POETRY AND JAZZ, JAZZ POETRY AND THE POETRY OF JAZZ
Charlie Parker - the faceless man, for almost no photograph of him exists - was the Chaucer, the Spencer, the Shakespeare and the Milton of his own jazz era. But there was Satchmo too, the jazz Andrew Marvel. And Duke Ellington, the genre's Dante. And each reader may allocate his own 'jazz greats' to Goethe, Heine, Moliere, Comeille, and Racine. Anything less would be inadequate.
- from: The Saga History of Jazz, sleevenote to 1972 reissue of Parker's Massey Hall, Toronto conceit recording.
That epigraph - displaying in a mere five sentences a disproportionate amount of error, semi-literacy and pretentiousness - may strike lovers of both poetry and jazz as hilarious. Yet it's all too typical in its ponderous way. And for that matter Carl Sandburg, a poet who should have known better, wrote that "jazz is the laugh of a golden frog with a silver moon lost in its belly." Poetry and jazz are hard enough to discuss coherently, but a surfeit of absurdity makes converts to neither.
So while hoping to avoid further false parallels, outrageous metaphor or rash claims, I want to suggest that in that territory where jazz and poetry meet quite a few experiments have been made and enthusiasms shared. Celebrations and explorations exist, have proved fruitful, and will continue.
Poetry began of course as an oral, storytelling, improvisational art - a very direct entertainment of, and communication with, its audience. These initial characteristics still apply to much poetry and, naturally, to all jazz. Both arts involve and indeed require from their practitioners a high degree of technical accomplishment and an individual, original 'voice'.
It's this idea of voice - the personal sound or unique expression achieved through phrasing -which I'd like to take up later. Also, how and where some jazz and poetic voices meet, stimulate and inform each other. First, though, I must make an attempt, however sketchy, to list or at least subdivide the various categories of musical and verbal interaction my title implies.
This primary, obvious and largest section takes in the entire poetry of the blues, that form from which so much of jazz itself derives and one of its main bases, providing structure, metre and endless varieties of emotion and mood, the gamut from tragedy to farce. Add to the ever-evolving blues repertoire, standards (usually show tunes, the popular songs of their day) by the thousand, often provided by singer-songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael or Johnny Mercer. (The latter's superb inventions, some analysed by Gene Lees in Singers and the Song, 1987, are poetry, with or without music.) And all manner of original compositions and adaptations - in a smaller subsection of which feature the scat singers and those employing rhythmic and verbal displacements and reconstructions, singers who set and sing new words to existing instrumental solos (King Pleasure, Annie Ross, Eddie Jefferson etc.) From whom we move to
in language. Those who, like Jack Kerouac, seek verbal equivalents for musical rhythms and experiences. (See his Spontaneous Bop Prosody. Such a style, based naturally on speed and inventive accuracy rather than sloppiness, takes skill and practice to transcribe.) For Kerouac "the origins of joy in poetry" required "the discipline of pointing out things directly, purely, concretely, no abstractions or explanations, wham wham the true blue song of man." Here too might be included the very rare poets improvising directly to jazz. I don't know any such contemporary ad libbers who currently do so convincingly (maybe they will come from the ranks of Rap?).
3. DOCUMENTARY AND MYTHOLOGY
A huge body of work including elegies and eulogies, accounts, celebrations and reminiscences of legendary jazz figures, alive or dead. Heroes, villains, homages, narratives and impressions. William Carlos Williams on Bunk Johnson and Larkin on Sidney Bechet, for instance, have written two of the best-known poems in this genre.
4. THEORY AND PRACTICE
A more complex and less often attempted category, dealing with verbal approximations or renderings of, particular musical styles. What jazz evokes or conveys in the way of associations and sensations, and by extension what it is like to play. Jazz pianist and poet Roy Fisher has written one of the most illuminating of these, 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan', while a portrait of the elderly titan Coleman Hawkins, at the core of Fisher's book-length poem A Furnace, spans both categories 3 & 4. Also in 4 might be added poems by musicians in general.
would concentrate on the energizing or affirmative qualities of jazz - reactions and responses to the music, live or recorded. Poems composed while or after listening to certain musicians, and/or dedicated to them. As Fisher remarks of his 1957 poem 'Variations': "Although I started playing jazz half a dozen years before I started writing, this poem is, I think, the only one I ever wrote which derives at all from the actual structures of jazz music, being a response to a single casual hearing of the Milt Jackson/Monk Bag's Groove. It wasn't intended for performance...it's simply meant to evoke music by association."
