He credited poet and folklorist Sterling A. Brown, his professor at Howard University, for sharing some insightful advice. (The son of a former slave, Brown, fortuitously, was born on that campus. Writer Toni Morrison and actor Ossie Davis also were among his students.) Invited to Brown’s home, Baraka surveyed the collection of 78 rpm records there, mostly blues. “(Brown) said, ‘You want to know about the lives of black people? That’s your history, that music,’” Baraka recalled. “’The people there will tell you about their lives.’” A job at Record Changer magazine placed Baraka in the album stacks (“That was my graduate school, sitting in that basement every day.”) and in the company of jazz historians like Dan Morgenstern, later to become director of Rutgers-Newark’s Institute of Jazz Studies. Years of listening to the voices of blues giants—Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters— and all forms of African-American musical expression fed his urge to begin writing.
The resulting Blues People is a social and cultural assessment of the evolution of the sound of black America, from its genesis in “the sorrow songs” of slavery to Afro-Christian music, classic blues, minstrelsy and swing. That musical vocabulary informed Harris’ “Keep Your Razor Sharp,” which also included the interplay of text from Baraka’s Wise, Why’s, Y’s: The Griot’s Song Djeli Ya. More music and chat is on the way in the second annual TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, when Duke Ellington becomes the topic of conversation on Saturday, Nov. 9. Portrait of Duke will be hosted by playwright and critic Terry Teachout, author of the new biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, featuring vocalist Hilary Gardner, are fully equipped—with 17 pieces—to play Ellington’s big band arrangements the way they were meant to be heard.