poem index

A Brief Guide to Jazz Poetry

Year

2004

Jazz poetry is a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz. Jazz poetry, like the music itself, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the start of the twentieth century, jazz poetry is can be seen as a thread that runs through the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat movement, and the Black Arts Movement—and it is still vibrant today. From early blues to free jazz to experimental music, jazz poets use their appreciation for the music as poetic inspiration.

Jazz artists make appearances in jazz poems as well: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bessie Smith, and Lester Young are just some of the muses for jazz poetry.

But writing about jazz poetry is, as they say, like dancing about architecture. Perhaps the form can be best understood through a few lines from the poets themselves:

from "The Weary Blues," by Langston Hughes:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
from "Jazz Fan Looks Back," by Jayne Cortez:

I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang "Don’t Blame Me" with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted "How High the Moon" with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
            Jazz at the Philharmonic

Poets in the jazz tradition include Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Cortez, Hughes, Michael S. Harper, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka, Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez.

For further reading, consult these anthologies: Jazz Poetry Anthology, edited by Sascha Feinstein and Komunyakaa, (Indiana University Press, 1991); The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Vol. 2, edited by Feinstein and Komunyakaa (Indiana University Press, 1996); and Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present, by Feinstein (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).

In April 2002, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) to draw greater public attention to the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz and its importance as an American cultural institution. Every April, the Smithsonian produces a jazz poetry event as part of JAM and National Poetry Month.