The “Resistant Embrace”: The Unstable Intersections of Ethnomusicology, Jazz, and Amiri Baraka

The description of this section of the Ethnomusicology Review Sounding Board reads as follows: “Honoring the jazz roots of foundational ethnomusicologists such as Mantle Hood, Alan Merriam, Charles Keil and Steven Feld, ‘Space is the Place’ makes room for discussion regarding the intersections between ethnomusicology and jazz studies.” In my contribution to this discussion, I am interested in exploring a surprising dearth of such intersections during the discipline’s “foundational,” institutionalizing period, especially considering the undeniable “jazz roots” of these foundational figures. And I want to frame this informal exploration in articulation with another foundational intellectual, one whose intersections with “jazz studies” are perhaps as complicated as his intersections with ethnomusicology. That is, I want to look at the work of Amiri Baraka, the polemical poet, playwright, political activist, and penetrating music and social theorist, and use the intersections and non-intersections of his work with the ethnomusicological mainstream to explore the discipline’s relative non-attendance to jazz and US black music more broadly.

I focus on an historical scene situated in the early to mid-1960s, exploring two principal developments: 1) Amiri Baraka’s rise to prominence as a public intellectual, political activist, artist, critic, etc., marked especially by his 1963 book Blues People and a series of essays collected in his 1967 book Black Music, and 2) an early period of formal institutionalizing of the academic discipline of ethnomusicology. This scene is further complicated by a broader historical context marked by the racialized terror of Jim Crow segregation—which is shockingly absent from writings in ethnomusicology from the period—as well as the so-called Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Cold War, and the ascendance of an especially dominant popular music industry. This moment is also marked by what Fred Moten (2003) calls Baraka’s “resistant embrace” (85) of black radical politics, an embrace that provides the opening for Baraka’s more assertive periods of revolutionary black nationalism and Marxism, a conceptualization that both complicates and informs the trajectory of ethnomusicology’s own “resistant embrace” of Baraka’s work.

In this period, the fledgling academic discipline of ethnomusicology was still in the early years of its institutional development in the US, a program that included the establishment of university programs and archives, attempts to standardize methodologies, and the formation of the discipline’s signature institutional body, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM). And while such institutional shifts rallied largely around a Boasian culture concept and relativist stance, with a committed (though contradictory) antiracism, the foundational ethnomusicologists, engaging in a largely corrective project of attending to those musics disregarded by Western musicology and historiography, jazz didn’t play much of a role in this enterprise. While Alan Merriam, Richard Waterman, and Charles Keil all contributed useful studies early on,[1] and a few others made at least fleeting reference to jazz in some scattered writings, on the whole, jazz was more of a passing fancy than an object of sustained inquiry for the initial decades of the discipline’s formal existence. Indeed, no sustained ethnographic fieldwork work was conducted on jazz until the mid 1990s, when Paul Berliner’s (1994) and Ingrid Monson’s (1996) seminal monographs signaled the arrival of a “mature” jazz ethnomusicology.

To be fair, jazz hadn’t gained much traction in any other academic disciplines either, leaving the burden of writing about this music mostly to music critics, amateur historians, and occasionally musicians and/or composers—producing work that can be generally considered the core of what might be called “jazz studies.” But while the overwhelming bulk of writing on jazz throughout this period was invested in establishing an understanding of jazz history as a teleological progression from vernacular folk expression to autonomous high art—a narrative that has more recently been critiqued as a problematic “official history of jazz” (DeVeaux 1991) or “liberal consensus view” of jazz history (Gennari 2006, 152)—Baraka’s work engaged in a far more penetrating sociocultural intervention.

In his seminal 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” for instance, Baraka critiques narratives of jazz as autonomous high art—and the subject positions of the mostly white music critics that created the majority of jazz writing—while at the same time signaling toward a more socioculturally informed study of the music.[2] Baraka notes how “the critic’s commitment was first to his appreciation of the music rather than to his understanding of the attitude which produced it,” explaining that this “strips the music too ingenuously of its social and cultural intent,” and that it “seeks to define jazz as an art (or a folk art) that has come out of no intelligent body of socio-cultural philosophy” (14). Baraka further rallies for a more socially critical stance by stating, “The blues and jazz aesthetic, to be fully understood, must be seen in as nearly its complete human context as possible. People made bebop. The question the critic must ask is: why?” (19-20). One would be hard pressed to find an approach to jazz more resonant with 1960s ethnomusicology than this (see Nettl 2005, 215-218).

