Poet Amiri Baraka is no stranger to controversy, and his work with avant-garde jazz band the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ) was no exception. Considered the "fifth" member, Baraka appeared on a single track on the group’s 1964 self-titled first album. He recited "Black Dada Nihilismus," a poem from his second collection of poems, The Dead Lecturer (published under his original name, Leroi Jones). The song sparked instant controversy for its violent imagery and what the New York Times described as Baraka’s "call for black revolutionaries to rape and murder in the service of liberation," which points directly to the song’s most notorious passage: "Come up, black dada / nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats." Derided by some critics as hostile and baiting, the lyrics exemplify a "highly politicized avant-garde."
Baraka was associated with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, and, by 1964, he had established himself as an important young poet, music critic, and playwright. Though his foundational role in the Black Arts Movement wasn't cemented until after the assassination of Malcom X in 1965, Baraka’s politics were already developing into what he later dubbed a "social engagement," which coalesced over the following years in an attempt to refocus the generation’s art. Baraka’s influence on African American music, especially on widening the audience for blues and jazz, is significant. He wrote several books on the history of black music, including the seminal works Blues People: Negro Music in White America in 1963 and 1968’s Black Music.
For all the controversy surrounding "Black Dada Nihilismus," the album sold poorly--possibly, in part, because of NYAQ’s reputation as idiosyncratic, even by avant-garde jazz standards. It was a reputation formed less by the band’s political overtones than its quiet, controlled style, uncommon in the "free jazz" landscape. The band, sans Baraka, recorded one more album, 1965’s Mohawk, which had a limited release in Holland. By February of the following year, NYAQ’s Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai, Lewis Worrell, and Milford Graves had disbanded, each pursuing his own individual project.
Years later, that first album caught on, however, and achieved a kind of cult status in avant-garde jazz circles; it was re-released in 2004. Thirty-five years after the original recording, Baraka and the NYAQ quartet reassembled for a live performance at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York, with Reggie Workman replacing Worrell on bass. Anticipating the event, Graves said, "It will not be a reunion but a continuance of the beautiful music that this group is capable of performing."
Baraka’s role with the band had expanded: he was front and center during the performance, reciting lyrics to several new songs. Not entirely without political content, Baraka’s words reached into more abstract spaces, presenting and answering questions about the nature of musical and poetic composition, as in these lines from "Reentering":
Of what use is poetry?
What do you mean by its use?
Is there a second question?
And who are you, anyway?
How did you get in here?
The day after the concert, NYAQ and Baraka recorded the aptly titled 35th Reunion. Reviewing the album, Downbeat magazine described the lasting influence of NYAQ: "Whether you ever learned to love free jazz or not, this album makes it painlessly clear that the world opened up by the NYAQ 35 years ago, which sounded so unfamiliar at first, is the world we now live in."