“The Price of Listening”: James Baldwin, Black Music, and Black Lives

By Tsitsi JajiOctober 19, 2015

Who Can Afford to Improvise? by Ed Pavlić

IN THE LAST WEEK of June 1973, Ray Charles and James Baldwin met up in Los Angeles to spend some time getting to know each other in preparation for The Hallelujah Chorus, a little-known show they would mount at Carnegie Hall a few days later. Along with Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles was one of Baldwin’s favorite musicians in the 1970s, and recalling their time in Los Angeles, Baldwin remarked how he had been struck by Charles’s rare “sense of touch, of presences entering or leaving a room, his fantastic ear.” The show, written by Baldwin, interspersed musical numbers featuring Charles and the Raelettes with scenes from a stage adaptation of his short story about a jazz drummer, “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin’s narration made clear that this was no mere performance, but rather a “testimony” to a dynamic Baldwin had borne witness to for decades as one of America’s most urgent moral voices:

I have observed that not many of us can say, or sing: hallelujah. Perhaps it is because one first [must] descend into the valley, where one learns to say: Amen. If one can find in oneself the force to say, Amen, it is possible to come to Hallelujah. But Amen is the price. The black experience in the valley of America remains, my friends, America’s only affirmation. We have sung the Lord’s song for a very long time, in a very very strange land […] Perhaps that is why so many like to say that only black people can sing the blues.

If the image of Baldwin and Charles on stage together rings no bells, it may be because negative press had buried it out of range of critics. The script is but one of the nuggets Ed Pavlić unearths in his latest book, which is a wondrous testament to the ore to be mined from lonely hours in the archives’ shaft. Among the other materials Pavlić brings to light are the lifetime of letters Baldwin exchanged with his younger brother David and a number of difficult-to-find on-screen appearances. But if The Hallelujah Chorus opening has a familiar ring, it may be because this was a dynamic Baldwin had traced as the central challenge at the heart of what he refused to call merely the “civil rights struggle.” For Baldwin, the “Uses of the Blues” (1964) were to train listeners in the “necessary toughness” required to embrace pain as the only road to joy, something far truer than the nightmarishly shallow pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. That joy, incidentally, pulses exuberantly from the cover image, a tinted photograph of Baldwin and his dear friend Lorraine Hansberry getting down to a record we can only wish we could hear.

In Who Can Afford to Improvise? Pavlić offers an extended tutorial in that same blues principle. The riddle of Pavlić’s title is that Baldwin rarely wrote about music — he begins “The Uses of the Blues” claiming he doesn’t “know anything about music” — but what this new volume does is give us a new approach to the lyric, that artistic mode that joins poetry and music. Plato’s famous quarrel with the rhapsode, Ion, stems from the way that poetry takes possession of both the poet and his audience’s senses — the successful rhapsode will find himself and his listeners weeping real tears at the sorrowful lines. Pavlić’s work traces a similar dynamic in Baldwin’s use of the lyrical mode, which “bridges the distinction between discourse and experience by becoming an experience itself.” There are other names for this — the performative that does things with words, the phenomenological that pursues the firsthand experience of consciousness — but Pavlić follows the lyre’s song where Baldwin’s insistence that our best musicians (and indeed artists of any consequence) are poets. It is a natural move for as gifted a lyric poet as Pavlić, who has published six books of poetry, the first of which, Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue, was awarded The American Poetry Review’s first book prize by Adrienne Rich. And riffing on the polyrhythms and richly varied timbres of black music, Who Can Afford to Improvise plays in the pocket between actual musical performances, interpretations of the lyrical mode in Baldwin’s poetics, and intricate historical detail.

