Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners

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9780823268481: Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners

More than a quarter-century after his death, James Baldwin remains an unparalleled figure in American literature and African American cultural politics. In Who Can Afford to Improvise? Ed Pavlić offers an unconventional, lyrical, and accessible meditation on the life, writings, and legacy of James Baldwin and their relationship to the lyric tradition in black music, from gospel and blues to jazz and R&B. Based on unprecedented access to private correspondence, unpublished manuscripts and attuned to a musically inclined poet’s skill in close listening, Who Can Afford to Improvise? frames a new narrative of James Baldwin’s work and life. The route retraces the full arc of Baldwin’s passage across the pages and stages of his career according to his constant interactions with black musical styles, recordings, and musicians.

Presented in three books ― or movements ― the first listens to Baldwin, in the initial months of his most intense visibility in May 1963 and the publication of The Fire Next Time. It introduces the key terms of his lyrical aesthetic and identifies the shifting contours of Baldwin’s career from his early work as a reviewer for left-leaning journals in the 1940s to his last published and unpublished works from the mid-1980s. Book II listens with Baldwin and ruminates on the recorded performances of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, singers whose message and methods were closely related to his developing world view. It concludes with the first detailed account of “The Hallelujah Chorus,” a performance from July 1, 1973, in which Baldwin shared the stage at Carnegie Hall with Ray Charles. Finally, in Book III, Pavlić reverses our musically inflected reconsideration of Baldwin’s voice, projecting it into the contemporary moment and reading its impact on everything from the music of Amy Winehouse, to the street performances of Turf Feinz, and the fire of racial oppression and militarization against black Americans in the 21st century.

Always with an ear close to the music, and avoiding the safe box of celebration, Who Can Afford to Improvise? enables a new kind of “lyrical travel” with the instructive clarity and the open-ended mystery Baldwin’s work invokes into the world.

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About the Author:

Ed Pavlić is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.


... Who Can Afford to Improvise plays in the pocket between actual musical performances, interpretations of the lyrical mode in Baldwin's poetics, and intricate historical detail. (―Tsitsi Jaji, Los Angeles Review of Books)

“While Pavlic is to be commended for choosing such an important subject in the first place, what is more important is the fact that he has addressed it with a great deal of stylistic finesse and analytical clarity.” (―Kevin Le Gendre Jazzwize Magazine)

“Ed Pavlić’s Who Can Afford to Improvise? is remarkably present in how it sings―in all that it does for Baldwin, for his mediums, and for the book’s listeners.” (―The Georgia Review)

“In Who Can Afford to Improvise?, Ed Pavlić unearths James Baldwin’s epic song―one shaped and honed by sacred and popular music. This rumination of intricate details celebrates Baldwin’s vision of democratic conscience. Pavlić gives us a flesh-and-blood subject formed through a lyrical determinism of deep feeling. Through turn of thought and juxtaposition of historical and personal evidence, he embraces Baldwin’s need for justice and truth.” (―Yusef Komunyakaa)

Who Can Afford to Improvise is a tour de force from one of our premier Baldwin scholars. Ed Pavlic's brilliantly insightful meditation on black music and culture and Baldwin's centrality to that tradition is a must-read. (―Peniel E. Joseph author of Dark Days, Bright Nights)

“Ed Pavlic’s strikingly original meditations reveal a James Baldwin swaddled in Black music whose masterful ear heard the overtones, the changes, echoes of memory, cries of agony and joy. By excavating experience from song and turning social critique into lyric, Baldwin produced a deeper, more dangerous truth.” (―Robin D. G. Kelley author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original)

If you read books, sometimes or all the time, for the quality of their sentences (and what writer doesn’t? why else would anyone want to be a writer?), Who Can Afford to Improvise is even more essential. Ed Pavlić is f*cking fearless about how he goes about it, as fearless as any contemporary musician I can think of, as fearless as some of the greats. It’s definitely a book, but music is where its soul is, if you ask me. (―Dave Marsh, Counterpunch)

Ed Pavlic’s words have always heard the music and with Who Can Afford to Improvise?, he shows the exquisite ways that James Baldwin’s words both heard the music and was the music itself. (―Mark Anthony Neal Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities)

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