Before Amiri Baraka could present his speech on the appreciation of jazz and jazz legend John Coltrane, he received an unusual introduction – a lesson in breathing.
Musician Harold E. Smith asked the audience to breathe in and out three times while he performed a prayer titled “Clearing the Passageways for a Higher Consciousness.” The prayer had no words; Smith simply played a didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument.
“Before we go on, we must learn how to breathe together,” he said. “The music humans make can stop the wars and make everyone love each other.”
Baraka was the keynote speaker in Wednesday’s TraneStop Resource Institute’s Annual Jazz Town Meeting, held in the Great Court of Mitten Hall.
And when the renowned poet, author, playwright, activist, jazz expert and historian stepped behind the podium, the meeting took another unusual turn.
“Philadelphia, Newark and D.C. are the best places in the world,” the Newark-born New Jersey Poet Laureate said. “We got a lot of black people there.”
Baraka, who is also a TraneStop Lifetime Poet Laureate, spoke about the necessity of a cultural revolution for the black community.
“Why do we say ‘hey dog’ instead of ‘hey man?” he said. “If you’re a dog, then your momma’s a b–. We gotta get off that doggie level. We gotta absorb our skin color. We gotta start checking people for the quality of their ideas.”
Baraka switched topics altogether when he started to talk about Coltrane, the great saxaphonist and sole reason for which TraneStop exists. Baraka said he felt that he and other intellectuals felt guilty and had betrayed Coltrane when he died.
“I felt like we should have done something,” Baraka said. “But Coltrane’s music saved us. It gave us strength to go on every day and made us remember who we were.”
The 70-year-old, who appeared to be napping before he was called to give his speech, apparently found a burst of energy when he began performing his poems about Coltrane with the TraneStop jazz ensemble playing behind him.
“Try not to drown me out so much,” Baraka said to the band before performing his first poem, “Negroes Older.”
The spoken-word performer then started to scream on-stage and pretended to play the saxophone while the real saxaphonist in the background was playing a solo.
“Baraka is one of the greatest intellectual minds in African-American history,” said Will Boone, a graduate student and teacher of a hip-hop and black culture class in the African-American Studies Department.
TraneStop is a 25-year-old nonprofit organization that was established in Coltrane’s name, according to executive director Rosalind Plummer.
“Our purpose is to present and advocate jazz, which we call African-American classical music, in the city of Philadelphia,” she said.
Nina Sachdev can be reached at email@example.com.