As devoted a listener as Baldwin himself, Pavlić lays the book out as an invention in three parts. How these three parts (or books) cohere is a tricky proposition, and for some readers they may not. But the virtuosic move in Who Can Afford to Improvise is that the motif of chimera — Baldwin’s term for the “pervasive American evasion of experience,” trapping us in a world of ephemeral illusions — is also the shape of this book. Its form is as hybrid as the mythical mix-and-match creatures first dubbed Χίμαιρα. Book I will feel most familiar to readers of biography and literary criticism, and its exposition of Baldwin’s career offers a lucid and comprehensive survey of the writer’s evolving thought over his 63 years. It’s the notes to a single-author seminar we all wish we could take. Book II ventures into a more innovative approach, where Pavlić plays iconic musical voices and Baldwin’s own writerly song in stereo. These sections don’t track Baldwin’s playlists so much as listen for his resonances and brief whispered unisons with Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Ray Charles. The final book is the most daring, even idiosyncratic. Here Pavlić proposes that Baldwin’s lyricism is a fitting lens through which to read four highly divergent contemporary cultural phenomena: Amy Winehouse’s oeuvre, Barry Jenkins’s 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy, the Oakland-based rhyming crew Turf Feinz, and the impoverished flatness of current race political discourses. These essays are, remarkably, anchored in deft readings of Baldwin’s (primarily later) works, but they also occasionally veer into present-time arguments that sound a false note, as with Pavlić’s shrill objections to Daphne Brooks’s critique of how Winehouse appropriated black women’s embodied performance modes. The experimental turn in the last chapters, enjambing our contemporary moment with Baldwin’s, raises the question: why do we so badly need Baldwin now?

It’s a question that’s been hanging in the air ever since Toni Morrison reminded us, on the back cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, of that “intellectual void that plagued [her] after James Baldwin died.” It’s a void Morrison knows intimately: since Baldwin’s death, she has edited both his Collected Essays and his Early Novels and Stories for the Library of America. But I think Coates is filling a void very much of our own times. It’s a void hollowed out by the increasingly cartoonish contours of electoral politics and gun violence endemic to both sides of “the law” and awakened a pervasive nostalgia for a clearer, sharper politics. That longing can be felt in Ava DuVernay’s lyrical Selma, in the recurring comparisons between #BlackLivesMatter with those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and in the unsolvable puzzle of what the first United States black presidency will have meant. Baldwin, as Pavlić shows, speaks to a deeper, more existential void — as one would expect from his four decades of work, in the idioms ranging across novels, screenplays, theater, and nonfiction.

In his New York Times review of The Cross of Redemption, the 2010 collection of Baldwin’s essays and commentary, James Campbell suggested that in his later, and busier years, Baldwin’s prose increasingly sounded like speechmaking. One hopes that comparison may flatter in noting that Pavlić’s conclusion takes on a similar cast, informed by the Baldwinian premise that “one can give nothing whatever without giving oneself — that is to say, risking oneself.” Completing the manuscript in the very week that Michael Brown was slain in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, Pavlić risks, in the final pages, a read on the wrenching contradictions of living and writing from the heart of Empire. It is surely too early to fully account for what civic truths were stripped bare as we witnessed that body left lying in the streets for hours, and soon after, the images of tactical militarized vehicles occupying not the devastated grounds of Mosul, Iraq, or Baghdad but the streets of a St. Louis suburb. Reflecting on those too-present events against the backdrop of Obama’s presidency, which Baldwin and Robert F. Kennedy (both of whom, in the 1960s, predicted a black man in the office) could not have foreseen, Pavlić takes the kind of poetic license Baldwin insisted on, a more capacious and existentialist risk than much of our contemporary race discourse demands. There is no universe in which Baldwin would have said #AllLivesMatter, for he saw clearly that white supremacy had eroded the possibility of freedom across the board. And as I closed Pavlić’s book, what still resonated with me was a passage he cites early on from Baldwin’s 1961 interview with Studs Terkel:

the country has got to find out what it means by freedom. Freedom is a very dangerous thing. Anything else is disastrous, but freedom is dangerous. […] You’ve got to be taught that your life is in your hands […] life is very difficult, very difficult for anybody, anybody born. Now I don’t think people can be free until they recognize this, in the same way that Bessie Smith was much freer, odd and terrible as this may sound, much freer than the people who murdered her or let her die [rather than treat her in a white hospital] […] If you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms in which you’re connected to other lives […] and this is a great liberation.

The question is, do we want to be free? Do we dare take our life in our own hands? Do we have the chops for it? To whom do we afford the right to join that ensemble of liberation? Who can afford to improvise? Who could afford not to?


Tsitsi Jaji is the author of Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford, 2014) and the poetry chapbook Carnaval. She is an Associate Research Professor of English at Duke University.

LARB Contributor

Tsitsi Jaji is the author of Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford, 2014) and the poetry chapbook Carnaval. She is an Associate Research Professor of English at Duke University.


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