“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…”
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.
"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.
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.
Below are some excerpts of poety and jazz. Some are well known works works while others are just personal favorites.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
... 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."
“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.”
Below I've listed a few of the CDs, books, and people who were influential in sparking my own passion for poetry and jazz.