Blues People

LeRoi Jones - Blues People

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LeRoi Jones' "Blues People" is a very good read; I've rarely read a book that manages so well to intertwine cultural/artistic and societal development (in this case, the story of jazz and blues as a way of telling the history of black people in the US). He is obviously very well read and takes music very seriously, and the book is a very good rundown of the history of black music up to 1963 without ever becoming just a list of names. He makes some very good points - for instance, that the rise of be-bop in the 1940s marked the first time that black artists (for lack of a better word) were truly taken seriously - the criticism of be-bop wasn't leveled at them for being black (in contrast to most of the criticism against earlier music) but for subverting a music form that white America had accepted as its own; that jazz - and therefore its performers - had become AMERICAN music as opposed to BLACK music.

However, I have two problems with it: the first being that Jones obviously is biased here (as I expect any black man who's spent years researching slavery would be); throughout the book there is an undercurrent that True Black Music is good, White Music is a pale imitation of it (he even goes so far as to write that America has not produced any "white" music worthy of note) and his favourite targets "the middle-class negroes" are all but accused of being traitors to their race for not being black enough. Any influence of white music on black musicians is belittled; any white musician playing black music is either ridiculed or at best patronisingly accepted.

The second is nothing Jones himself could control; the book came out in 1963, just as popular music was to undergo several revolutions that would be based in "black" music; The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones etc would take blues and turn it into modern rock music, soul music was about to become something entirely different (from r'n'b to funk to disco to hip-hop) and jazz itself would, ironically, become an ever more side-lined music form with a mainly white audience... but he missed out on Coltrane's last few years, he missed out on Miles Davis' later period, he missed out on the whole fusion thing. That makes the book a good read, but ultimately it's barely half the story.

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