifting skillfully from mirth, to anger, to sadness, and back again.

Grimes’ solo performance found the bassist spending equal time coaxing unearthly tones from his bass (named “Olive Oil”) and a violin, alternating short bursts of musical experimentation with excerpts from his newly published first collection of poems, Signs Along the Road. As Grimes’ poetry came into being during his years without a musical instrument, the juxtaposition of his first love with his literary endeavors is a recent development that feels long overdue. His words articulate similar ideas as his music: a heightened spiritual sensitivity, an acute awareness of rhythm and repetition, and an obsession with the patterns behind myth and mythology.

Eventually, Baraka and Grimes joined forces, producing a conversation between words and notes. The highlight of the evening was an impassioned performance of Amiri Baraka’s “Play Dat (For John Hicks and Hilton Ruiz),” a jarring and vital work that casts Baraka as a chronicler of Black American music, exhorting an imaginary musician to “Play dat, play dat, play dat!” In a sublime moment of artistic synergy, Grimes dug deep into his bass to become that musician, responding to Baraka’s cries with a controlled fury of sound that seemingly stretched from the plantations of the Antebellum South straight through the present moment and into a unwritten sonic future.

We spoke with both Baraka and Grimes after the performance, in a pair of wide-ranging interviews that touch on their distinct worldviews, creative processes, and relationships to words and music. Below, Baraka chats about Chairman Mao, his jazz-filled childhood, and the threat posed by Prokofiev to a law-abiding society. Stay tuned for much more with Henry Grimes, coming up soon.

Flavorwire: How are your politics and your aesthetics intertwined?

Amiri Baraka: In my work, I’ve always attempted to make sense at higher and higher speeds. [Baraka once said this of Charlie Parker.] To combine, as Mao said, being aesthetically powerful but politically revolutionary. The most dangerous thing in the world is a really accomplished artist who has a backward political line, because they can convince you of any stupid thing! So my question has always been — as I got conscious — how can you say things that you find politically progressive while utilizing the most powerful aesthetic that you can understand? For me, that aesthetic is rooted in talking about reality, not abstractions.

Young poets often start by wanting to talk about themselves: they hurt, they feel, they lost their baby. But to start talking about the world with the same kind of intensity? That’s what I strive to do.

FW: Do you find that your work is at its best when you read it aloud?

AB: Oh yeah! The work can be played like a score. If you can go through one of Duke Ellington’s scores and appreciate it on paper, that’s great. But the work really exists when it’s sounded, when it’s expressed, and I think that’s true of most writers. That’s the goal of a live reading: to figure out how to bring that work off the page, so that it’s understood more forcefully, more directly. I’m always trying to lift words off the page.

FW: When you perform your own work, do you blur the distinction between the poetic voice and the poet?

AB: That’s what I try to do! The idea is to unify the subjective and the objective, to close the gap between your perceptions and the way your world actually is. I’m not talking just about some kind of limited realism, but a real attempt to express the actuality of how things are inside.

FW: Do you feel as though you’re presenting your own voice throughout your work?

AB: Mostly — I mean, once I finally reached the point where I could understand what that voice is! The idea of you being you — without being closeted, or solipsistic — the idea of you being you in a world of many “yous”…

FW: Was jazz influential during that process?

AB: I was raised on it! Old gospel and spirituals, the blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz… To me, it’s a lesson in the practicality of rhythm.

FW: That seems particularly clear when you perform alongside a musician, as you did tonight.

AB: Oh sure — it’s a conversation, it’s a dialogue; it’s point-counterpoint. The music makes the words live. When the Russian director… not Stanislavski… who am I talking about?

FW: Eisenstein?

AB: Eisenstein. When they brought his work to Britain, the government said: “You can bring your silent film.” But they made him eliminate Prokofiev’s music.

[At this point, Henry Grimes comes over and takes a seat next to us.]

AB (to Grimes): Hey man, it was nice. You’re Henry Grimes, right?

[Much laughter. Baraka turns back to me.]

FW: One last question. Do you work while listening to music?

AB: Sometimes, sometimes not. But I’m listening to music all the time.

[Baraka turns to the Issue Project Room’s PR coordinator, Sarah Garvey.]

AB (to Garvey): Sorry, I spilled some wine on the floor over there…

Sarah Garvey: Don’t worry — it’s not the first time, and it definitely won’t be the last.

[Baraka smiles and nods.]

AB: You know, it’s good — I always listen to music, and often when I write it’s because the music draws it from me. Ideas exist in a rhythm. And rhythm brings ideas out.