About this site

“If we want to understand the poetry of our time fully,” explains David Jauss, “then we must try to understand why it so often turned to jazz for inspiration.” Like the ebullient spirit in Whitman’s verse and that by other modern poets from the first half of this century, the emergence and evolution of jazz might be seen as a musical parallel to the innovations in American poetry…”
Quoted in Feinstein, 1997, p. 3

The goal of this webpage is to highlight a few instances of the incredible music and prose that stem from the intersection of jazz and poetry. The primary impetus for its creation was to aid in a discussion of the first chapter of John Caridi's book, How Does a Poem Mean?

This website features 1) audio and video of various jazz poets, 2) a brief section on John Coltrane and poetry (including a video I created featuring Coltrane's "Psalm," and 3) a section for poetry resources.

If you're interested in learning more about jazz poetry, I highly recommend starting with Sascha Feinstein's Jazz Poetry From the 1920s to the Present.

In February 2016 I presented a poster at the California All-State Music Educators Conference (CASMEC) on my experience combining jazz history and poetry in a high school A.P. American Literature class.

Ramsey at CASMEC 2016

What is "Jazz Poetry"?

"Some writers feel passionately that a jazz poem must in some way emulate the rhythmic pulse of the music; others claim that "jazziness" is an arbitrary term at best and that allusions to jazz musicians might be the only sure way to know whether the poem has been influenced by jazz. ...I offer this brief definition: A jazz poem is any poem that has been informed by jazz music. The influence can be in the subject of the poem or in the rhythms, but one should not necessarily exclude the other.
Sasha Feinstein, p. 2, in Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present.

Syncopation and jazz rhythms in jazz poetry

In Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present Feinstein writes of Rushworth Kidder's explanation of e.e. cummings poem Ta (see the poem here. Kidder essentially argues that jazz poetry is reflective of jazz rhythms, in part, by the way the poet chooses to break up the syllables and where she or he adds line breaks. This can be heard in the musical phrases of jazz musicians by their focus on upbeats rather than downbeats (syncopation) and their tendency to play phrases that resolve "over the barline." Feinstein ultimately states that e.e. cummings probably did not learn this technique from listening to jazz music, but I think Kidder's point is valid and an accurate description of jazz phrases.

Video and Audio

Below are some excerpts of poety and jazz. Some are well known works works while others are just personal favorites.

The Weary Blues
Langston Hughes, 1958.


Langston Hughes' impact was far reaching and touched many disciplines. As a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes helped to elevate the position many black arts and artists. His poetry on jazz includes some of the most recognizable poetry from the 20th century, such as "The Weary Blues" and "Jazzonia." In 1959 Hughes released Weary Blues, an album featuring Charles Mingus, Red Allen, and others. Hughes also published a wonderful book titled The First Book of Jazz, see the book in its entirety HERE.



Yes We Can
David Murray, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Amiri Baraka.
Rendezvous Suite, 2013.


The late Amiri Baraka was a poet, playwright activist, music critic, and scholarly author. His book Blues People (Negro Music in White America) is a seminal study of the music of black Americans.

Jamaaladeen Tacuma is a prolific bass player whose career began in Ornette Colemans' ground breaking group Prime Time.

"Yes We Can" features pieces of Baraka's poem "Barack Obama." "Yes We Can" was President Obama's 2008 campaign sologan.

I Apologize
Oscar Brown Jr., 2003

Oscar Brown Jr. is, in my opinion, one of the unsung heroes of jazz. Not only was he involved with one of the most historically important albums in jazz history, Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, he created some just plain great music. He is also arguably the only hard bop singer. The clip above is from one of his three appearences on the BET program "Def Poetry," on Season 2, 2003, Episode 4. For some more of his music, check out his hilarious vocalise on Bobby Timmons' "Dat Dere."







Find Your Own Voice
Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez' fiery poems are a central aspect of the Black Arts Movement. Cortez was known for reading her poems to music, and even led her own group, "Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters."

In 1954 Cortez married landmark jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman with whom she was with for eighteen years. In the video above Cortez is accompanied by her son with Orenette, Denardo Coleman.

Dr. Ron McCurdy's Langston Hughes Project
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz

Dr. Ron McCurdy's Langston Hughes Project features the work of Hughes' epic "Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz." McCurdy tours the nation with his multimedia show that includes poetry, a live jazz quartet, video, and more. The video above is the EPK for the project.

Samurai Song
Robert Pinsky and Laurence Hobgood from PoemJazz

Robert Pinsky, the 37th United States Poet Laureate, and Grammy winner Laurence's album PoemJazz features incredibly insightful poetry and music. Unlike many of the other performances found on this page, this one is just piano and voice.

Mystic Trumpeter
Fred Hersh/Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass, 2005.

Fred Hersh's 2005 album Leaves of Grass is entirely based upon Walt Whitman's work of the same name. I encourage all readers to read the full story of this incredible album in Feinstein's book Ask Me Now. In summary, Hersh became enveloped in Whitman's Leaves of Grass while reading it in France. Hersh takes liberties with Whitman's work by repeating or removing lines of poetry. This track showcases the virtuosic work of Kate McGarry. "The Sleepers," which features Kurt Elling, can be found YouTube as well.

Children
Haki R. Madhubuti
and Nation:Afrikan Liberation Arts Ensemble's "Medasi"

This uplifting work from 1977 begins with the poetry of Haki R. Madhubuti and later features a childrens choir. He is accompanied by Afrikan Liberation Arts Ensemble, which included jazz pianist Geri Allen. Additionally, there is a childrens choir.

