In the early 1950s, Amiri Baraka (then known by his original name, LeRoi Jones) was invited to a Howard University professor's home.
"He had all his records organized," Baraka says. "All these old 78's — chronologically and by genre, and he told us, 'That's your history.'"
A decade later, Baraka wrote Blues People, a renowned treatise on jazz and blues, or what he called "negro music in White America." Baraka did not visit New Orleans to research the book, but it detailed African music played at Congo Square and distinctions among the city's marching bands. Baraka argued that jazz did not spring solely from New Orleans ("New Orleans can not be thought of with any historical veracity as the 'birthplace of jazz,'" he wrote).
"New Orleans had the great feature of being able to bring all those different streams of musical culture together," Baraka says. He delivers the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Tom Dent Congo Square Lecture this week. It's his second visit to the city since Hurricane Katrina.
"The thing about New Orleans is that it is such a repository of Afro-American and American culture," he says. "I don't think people realize yet what Katrina did. They think it was just some destruction of houses, but it's a displacement."
Beginning in the late 1950s, Baraka established himself as a writer of poetry, prose, plays (including Dutchman in 1964) and a political activist. He was part of the Black Mountain and Beat poetry movements, and he founded Totem Press, which published early works by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
He says all the Beats were concerned with rhythm and dynamism in their work.
"[People] had to hear it," Baraka says. "That would make it more of a mass concern, rather than the kind of recondite, obscure kind of poetry."
His poetry is highly influenced by jazz and blues, and he often sings it or is accompanied by horn players.
"It's like the difference between reading a Duke Ellington score and hearing it," Baraka says.
Edward "Kidd" Jordan performs with him Thursday. Baraka's most recent writing includes a collection of essays published last year, Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (University of California), covering subjects ranging from Miles Davis and Bill Cosby to jazz criticism and doo wop. — Brandon Meginley
7 p.m. Thursday
Dillard University, Lawless Memorial Chapel, 2601 Gentilly Blvd., 558-6100; www.jazzandheritage.org