Black Fire! New Spirits! arrives looking like the ultimate radical jazz boxset. Presented in a LP sized publication, and as thick as a half dozen 180g records this new book from Soul Jazz Books recounts the history of Jazz as told through the lens of the Civil Rights movement from 1960 onwards. Actually, in the introduction penned by by Soul Jazz label founder Stuart Baker, we begin earlier, much earlier.
Baker, who clearly has a history of promoting Black Music, introduces the publication with a lengthy essay covering the socio-political environment and the musical history of some of the key figures in the book, in the lead up to the beginning of the radicalisation of jazz, which became it’s own living and breathing extension of popular jazz around 1960. Citing a key moment in the development of this radicalisation, Baker recalls the predominately white West Coast styles of cool jazz being superseded by hard bop in the mid 1950s, with Miles Davis and his Quintet heralding the return to the more traditionally African-American musical structure of the blues.
This development from a majority white to a noticeably black sonic palette ran concurrently with the Civil Rights movement and, as noted by Baker, while many African-American jazz musicians were decidedly apolitical, the environment in which they lived and worked was positively prejudiced against them. Musicians such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane are described as leading this new radicalisation, rejecting the outward acceptance by mainstream culture and politicians of jazz as an ambassador of North American culture to the world, while conditions at home for the players was less than accepting. Musical embracing of traditional African music was also part of the move away from mainstream consideration into a more overtly political stance.
Of course, this essay sits nicely within the first twenty five pages of this bumper publication. It isn’t intended as an all encompassing academic reader of African-American radical jazz, but more as a coffee table book filled with amazing photographs of the performers of that era. The following 150 or so pages are full of biographies and images of an impressive multitude of performers, and any fan of music from this era would be more than happy to sit and immerse themselves in the imagery.
Black Fire! New Spirits! is a companion piece to the new Soul Jazz triple LP and double CD of the same name, and would be best enjoyed while listening to the compilation. Perhaps the book could have come with a download code for the compilation, but alas, it doesn’t. Some might suggest that Black Fire! New Spirits! is a fairly cursory inclusion of African-American musical history, and although it really is a nice book to sit and flick through, a more in depth exploration of the times would be more beneficial. Each artist represented in the book is covered by a short biographical paragraph, but one does wonder if the book should have been a more academically researched investigation, rather than an overview to prop up an expansive compilation album.
Nonetheless, any fan of African-American music would appreciate the luxurious layout and hefty design, and would do nicely on your coffee table next to the latest issue of Wax Poetics.