This track is great! Check it out!

Ode to a Drum
John Tachi and Yusef Komunyakaa's Love Notes from the Madhouse

I had the great fortune of seeing this group live in the early 2000s. It was a concert I'll never forget. John Tachi performed on Coltrane's ground-breaking album Ascension, and was an influential free jazz musician. Komunyakaa's work is known for touching on subjects such as the Vietnam war and blues and jazz. In 1994 Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is currently the chair of the creative writing program at New York University.

Black Mass
Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka

This album is a fascinating meeting of minds. Sun Ra was a pianist whose career started with Fletcher Henderson and ended with a cult-like following.

Jazz Canto
Bob Dorough
"Dog"

This is a fun CD that features a great cast of musicians including Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Fred Katz and Jack Montrose.
Poems by Whitman, Wiliiams, Hughes, and more.

Strange Fruit
Allen Lewis and Billie Holiday

Strange Fruit is perhpas the most well known jazz poem. It was written by Abel Meeropol (1903 - 1986) whose pseudonym was “Lewis Allen.” The poem was inspired by a grusome photogrpah of a lynching. In the 1950s, Meeropol and his wife, Ethel, were introduced to Michael and Robert Rosenberg at W.E.B. Du Bois’ house, after the Rosenbergs’ parents were executed for nuclear espionage the Meeropols adopted Michael and Robert.

John Coltrane and Poetry


... Coltrane's playing style and compositions did not only influence the world of jazz, but exerted a huge influence on American poetry, which is also why Coltrane is the most often represented jazz musician in American poetry: "Coltrane has probably been the focus of more poems than any other jazz musician, but the portraits of the man and his music vary as much as his own creative endeavors -- from bebop and modal music, to hard bop and sheets of sound, and eventually to free jazz" (Feinstein 1991, xix).

The occurrences of the figure of John Coltrane in American poetry were so common that critics and writers began to talk about the genre of the "Coltrane poem": "The 'Coltrane' poem has, in fact, become an unmistakable genre in black poetry" (Benston 1977, 773).

Quoted in Samo Salamon's "The Political Use of the Figure of John Coltrane in American Poetry," page 82.

Though Coltrane has been the subject of hundreds upon hundreds of poems, many do not know that he was also the author of a poem: "A Love Supreme." This poem can be found on the record jacket of his LP A Love Supreme. What many people do not know, however, is that the last track of A Love Supreme, "Psalm," is a saxophonic reading of this poem. I created the video to showcase Coltrane's "Psalm."


YouTube sometimes blocks the video above. If it happens to be blocked, click here.
Learn more about Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Psalm here.
“I wanted to really follow what Coltrane was doing. …what I was doing was imitating what Coltrane was doing. Breaking down the melody. Making you stop, think, and wonder…..making you engage between the lines and between the music.”
Sonia Sanchez
Excerpt of Sonia Sanchez’s “a/coltrane/poem”
Excerpt of John Coltrane’s solo on “My Favorite Things”
Sonia Sanchez on the background of "a/coltrane/poem."










Resources

Below I've listed a few of the CDs, books, and people who were influential in sparking my own passion for poetry and jazz.

CDs

Love Notes from the Madhouse
John Tachi and Yusef Komunyakaa

This underrated CD packs a punch! Saxophonist John Tachi performed on Coltrane's record "Ascension," and Komunyakaa is a Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry.

Leaves of Grass
Fred Hersh

This breathtaking CD features what Hresh refers to as "Fred Hersh music," rather than just jazz. It showcases a star-studded ensemble and features the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Weary Blues
Charles Mingus and Langston Hughes

Though not the best or most essential work of either Mingus or Hughes, it is still a wonderful addition to the any jazz or poetry lover's library.

Books

Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz and Literature
by Sasha Feinstein

A one of a kind book that features stunning interviews with 20 of the most important jazz poets, critics, and literary figures. A must have!

Testimony, A Tribute to Charlie Parker
by Yusef Komunyakaa

This is a truly astounding book that is accompanied with a two CD set. It is a libretto in honor of Charlie Parker, and it is as historically accurate as beautiful.

The Jazz Poetry Anthology
by Sasha Feinstein and Yusef komunyakaa

Published in 1991, this was the first anthology of jazz poetry and continues to be a must have. There is a part II as well that was published in 1996.

Jazz Poems
Edited by Kevin Young

This small anthology on poetry would be a wonderful addition to any budding poetry collection. It is part of the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series, and it was published in 2006.

People

Sasha Feinstein

Sasha Feinstein is an author, poet, and champion of poetry, scholarship, and music. His book Ask Me Now was instrumental in sparking my own interest in poetry and jazz.

Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, has one of the most effective voices in poetry to my ears. His poem "Facing It" is perhpas my favorite poem, and his libretto, Testimony, is substantial addition to the cannon of jazz poetry.

Amiri Baraka

Formally known as LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka was one of the leading black intellectuals and activists, and is considered the founder of the Black Arts Movement. He has recorded his poetry with many jazz artists (including Sun Ra! YouTube Link ). Read more on Wikipedia.

Langston Hughes

From Wikipedia: (February 1, 1902 -- May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He famously wrote about the period that "the negro was in vogue", which was later paraphrased as "when Harlem was in vogue."