In his 1963 landmark book Blues People, Baraka made his most significant attempt to apply his own brand of theoretical analysis to the study of jazz (and US black music more generally). The text presents a remarkably nuanced (if sometimes idiosyncratic) account of the expansive development of black cultural expressions from the arrival of African slaves in the New World through the 1960s, emphasizing a string of encounters between the black subject and white hegemonic culture (and political economy) and how such encounters influenced both parties. And though Baraka espouses an often essentialist conception of the blues as a master trope in orienting a particularistic black subjectivity—while reifying both a black/white binary construction of race and a concomitant account of blackness as fundamentally distinct from “mainstream” white culture—the brands of essentialism deployed are far less stable than they may appear on first reading. Rather than locating black musical authenticity in a biologically determined, immutable essence, Baraka formulates a conception of a non-static community of “blues people” formed and reformed through processes of both syncretism and isolation (drawing heavily on Melville Herskovits’s Myth of the Negro Past [1941]). And though Baraka provides a ringing endorsement of the figure of the “radical” avant-garde jazz musician as a transgressive hero of black resistance to white oppression—endorsing the music’s “willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound” (181) as essential to a revolutionary political intervention—a careful reading of the text reveals unparalleled nuance that is often overshadowed by some of Baraka’s later, more overtly black nationalistic writing.

As innovative as these writings were (like many others I don’t have space to discuss), they did not elicit much response in the discipline of ethnomusicology. In an informal search of the SEM’s official journal, Ethnomusicology, the only substantive references I found to Baraka’s work before 1995 were a pair of reviews of Blues People in the January 1965 issue, written by Charles Keil and John Szwed. Though both writers recognize points of consequence in the book, they both deploy subtle discursive gestures that place Baraka distinctly outside the privileged space of the professional ethnomusicologist.

Keil, for instance, recognizes Baraka’s attainment of a “truer perspective on the development of Negro music than can be found in the vast majority of books on the subject” but denigrates Baraka as “very definitely a ‘hobbyist’ . . . vis-à-vis the realms of social science” (61) And he doubles down on this supposed amateurism by deeming Baraka “not as musically knowledgeable as many of his white colleagues” (61). Keil also further separates Baraka’s work from the more formal, institutionally-sanctioned writing style of professional academics by noting Baraka’s “manifesto prose” (61) and critiquing a perceived “self-conscious and semi-sophisticated ethnocentrism [that] permeates the volume from cover to cover”—an alleged ethnocentrism no doubt rooted in Baraka’s espousal of black radical politics. A similarly contradictory motivation is found in Szwed’s review. In one breath, Szwed lauds Baraka’s “grasp on the meaning of jazz and Negro musical influence in American culture [that] wipes away thirty years of fatuous writing on this subject” (64), while in the next he cites Baraka’s supposed “failure to comprehend the subject” and dismisses the early chapters as “largely conjectural” and “excessively polemical”—deeming them a “naïve excursion” (63).

The critiques of the early chapters of Blues People, which draw extensively on Herskovits’s theorizations of African retentions through slavery—which themselves have been subjected to considerable critique—are not entirely unfounded. But I am more interested in the subtext of disqualification inherent to the depictions of Baraka as both amateur and “ethnocentric” (a term that carries its own undeniably racialized subtext). Despite circumscribed acknowledgement of Baraka’s innovation, he is nonetheless confined, at least in relation to the decidedly “professional” academic discipline of ethnomusicology, to the subaltern status of amateur, or “hobbyist,” and thus disqualified from entry into the privileged space of professional academia.

At a time in which ethnomusicology was challenging privileged notions of universal autonomy of art and high art discourses, the field seemed incapable of incorporating modes of thinking (and styles of writing) that did not conform to Western conventions of professional institutional scholarship. And it is this inability that has likely led intellectuals like Baraka (and countless others) to be placed on the extreme margins of ethnomusicological thought. Indeed, in the program of discipline-formation deployed by American institutional ethnomusicology’s founding individuals—defining a methodology, developing an archive, establishing university programs (that grant degrees), founding a professional society and academic publishing infrastructure, etc.—it is unsurprising that Baraka’s brand of politically assertive writing found a cold reception in these circles.

