ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Working to raise black consciousness . . . members established a local arts academy
for area youths, navigated a relentless calendar of original multimedia productions,
and articulated an uncompromising social agenda.
BAG’s first chairman, Julius Hemphill
By Benjamin Looker
From 1968 to 1972, St. Louis was home to the Black Artists Group (BAG), a seminal arts collective that nurtured African American experimentalists working in theater, visual arts, dance, poetry, and jazz.
Inspired by a newly assertive cultural nationalism, over the course of the 1960s scores of black artistic cooperatives had sprung up around the country, and these ideological and aesthetic impulses resonated with BAGs founders. In an abandoned warehouse in the citys central core, a generation of innovative artists created a moment of intense and vibrant cultural life, surrounded by the physical and economic evisceration that typified that decades urban crisis.
Working to raise black consciousness and explore the far reaches of interdisciplinary performance, members established a local arts academy for area youths, navigated a relentless calendar of original multimedia productions, and articulated an uncompromising social agenda. As debates over civil rights, nationalism, and the role of the arts in contemporary struggles all found form in BAG, the organization quickly became one of the Midwests most significant exemplars of the emergent Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.
This book narrates the groups development against the backdrop of St. Louis spaces and institutions, examines work by its major artists, and follows the collectives musicians in their eventual move to Paris and on to New York, where they played a leading role in Lower Manhattans loft jazz scene of the 1970s.Publisher, Missouri Historical Society Press
In this brilliant evocation of a great cultural flowering in the late 1960s, Benjamin Looker boldly plants the flag of St. Louis in the middle of the history of jazz and restores that often neglected city to its rightful place in the narrative of African American arts. The rich detail, careful research, and clarity of writing make this book a pleasure to read and set new standards for studies of American culture and urban history.
John Szwed, Author of So What: The Life of Miles Davis
Looker’s meticulously researched monograph on the important Black Artists’ Group is an invaluable contribution to the historical literature on American experimentalism, providing unique and trenchant insights on how African American artists negotiate complex relationships among aesthetics, social and political forces, and community activism. In particular, the book illuminates the process by which musical ideas developed outside of the canonical cultural centers of the United States eventually gained international recognition as among the most audacious, risk-taking new sounds of the late twentieth century.George E. Lewis, Improviser and Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music, Columbia University
As a young man coming of age in St. Louis during the Black Power and Black Arts Movements, I am sure that my creative spirit was ignited through my exposure to BAG. I was always around these artists at rehearsals, readings, rap sessions, and performances, just a kid trying to be someplace out of harm’s way, on a mission of self-discovery. I found myself by being exposed to the roots of my cultural heritage. The Black Artists’ Group inspired me to do the work that I do today.Ron Himes, Founder and Producing Director, St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Benjamin Looker is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He graduated from Washington University in 2000 with majors in urban studies and music, before earning an M.A. from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Looker was recently a Fulbright Scholar to Canada, and is currently a graduate student in the American Studies Program at Yale University.
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Julius Arthur Hemphill (January 24, 1938, Fort Worth, Texas – April 2, 1995, New York City) was born in Fort Worth, Texas (also, incidentally, the hometown of Ornette Coleman), and studied the clarinet before learning saxophone. Gerry Mulligan was an early influence. He performed mainly on alto saxophone; less often soprano and tenor saxophones and flute.
Hemphill joined the United States Army in 1964, and served for several years, and later performed with Ike Turner for a brief period. In 1968, Hemphill moved to St. Louis, Missouri and co-founded the Black Artists’ Group (BAG), a multidisciplinary arts collective that brought him into contact with artists such as saxophonists Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett, trumpeters Baikida Carroll and Floyd LeFlore, and writer/director Malinke Robert Elliott.
Hemphill moved to New York City in the mid-1970s, and was active in the then-thriving free jazz community. He taught saxophone lessons to a number of notable musicians, including David Sanborn and Tim Berne. Hemphill was probably best known as the founder of the World Saxophone Quartet, a group he formed in 1976, after collaborating with Anthony Braxton in several saxophone-only ensembles. Hemphill left the World Saxophone Quartet in the early 1990s, and formed a saxophone quintet.
Hemphill recorded over twenty albums as a leader, about ten records with the World Saxophone Quartet and also recorded or performed with Björk, Bill Frisell, Anthony Braxton and others. Late in his life, ill-health (including diabetes and heart surgery) forced Hemphill to stop playing saxophone, but he continued writing music until his death. His saxophone sextet, led by Marty Ehrlich, also released several albums of Hemphill’s music, but without Hemphill playing. The most recent is titled The Hard Blues, recorded live in Lisbon after Hemphill’s death.
The best source on Hemphill’s life and music is a multi-hour oral history interview that he conducted for the Smithsonian Institution in March and April 1994, and which is held at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Noam Chomsky
In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forwardin the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest “real progress toward freedom and justice.” Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. “This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the worldto millions, I suspectfor the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him.” John Pilger In dissecting the rhetoric and logic of American empire and class domination, at home and abroad, Chomsky continues a longstanding and crucial work of elucidation and activism . . .the writing remains unswervingly rational and principled throughout, and lends bracing impetus to the real alternatives before us.Publisher’s Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 5 January 2012