Five decades ago, poetry and jazz met in a San Francisco club.
Today, New York City is at the forefront of a po' jazz revival.
Onstage at the Cornelia Street Cafe, an intimate subterranean jazz haunt in the heart of Greenwich Village, Golda Solomon, a.k.a. "The Medicine Woman of Jazz," is reminiscing in verse about her own hipster youth. As curator of the cafe's ongoing Po' Jazz series, Solomon holds court there on the third Thursday of every month. Though small of stature, she projects a commanding presence, oozing a kind of old-school Brooklyn charm that blends beautifully with the darting rhythms of upright bassist Chris Sullivan and drummer Michael Thompson. Throwing her head back in a prideful been-there, done-that gesture, she stares down the crowd and delivers the words to her poem "On Meeting Eric Dolphy" (from her 1999 collection of poems Flatbush Cowgirl and companion CD First Set).
The audience of assorted 20-and-30-somethings hangs on her every nuanced phrase, as Solomon transports them back to the New York City of her heart - a time when Mom-and-Pop stores flourished in the Big Apple; where hipsters hung out till sunrise digging Miles, Monk, Mingus, and each other; where jazz was the lifeblood of the in-crowd. While Solomon leads the crusade for po'jazz with her monthly gatherings, several other poets and prominent musicians are working the po' jazz terrain in performance and on CDs.
The po' jazz renaissance harkens back to a similar bohemian movement hatched 50 years ago in San Francisco when Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Kenneth Rexroth began collaborating with an improvising jazz quintet at the Cellar, a subterranean Chinese restaurant that had been converted into a jazz club. That movement continues today in New York City on a semi-regular basis at places like Cornelia Street Cafe, Bowery Poetry Club, Tonic, Sweet Rhythm, Knitting Factory, Joe's Pub, and Nuyorican Poets Cafe. At these hip Lower East Side haunts, as well as at the Vision Festival, the city's annual celebration of the avant garde, one can experience the marriage of poetry and jazz - hence the name, po' jazz - by the likes of musician David Amram (a key collaborator with Jack Kerouac in the 19503), vocalist Jay Clayton, trombonist-composer Craig Harris, seasoned New York poets Steve Dalachinsky, Poppy Bashier, Kirpal Gordon, and the venerable and outspoken Amiri Baraka.
Clayton began blending poetry with jazz 20 years ago in collaboration with drummer Jerry Granelli (their 1985 recording, Sound Songs, was recently reissued on Winter & Winter). "I was in the whole free-jazz thing of the '505 and '6os," she explains. "So for years I was just doing wordless vocals. But then the first poem that popped up was Emily Dickinson's 'I'm Nobody.' From there, I started to get into e.e, cummings, and it took off. It was the poets who could express what I wanted. I came to poetry when I was in my 405 and 505, and that's what I was looking for at that time in my life. And now I can see how perfectly poetry fits with free singing."
In her recording Brooklyn 2000 (Sunnyside), Clayton set two e.e. cummings poems - "Let It Go" and "In Time of Daffodils" - to music. In recent appearances at the Bowery Poetry Club, she set poems by Emily Dickinson, Rumi, and Mary Oliver to original music with a four-member vocal choir.
While a great majority of po' jazz gigs are performed in more intimate Downtown clubs, two of New York City's most prestigious Uptown venues ó Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall - have also jumped on the bandwagon. As part of its month-long opening ceremonies last October, Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted two evenings of "Speaking of Jazz," which featured poets Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Amiri Baraka, and John Sinclair interacting with jazz greats Rashied Ali, Sonny Fortune, and Reggie Workman. During one of those nights, Detroit native Sinclair - ex-chairman of the White Panther Party and longtime blues and jazz DJ on radio station WWOZ in New Orleans - electrified the capacity crowd in theAllen Room with an incendiary recitation of "Consequences" from his 1995 Full Moon Light CD on the Total Energy label.
This past year, Carnegie's Zankel Hall hosted two world premiere po' jazz events. At the "Leaves of Grass" concert in March, pianist Fred Hersch led a lo-piece ensemble that featured vocalists Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry singing the words of Walt Whitman set to compositions by Hersch. Then in May, pianist/composer Brad Mehldau collaborated with soprano vocalist Renee Fleming, performing original works based on selected poems from The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan (1897-1970) and from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
"Is there a direct connection between Whitman and jazz?" Hersch asked in the liner notes to his 2005 Palmetto release, Leaves of Grass. "Certainly, the strange beauty of his idiosyncratic and improvisatory language, his freewheeling verse, his subject matter, and his irreverence link him directly to the American Beat Poets of the 19503 - Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others."
Drummer-composer-bandleader Matt Wilson addressed the connection between poetry and jazz in 2002 with his Carl Sandburg Project, which featured his regular quartet of saxophonists Andrew D'Angelo and Jeff Lederer, and bassist Yosuke Inoue, augmented by guitarist-vocalist Dawn Thompson. In performance, Wilson also triggered samples of Sandburg's voice reading poems of his own like "The People, Yes," "Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz," and "Choose."
Wilson says that his fascination with Sandburg stems from an indirect familial tie. "Carl Sandburg and I both hail from West-Central Illinois. And I became interested in his poetry in grade school after I discovered that my great-Aunt Emma was married to Charlie Krans, who was Carl Sandburg's first cousin. My mother had an old issue of Life magazine that had a story documenting a Sandburg trip to our hometown of Galesburg. There were wonderful photographs of Sandburg visiting my great aunt and uncle's farm and enjoying their company. And I thought, 'Wow! My great aunt and uncle knew Carl Sandburg, a world famous poet. That's so cool!'"
Later on, as Wilson developed as a jazz musician in college, he stumbled upon a poem that Sandburg had written in 1920 called "Jazz Fantasia." "His words, to me, captured the spiritual essence of the jazz musician," says Wilson. "His writing style was free of rhyme, free of meter, and free from the governing rules of verse. His language expressed moods and impressions that were poetry ó not words fashioned to become 'a poem.'"
Trumpeter Dave Douglas waded into the po' jazz pool in 2003 with his Word Project, which premiered during a weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard. For that gig, Douglas led a sextet featuring alto saxophonist Myron Walden, trombonist Roswell Rudd, bassist James Genus, drummer Clarence Penn, and Andy Bey playing piano while singing the text to poems by Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Samuel Beckett, Basho, and others. For Douglas, the key to a successful po' jazz collaboration was the selection of poems. "It has to do with there being enough of a mysterious, suggestive quality to the poem that would allow the music to have a similarly suggestive, mysterious quality. I think that has to be there. Music can't be dogmatic, it can't be trying to prove a point about anything. If it is, it usually doesn't succeed as music. There's got to be some otherworldly quality that is inexplicable for music to really turn you on. And so, when I began the Word Project, I was looking for poems that had that same quality that would leave some things unsaid and would leave question marks, and point at meanings that would go in a lot of different directions at the same time. A lot of Adrienne Rich's poems had that quality for me. So my exploration into poetry and jazz wasn't so much about the Beat poets, for instance, as it was about trying to get that musical quality."
Outside of New York City, other artists, from singers Kurt Elling and Luciana Souza to British saxophonist Denys Baptiste and Finnish pianist Frank Carlberg, have been adding to the po' jazz canon in recent years. Clearly, as the phenomenon reaches its golden anniversary, the marriage of poetry and jazz is still going strong.
Bill Milkowski lives in New York City and frequently contributes to JAZZIZ.