"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Jazz Poetry part 2
Jazz Poetry
by Kenneth Rexroth

Things are beginning to get out of hand. The other day Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic, said to me that he expected any day to see ads in the trade papers: “JAZZ POET: blues, ballad, upbeat, free verse or rhyme. Have tux. Will travel.” And T.S. Eliot touring the kerosene circuit with Little Richard and the Harlem Globetrotters. Crazes are usually pretty empty, sterile things. It would be a pity if incompetents looking for a fast buck turned this into a temporary social disease like pee-wee golf or swallowing goldfish.

I, for one, take it very seriously indeed. I started doing it long ago in the Green Mask in Chicago to Frankie Melrose’s piano and anybody else who wandered in to blow. The music was pretty gut-bucket usually, sort of paleo-funky, if you dig, and much of the poetry was Service, Sandburg, even Swinburne, but some of it wasn’t. The Waste Land was read to jazz, all of it, shortly after it appeared. Bert Williams and Bert Savoy were both in the audience and thought it was a gasser . . . the cat’s whiskers it was then.

I read poetry to jazz because I like to. I like poetry. I like to read to people. I like jazz. The people like the combination. But there’s more to it than that. Poetry and jazz gain new and different dimensions in association. Poetry has always gained by association with music . . . ancient China, Japan, India, Greece, the troubadours and minnesingers and scalds. Not just as lyrics for songs, but also as recitation. The Homeric poems were recited in this way. There was a special profession for doing it called rhetors. In a sense poetry and jazz as such began about mid-nineteenth century with a friend of Baudelaire and Verlaine, Charles Cros, who recited his poems to the jivy music of the three-piece bands of the bals musettes and cafés chantants. He was a very great and very wise poet as well. This should set to rest the cooked-up dispute as to who invented it. I am sure I didn’t and, as I say, I started in the early twenties.

Why to jazz specifically? Well, I, for one, don’t make any distinction between jazz and “serious music.” Jazz is serious music; some people think it is the only American music worth taking seriously. Not in lush or brutal clip joints, but in the best jazz rooms and concerts, poetry gains from jazz an audience of widely diversified character, people who are seriously concerned with music, but who do not ordinarily read verse and who care nothing for the conflicts and rituals of the literary scene. The audience poetry has today, its official audience, is what is killing it. And, of course, the poet himself gains by the test of popular presentation. Naturally all poetry is not, nor should it be, able to meet this test. But we could do with more. Jazz gains by a new vocal content which can match its own seriousness, depth and complexity. Some jazz is “abstract” like Bach, but most of it is a kind of “program music” like Stravinsky, and obviously the better the program — all other things considered — the better the results. I might mention that Stravinsky’s Persephone does not differ formally from what we are trying to do. Poetry and jazz is not a gimmick, a freak gig, something for the sockless cats and the unwashed chicks of the marijuana circuit. It is not new, but as old as music and poetry, and to be treated with the dignity and respect, by performers and audience respectively, which those ancient expressions of mankind should always merit.

I think that, by and large, poetry is a dying art in modern civilization, dying for lack of a significant audience. Kids who can’t make the team or build a hot rod or toss chicks around in the air jitterbugging tend to gravitate to “The Lit.” and thence to the reputedly adult literary quarterly. Poetry won’t get the chicks that even the poorest hot rod will, but in extremity it will serve. And like poet, like audience. It is not just the Babbitts who think there’s something odd about people who read poetry. I think so, and I know. Odd, and very, very few. And so poetry itself has become insufferably odd and cranky. I think this is due to the lack of living contact with the audience, as well, of course, as to general social and economic factors. There isn’t much to be done about the big factors by any one individual anyway, but it is possible to keep plugging away at putting the poet back into actual physical touch with a live audience. In San Francisco we have led the world in that effort. Today, more than anywhere in the world except possibly Japan, poetry is a real factor in the life of the community and poets enjoy widespread influence — not on literature, but on life.

Jazz poetry reading puts poetry back in the entertainment business, where it was with Homer and the troubadours. Even Victorian epics like Idylls of the King and Evangeline were written to be read to the whole family around the fire in the evening by papa — not, certainly, to be studied for their ambiguities by a seminar of five Ph.D. candidates, conducted by another poet.

The musicians get a chance to work with words that mean something, something approximating the really profound levels attained by much modern jazz which certainly does not belong in the banal world of the Tin Pan Alley lyric. Also, the rhythms of modern poetry are extremely complex and the problems they set the musicians are comparable to those he sets himself when he “takes off’ from the hackneyed rhythm structure of the popular tune. Actually, much modern poetry is too complex for jazz, which, aficionados to the contrary, is not as complicated as much quite ordinary classical music.

There is a widespread belief that real jazz is just blown, spontaneously, out of nowhere, and that if it isn’t improvised it isn’t jazz. Nothing could be less true. The most spontaneous improvisation works with an immense repertory of stereotyped patterns, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, which every musician knows, and into which he pours the new life of the immediate performance as he goes along. At any given moment everybody in the band has a pretty clear idea of what is going to happen next. By very definition the great swing bands were elaborately arranged and exhaustively rehearsed. So the idea that you can just get up in front of a band and everybody blow poetry and sounds out of dreams is just plain silly.

We have found that the effects we want are obtained by making sure that each musician knows exactly what the poet is doing — what he means, and what technical effects he employs, for instance the rhythms of his speech, to put his meaning across. Each musician has a sheet with the text in front of him, which he also uses as a cue sheet and for all sorts of other marginal musical notation. Then comes plenty of careful rehearsal, each one taped and played back and carefully analyzed. Rehearsals are pretty elaborate, far more finicky than the average band rehearsal, but the constant effort is to increase spontaneity, not to limit it. We find, like all artists, that you have to work hard to earn freedom of expression. One thing, there is very little room for the intensely competitive self-expression of the bop era. We don’t try to blow each other down. We find that jazz poetry is an exacting, cooperative, precision effort, like mountaineering. Everybody has to be perfectly coordinated; there is no place for the bitter musical dogfights immortalized on some bop records; everybody has to be as socialized as six men on a rope working across the face of a cliff.

I, for one, have tried to treat the voice as another instrument in the band. Whenever the voice takes on the character of a solo singer or the band sinks to background music, we feel we have failed, and we scrap that effort and start over. You can readily see that, contrary to popular belief, this poetry and jazz combination is harder work than either of the arts taken separately. So, as a warning to other poets and musicians, if you don’t work, but hard, you are going to fall on your face. It’s time and trouble, but the final product is worth it; what they call the creative satisfactions are terrific, a real joy, and Lord, Lord, Lord, look how it packs them in!


posted by R J Noriega at 3:54 AM | Permalink |


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