|Amiri Baraka at Penn State in April 2002.|
I was ready, or so I thought, for Amiri Baraka when he visited Penn State, where I was a graduate student, in April 2002.
I had been taking a literature course on "Free Jazz" with William J. Harris and Paul Youngquist. A semester or so before that, I had taken a course on the Black Arts Movement with Professor Harris. The free jazz course was going to culminate with a free jazz concert and symposium with Baraka as a featured performer and presenter.
The performance on April 5 went really well and so did the reading and presentations the next day. At some point in between sessions, Professor Harris, who's been known to bestow gifts, made it possible for me to meet with Baraka one-on-one. When we met, I took my opportunity to talk to Baraka about his friendship with the saxophonist Albert Ayler.
I began talking through Ayler's music. I was throwing out song titles, moments in the songs, and collaborators. Baraka listened and nodded. I thought I was on a roll, until, Baraka interjected....
"Ruins," he said.
"Hunh?" I asked.
"Rumors," he said.
"Rumors?" I responded.
"What you heard on the albums were ruins," he said.
"Ruins?" I went.
"Yeah, what you heard were rumors. Rumors of what Albert sounded like live," he said. "The recordings couldn't capture his sound, his actual sound. So what you heard were ruins of his real sound."
I wasn't ready for that turn. And in retrospect, I loved his play on "ruins" and "rumors."
• Amiri Baraka