From the above it will be evident that poetry and jazz is a vast and fascinating arena of possibility. Unfortunately anyone who has attended a scrappy P & J performance, during which poets shouted across and against insensitive or inappropriate accompaniments from musicians sometimes as baffled as the audience, may have wondered what went wrong. Why didn't words and music fit, counterpoint or complement each other? If chaos not subtlety resulted, perhaps spontaneity was over-prized, so that anarchy not harmony, conflict not excitement, prevailed? Maybe in practice the best results are achieved by relaxed yet uninhibited writers who appreciate and themselves enjoy jazz. Listen to Lawrence Ferlinghetti's reading with the Cellar Jazz Quintet, San Francisco, 1958, or Kerouac's Blues and Haiku sets with the redoubtable tenormen Al Conn and Zoot Sims. They all work fine, expressing what Kerouac liked, "the raciness and freedom and humour of jazz".
In his 1968 Paris Review interview Kerouac said "Tenor is my favourite instrument", praised Coltrane, and quoted as literary influences upon himself "jazz and bop, in the sense of, say a tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement's been made...that's how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind..." Contemporaneously the British poet Basil Bunting also stated when interviewed: "the essential thing about poetry is the sound it makes, the shapes you can make with the sound. Without the music of words there is no poetry. Anything else that's in it is secondary." Neither writer was denying meaning or settling for easy or unearned abstraction, though: sound, however beautiful, must say something, be directed, progress purposefully. As British tenor saxophonist Don Rendell once commented to an aspiring musician: "You play well, but you don't tell a story."
Lovers of jazz and poetry may feel that 'story' and 'voice' best fuse with Billie Holiday accompanied by Lester Young - Lester that gentle genius who retreated (on a verbal level) into the subtleties of his weird, invented private language, but thought instrumentalists should know by heart the lyrics of every song they played. Lester, whose admirer Kerouac wrote: "jazz is phrasing and ...the phrasing of Lester Young will be studied in the next century in music conservatories." Billie too, as Ralph de Toledano rightly noted "never lost the complete mastery of the phrase, the knowledge of a song's inner logic." The intuitive interplay of these two like minds, ethereal yet sensual and perfectly poised - Lester's glancing, dancing obbligati and Billie's poignant vocals - is jazz and poetry, poetry in jazz. "The sound should seem an echo to the sense," wrote Pope of poetry, and these great artists magically incarnated his definition.
Sometimes even trite lyrics turned into absolutely right ones, dross to gold through this alchemical partnership. Their spontaneous, uncanny rapport exemplifies poetry-in-jazz, words and music held in breathtaking balance.
A similar equipoise of flesh and spirit is described by Linda Dahl in her absorbing book on women in Jazz, Stormy Weather, 1984: "The music of black slaves married the pain and pleasure of physical life with a permeating spirituality; one of its great, enduring strengths was that it did not sever the life of the body from that of the spirit." Nor should poetry, I believe.
The creators of poetry and jazz, those beautiful and ecstatic forms, spend lifetimes seeking an impossible perfection: such an ideal quest expresses yet transcends self, while the very process of improvisational struggle can provide both liberation and consolation. Pianist Walter Norris, present on Ornette Coleman's influential debut recording, the 1958 Something Else! recently remarked: "We must play the way Picasso painted - in one continuous improvisatory motion. But eventually improvising has to be regarded as spiritual, as beyond ordinary secular knowledge. I am sceptical about any musician over forty who is not spiritual."
Serious poets of whatever age should heed his words. All poets (necessarily) have an ear for, and respond to, music - that "elate tongue". But they might learn additional valuable truths about their own art via the pleasurable experience of working more often with musicians, whether or not in Robinson Jeffers's words they wish "To hear some final harmony resolve the discords of life."
Poetry Wales Vol 26 No 4 April 1991