Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jazzed, Every One of Us

Consider this brief piece from poet Michael S. Harper:


A friend told me
He'd risen above jazz.
I leave him there.

Harper's poem could well be a 21st century way of reiterating Duke Ellington's message from the Thirties (and every day since):

It don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing.

But how does a writer get that swing? A few poems about Jazz or Jazz musicians have become literary benchmarks, notably some loosely "jazzy" pieces by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. Here's the end of Hughes' "Trumpet Player":

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a
fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips
Its hypodermic needle
To his soul--

But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Mellows to a golden note.

By contrast, fifty years later the poets were Black ("Negro" no more) and angry, and considerably more prolix, as in "AM/TRAK" by Amiri Baraka (once known as Beat poet Leroi Jones) or "Don't Cry, Scream" by Haki Mahubuti (aka Don Lee), Baraka's supposed rival--both poems long and complex rants on John Coltrane's fate in a white world. At similar length, but more relaxed and reasoned is Sterling A. Brown's look at less-famous musicians--his great "Cabaret (1927, Black & Tan Chicago)" blending club images, bits of solos verbalised, wry commentary, and lyrics from the song "Down on the Delta." Also memorable, and from a more mellow Beat poet, is Ted Joans' compact tribute to sax man Lester Young (the tenor giant's name is the title):

He was our president as well as the minister
of soul stirring Jazz, he knew what he
blew, and he did what a prez should do,
wail, wail, wail, There were many of
them to follow him and most of them were
fair--but they never spoke so eloquently
in so a far out funky air
Our prez done died, he know'd this would come.
but death has only booked him, alongside
Bird, Art Tatum, and other heavenly wailers.
Angels of Jazz--they don't die--they live
they live--in hipsters like you and I

That word "fair" is a wry poke at the white sax guys, Allen Eager to Stan Getz, Brew Moore to Zoot Sims, who borrowed heavily but so kept Lester "alive." And further proof of Joans' final wishful thinking might be the literary fame of Frank O'Hara's poem "The Day Lady Died," putting the death of Billie Holiday into the context of a busy day in New York City, the poet stunned and resisting, focussing in on the precisely named details of existence to stave off his grief, at least until the end:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the Five Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Like any other art at its best, certain pieces about Jazz can make you "stop breathing" for a moment, reflecting emotion... thought... admiration... wonder. You'll find a great many of these, whatever your taste in literature or kind of blue notes, in the compact, 240-page Everyman's Library Pocket Poets volume titled, simply, Jazz Poems (issued back in 2006), which I've been dipping into now and again since buying a copy a few months ago. The range is astonishing, with worthy pieces from poets black and white; both vaunted elders and young turks, the famous and the little-known alike--made equal by their fascination for the music and their semi-improvisational verbal riffs.

There are multiple poems here for Satch and Duke (also Billy Strayhorn's sophisticated lyrics to "Lush Life"), for Miles and Charlie Parker, for John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and a smash solo spot for Chet Baker (the haunted, heartrending "Almost Blue" by Mark Doty). Some attempt to recreate a particular solo (Paul Blackburn's "Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five Spot"), others play verbal games that just become irritating: Bob Kauffman's nonsensical "Crootey Songo," Harryette Mullens' babble of words to match "Music for Homemade Instruments," the repetitive, phrases-diminishing "Gyre's Galax" by N.H. Pritchard (you could stop anywhere in four pages and get that one).

Variety rules. Jazz poems can be as hip-hop physical as Quincy Troupe's "Snake-Back Solo," or as spaciously philosophical as Charles Wright's Asia-meets-African-America masterwork titled "Body and Soul II (For Coleman Hawkins)," or as quietly personal as "Mood Indigo" by Ntozake Shange:

it hasnt always been this way
ellington was not a street
robeson no mere memory
du bois walked up my father's stairs
hummed some tune over me
sleeping in the company of men
who changed the world

it wasnt always like this
why ray barretto used to be a side-man
& dizzy's hair was not always grey
i remember i was there
i listened in the company of men
politics as necessary as collards
music even in our dreams...

Quoting from this wonderful book is a easy as playing the scales on a piano--speaking of which, there are fine elegies here for Monk and Bud Powell, plus a splendid Cecil Taylor session that I'm also skipping--but I'll take my cue from the arrange-ment of the contents and finish with a couple more pictures of Billie. (She used words--grist for the poets!) From the opening of--get this--"Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman":

We were driving back from the record store at the mall
when Terrance told me that Billie Holiday
was not a symbol for the black soul.

He said, The night is not African American either, for
your information,

it is just goddamn dark,
and in the background

she was singing a song I never heard before,
moving her voice like water moving
along the shore of a lake,
reaching gently into the crevices, touching the pebbles
and sand...

Tony Hoagland wrote that one, and Rita Dove this contrasting gem:

(for Michael S. Harper)

Billie Holiday's burned voice
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.

(Now you're cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)

Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.

If you can't be free, be a mystery.

Close to perfect, I'd say... but here's a postscript of sorts, a bit piece not in the anthology, but good evidence that the attraction of Jazz for poets goes on:

Day Goes

Riffs of fire
course the molten skies,
pulsing through layers,
running the changes,
charring to black.

Night's new arrangements
cool and slowly
harden. Streetlights come on
to anyone. Now
the moon blows sax,

a Prez-redential solo
floating butter-cream
over the greys; cat
can play. Lady whispers
her dream chorus--

sixteen bars of gone
reds, bone whites,
silent black-and-blue
notes. We are jazzed,
every one of us.

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