Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
April is jazz Appreciation Month, so it’s an appropriate time to remember Amiri Baraka, who died on Jan. 9 at the age of 79. He was poet laureate of New Jersey and an acclaimed playwright and activist who wrote about music, politics, race and art. He was drawn to jazz in particular. His stance on a number of issues sometimes isolated him as an extremist in the eyes of the public, and alienated more than a few of his literary peers. But he loved music and could be an insightful critic. He was also a supporter of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. At a 2009 jazz rally, Baraka told us to “stay together and stay strong.” (The full speech can be heard at www.bitly.com/baraka-jazz.)
Baraka wrote with outrage and authority (though not always with complete accuracy or absence of bias) about the black experience in America. He understood the essential relationships between politics and culture, between race and personal expression, between psychology and sociology.
His ability to cut through stereotypes and expose the profound suffering and dislocation at the heart of black life under slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration, two world wars, the Depression and the Civil Rights Movement distinguished his thinking and writing as being at once deeply personal and ultimately comprehensive in its depiction of black Americans and their claim of full citizenship and – most important – of cultural autonomy.
Baraka’s “Blues People” (1963) is a history of the black experience in America between 1619 and the earliest 1960s, but it is also more accurately a discussion of the relationship between the human spirit and the institution of slavery. It is about oppression and the answering life force which took its expression in work songs, spirituals, the blues in its many iterations, and especially in jazz.
The book is not rooted in a deep knowledge of music theory, but Baraka drew on his wide knowledge of such diverse genres as boogie woogie, country blues, the classic blues of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, the black big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, bebop and the then avant garde expressions of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. He also well understood the relationship between the development of a particular musical form and its role in and interaction with the marketplace, and the interrelationship of art and commerce as viewed through the lens of race politics – and he theorized as to how these factors impacted black and white society in America.
His gifts as a writer and orator were rooted in an insistent fondness for speaking truth to power, a charismatic resilience that was part street tough, part poet, part comedian, part intellectual/critic. He had a keen mind, and an expansive ability to process information and complex political and philosophical thought, that was also inclusive of a highly developed self awareness and a seemingly sure sense his own emotionality. But he was also never shy about weaving his personal viewpoint into larger historical narratives, and illustrating his opinions and beliefs about American society with anecdotal evidence from his own life. If those qualities sometimes got him into hot water, he will nevertheless be remembered as a tough talker in an era of tough talkers, a truly militant voice in an era characterized by its militancy.
Al Lerner (1919-2014)
by Tad Calcara
Al Lerner, 94, the sole surviving member of the Harry James Orchestra of the early 1940s, died on Jan. 19. Al was a pianist, composer, arranger and conductor, and he first joined Local 802 in 1959. He wrote music for several artists, including Allan Sherman and Liza Minnelli, and also wrote the music for “So Until I See You,” the closing theme for “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
Al grew up in Cleveland. As a boy, he settled on the piano after he realized transporting a set of drums to each job was quite a chore! His piano education was given a boost when he met Art Tatum, who was also from Ohio. Al met Art at a Cleveland club, and Art became a lifelong friend and mentor to Al.
At age 20, Al got the call to play piano with the Harry James Orchestra, and as a result he got the chance to appear in many Hollywood films in which Harry’s band was featured. Harry and Al also wrote the tune “Music Makers” together, which became the band’s theme. When the James band broke up in 1944, Al stayed in Los Angeles and joined with singer Dick Haymes, with whom he worked for the next 13 years as musical director.
Al also worked with many of the other great big band leaders, including Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet. He was a particular favorite of Benny Goodman, who would frequently call Al up and invite him over to his home to jam for hours. He also worked with top singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Martha Tilton, Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Kay Starr and Jimmy Rogers.
Al played and conducted in every major concert hall all over the world. In 1954 he was conductor at a royal command performance for Queen Elizabeth at the London Palladium. He later moved to California and continued a busy schedule as a pianist and conductor.
In 2007 Lerner wrote a colorful autobiography about his life in music, entitled “Vamp ‘Til Ready.” He remained an active composer and arranger until shortly before his passing.
Al Lerner will be remembered not only for his music but also as a kind and gentle soul. He was a loving husband, father and bandleader. We will all miss him. I will particularly miss how Al and I played piano for each other at his home. He was always very generous with sharing his musical gifts.
He is survived by his wife Jonné, daughters Ann and Cecilie, and grandson Jason. He is also survived by Jonné’s children Spencer and Cynthia and their kids Emma and Sophie.
Tad Calcara is principal clarinet with the Utah Symphony. This article contains some information from Wikipedia.
We also remember . . .
Herb Davidson, piano
Floyd J. Gussack, drums
George Lee, guitar
Stud Staley, electric guitar
To report the death of a member, call Avelon at (212) 245-4802, ext. 128. Ask about a refund of Local 802 membership dues and the union’s death benefit. Also ask about the pension fund.