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

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

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

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 Pavlic 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in black music, from gospel and blues to jazz and R&B. Based on unprecedented access to private correspondence, unpublished manuscripts and attuned to a musically inclined poet’s skill in close listening, Who Can Afford to Improvise?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of Baldwin’s career from his early work as a reviewer for left-leaning journals in the 1940s to his last published and unpublished works from the mid-1980s.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, Pavlic 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.


I began to think, that is to say to listen harder.

Samuel Beckett, Molloy

In the fall of 1969, James Baldwin was living in Istanbul. He had rented a flat in the Üçler Apartments at the intersection of Gümüşsuyu Caddesi and Çiftevav Sokak, a steeply inclined street between the German and Japanese embassies. The neighborhood was about two blocks toward the Bosporus from Taksim Square; the famed literary meeting place, the Park Hotel, was located around the corner. Baldwin had lived in Istanbul off and on since first arriving in the city to visit late in 1961. In early July, with his every move noted by the FBI, and feeling nearly as stalked by his own highly politicized public persona, he had exited Hollywood and abandoned his attempts to convert The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a film starring Billy Dee Williams for Columbia Studios. He was leaving more than a film project, however. Following the publication of The Fire Next Time (1963), which catapulted him into literary and cultural stardom, Baldwin had been immersed in near-constant struggle with the cultural politics of the era. Many of the activists with whom he had joined forces had been murdered and imprisoned. The freedom movement had splintered; the political mainstream was veering to the right. Baldwin sensed that the road through what would be remembered as “the sixties” was ending. He was searching for a new beginning; for him, that meant he was listening, intensely.

Baldwin took the failure of the film project as a cue to renegotiate his hypervisible, visceral relationship to American culture. Assassinations and mass violence in the preceding years had taken their tolls. Emotionally in tatters, politically exhausted, and personally, at least partially, defeated . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.