Compounding these questions, ethnomusicology in this period embraced fundamental concepts such as culture, tradition, and the folk as the central analytics of difference, with a marked elision of discussions of race. Indeed, as Radano and Bohlman (2000) note, “ethnomusicology’s commitment to ‘culture,’ in particular, developed as a response to the pernicious theories of race that had consumed musical thought in the early twentieth century” (4). And though many foundational ethnomusicologists undoubtedly shared deeply antiracist views and political sympathies, it is clear that the issue of race, and certainly the politicized anti-assimilationist stance represented in Baraka’s work, was an issue the field was hesitant to engage with—especially at home. In a politically charged environment in which the notion of revolutionary black radicalism (and not-so-“revolutionary” blackness) was at its peak visibility in challenging the structures of institutional white supremacy—of which higher education was (and continues to be) a pivotal part—academic ethnomusicology exhibited conspicuous indifference to Baraka’s work, and to jazz and US black music more generally. It is striking to me that at a time with such insistent visibility of the structures and effects of racial inequality white liberal thinkers in this period directed their quite sincere project outside, and not toward injustices at home.

Baraka’s position relative to the discipline has certainly evolved since then. And jazz, like many other previously ignored musics, is now fair game for ethnomusicologists. Blues People, like a slew of other writings, has become a foundational text in jazz studies and increasingly important to ethnomusicological work on jazz and US black music (though its position is contested). Keil and Szwed, in particular, have become vocal promoters of Baraka’s work, as have a growing cadre of ethnomusicologists.[3] Complicating this story,, as of the date of this posting, has ranked Blues People as both the #1 “Best Seller” and #1 “Most Wished For” book in the category of “Ethnomusicology.”

In a field that spends so much effort in defining itself, this raises fascinating questions about what it means that the deployment of a mysterious computer algorithm, processing data from real human beings spending real money (or credit), has resulted in this book attaining such a lofty status in a category at least nominally linked to a discipline that for so many years didn’t really want him. Further, it opens up questions about who possesses the authority to define this discipline, who should possess such authority, and what the constellation of factors that overdetermine this authority says about us, the work we do, and how we approach the music.


Deep thanks to Aaron Fox for thoughtful discussions that informed this writing.

[1] This includes Merriam (1955), Merriam and Mack (1960), Merriam and Gardner (1968), Waterman (1948, 1952), and Keil (1966).

[2] Collected in Baraka (1967).

[3] Particularly important examples of this new embrace include a panel at the Society for Ethnomusicology’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, entitled “Baraka's Blues People At 50: Race, Rhythm, and Views in the Study of African American Music Culture Today,” which included Regina N. Bradley, Aja B. Wood, Alisha L. Jones, Birgitta J. Johnson, and Fredara M. Hadley (the five panelists presented an alternate version of the roundtable at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the ASALH, an excerpt of which can be viewed here); and a panel at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, entitled “Blues People 50 Years Later,” featuring Amiri Baraka, Ingrid Monson, and John Szwed (see video above).


Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones). (1963) 2002. Blues People. New York: Harper Perennial.

———. (1967) 2010. Black Music. New York: Akashic Books.

Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DeVeaux, Scott. 1991. “Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography.” Black American Literature Forum 25: 525-560.

Keil, Charles. 1965. Review of Blues People: Negro Music in White AmericaEthnomusicology 9(1): 60–63.

———. 1966. “Motion and Feeling Through Music.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 24: 337-49.

Merriam, Alan. 1955. “The Use of Music in the Study of a Problem of Acculturation.” American Anthropologist 57(1): 2-34.

Merriam, Alan and Fradley Garner. 1968. “Jazz—the Word.” Ethnomusicology 12(3): 373-96.

Merriam, Alan and Raymond Mack. 1960. “The Jazz Community.” Social Forces 38: 211-22.

Gennari, John. 2006. Blowing Hot and Cool: Jazz and its Critics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Herskovits, Melville. (1941) 1990. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press.

Monson, Ingrid. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moten, Fred. 2003. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Nettl, Bruno. 2005. The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-three Discussions. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Radano, Ronald and Philip V. Bohlman. 2000. “Introduction: Music and Race, Their Past, Their Presence.” In Music and the Racial Imagination, edited by Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Szwed, John. 1965. Review of Blues People: Negro Music in White AmericaEthnomusicology 9(1): 63–64.

Waterman, Richard A. 1948. “‘Hot’ Rhythm in Negro Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 1(1): 24-37.

———.1952. “African Influence on the Music of the Americas.” In Acculturation in the Americas, edited by S. Tax, 207-18. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tom Wetmore is a New York City-based pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, and PhD student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. His research interests include jazz, US black music, race, labor, ownership/appropriation, tourism, improvisation, and electronic/computer music/sound. Visit his website at


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