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Biographical Details of Leadership
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Jazz & the Blues
BOND: Now you're at Howard, you're surrounded by compatible people, you're making friends --
BOND: What about teachers?
BARAKA: Oh, I had great teachers.
BOND: Sterling Brown?
BARAKA: Sterling Brown. That -- see, that was the thing then at Howard that I hadn't realized 'cause I was trying to get out of the mostly white context because it was -- it was on my -- you know, it was -- it was working on my mind, you know, that being the minority. But then I'd walk into classes, man, and there was, you know, Sterling Brown. I didn't know Sterling Brown. But then later I would find out this great, black poet was my English teacher. Can you imagine that?
BARAKA: And I would be sitting up there, and then he would be talking -- it's very interesting. I went there, Toni Morrison went there. All of the black students there who sat up under Brown who actually were telling you some things that you even learn today. I mean, the whole thing about black music being, you know, the foundation of your history in America and any kind of continuous example of black history. That where the music goes, that's where the people go. You know? And the music reflects the people. When he first sat A. B. Spellman and myself down in his house and invited us to his house, he said, "That's your history, boys." You know, that was like a -- like a wave of something. I mean, that was a shock because it didn't mean what it came to mean. Somebody shows you these records they got, you know, they got Bessie Smith and they got Duke Ellington and they got Fletcher Henderson and they got Ethel Waters and they got Billie Holliday and they say, "That's your history there." And you say, "Well, that's the kind of remark that a professor would make," you see.
BOND: So you didn't say, "Okay, yes, you're right"?
BARAKA: No, no, no. But then he would teach us about the music. See, Sterling then sat us down in the dormitory because what he could dig is that we wanted to know about the music, because remember at that time jazz was banned at Howard University's campus. I mean, that's how sick these Negroes were. That they had actually become so alienated from themselves in this quest for the great American dream -- in which they would be ghosts -- that the music was banned. Like A. B. Spellman. He was one of my best friends in college, without a doubt. He would come to the door of the room -- my room was like -- we had a sign on it, 13 Rue Madeleine, that was the Gestapo headquarters -- so he comes in the door and he would go, [knock, knock -- deep voices]. He'd start singing. No, he started singing like either "Ode to Joy," you know, Beethoven's Ninth. All right. You know, he was in the opera, The Howard Singers sang European concert music. You understand what I mean?
BARAKA: Yeah. So when Sterling then -- apparently how he perceived that we didn't think that was cool, you understand, he'd say, "You all think you know something about music," you know. "Yeah, we know Charlie Parker -- " he said, "You come to my house." And then he started classes in the dormitory, and we would sit in the dormitory, at the brand new Clark Hall. And he would talk about the music. See? That was completely out. Of course, that wasn't sanctioned by the university. Quite the contrary.
BOND: But at the same time, the music he's talking about I can remember being distant from, that is, I embraced Charlie Parker, but Louis Armstrong, it took me a while to --
BARAKA: To understand that.
BOND: -- embrace Louis Armstrong --
BARAKA: I understand that.
BOND: -- and Bessie Smith. My parents had Bessie Smith records. And they didn't appeal to me initially.
BARAKA: Yeah. Right.
BOND: Now what was your reaction?
BARAKA: Because what Sterling was saying was deeper than that. He was telling us about the blues, he was telling us about Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, you know. But what Sterling was trying to make us understand is the historical continuum that that provided, you understand? And to say that "What you don't know is where this came from." See? "You like Byrd and them." But it took me a while to know who Duke Ellington was, and to really know who Louis Armstrong was, you know. I mean, I was an adult before I could dig Louis, you know. And before I really, before I really manifested who that was -- the greatest trumpet player, ever, anywhere, you know -- I was like in my forties or something like that. You know.
BOND: Yes. I was turned off by what I took to be the clownish --
BARAKA: Yeah, the clownish --
BOND: -- aspects of his --
BOND: -- persona.
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
BOND: And I couldn't. I couldn't do it.
BARAKA: Of course. No, because you would -- all of that, all of those teeth and what not, you see. But then later on, it -- and then remember when Louis came out with the thing during the Arkansas --
BOND: Little Rock crisis. Yeah.
BARAKA: Yeah, the Little Rock crisis, you see. And that -- and I tell you, I saw -- I'll tell you what really blew my mind about Louis Armstrong. He was on -- this was much later -- he was on a television interview with his manager, Joe Glaser. And so the commentator asked him, "Well, Mr. Armstrong, can you tell us in your sixty years of being in the music business what have you learned? How do you -- you know, what would you tell young people." He said, "Well, I'll tell ya' one thing I learned is if you're black and you're in the music business, you gotta find yourself some white man and make yourself that white man's nigger. Ain't that right, Joe?"
BOND: Really? Oh, my Lord. What a remarkable thing.
BARAKA: No, I saw that actually. It made you want to look away from the television.
BOND: Yes. Yes.
BARAKA: I said because he's obviously been waiting fifty years --
BOND: To say to them -- what did Glaser say?
BARAKA: Joe Glaser didn't say nothing. He was -- he looked like somebody had peed on his shoe, actually. He didn't say anything. He looked just like "Cut to the commercial." You know?