In fall 2016, the Academy of American Poets teamed up with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City to present a free conversation series exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations paired some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On November 14, 2016, the series featured Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa in conversation with Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka’s introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.
With roots in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York City among other cities, jazz was invented by African American musicians in the early 1900s. And it has been said that a jazz ensemble is the best example of democracy: there is individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group. In both jazz and poetry, collaboration is necessary. The vocalist takes her solo, improvising, but within the structure of the song being played. Similarly, the poet and the reader jam.
It seems timely, tonight, to spend sometime appreciating how art creates models for, and gives us successful examples of, working together to create a greater thing. And how jazz and poetry, both offer us the opportunity to celebrate and be moved by the individual voice. As we listen to a poem or a song, we witness one person’s subjective experience being brought out of, what the poet Mark Doty describes as “the isolation of silence and onto common ground.” These art forms that give voice—literally the sound of speech or song—and personal expression, help us understand our shared experience.
Across generations, both Yusef Komunyakaa and Cecile McLorin Salvant's, extraordinary voices enrich our lives.
About Yusef Komunyakaa’s work, the poet Toi Derricotte wrote, “He takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human.”
Komunyakaa is the author of more than ten books of poetry, including an influential jazz poetry anthology and Copacetic, a collection of poems that incorporates jazz influences. His book Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989 won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the recipient of the Wallace Stevens Award and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, among many other awards and honors. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, according to the New York Times—and everyone who hears her—is “the finest jazz singer to emerge in the last decade.” Jazz at Lincoln Center calls her “an innovative singer with extraordinary soul, intuition, and deep character…” And, “the next great jazz vocalist in the lineage of Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and Dianne Reeves.”
In 2010, when she was just twenty-one, she won first place at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. Her 2013 album, WomanChild, won the award for jazz album of the year in the 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll and was nominated for a Grammy Award. And, earlier this year her album For One to Love won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Miles Davis once said: “I’m always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up in the morning and see the light.” Please welcome two people who remind us there is still light: Yusef Komunyakaa and Cecile McLorin Salvant.