Jazz poetry began during jazz’s infancy in the 1920s. Langston Hughes, the first poet especially devoted to jazz, got the idea to use it from Vachel Lindsay, his mentor1. In the 1920s and 30s, Hart Crane, Carl Sandburg, and Mina Loy were pioneers of jazz poetry. In the 1950s, jazz-related poetry was popularized by the Beat Generation, and there were frequent jazz-meets-poetry events. Kenneth Patchen came to New York from California in the spring of 1959 to collaborate with bassist Charles Mingus and Mingus’s tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin at Julian Beck’s Living Theatre. They improvised around themes, such as Patchen’s poem "The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-colored Gloves," which consists of the suspenseful word "Wait" splattered Pollock-style across the page until the final line, "NOW."2
With the rise of the Bebop Revolution in the 1940s, Kenneth Rexroth, who wrote reviews of jazz and a libretto performed by the Modern Jazz Quartet, encouraged the Beats to use the music in their work.3Frank O’Hara wrote heavily anthologized jazz-related poems. More recently, poets like Etheridge Knight, Lynda Hull, Robert Creeley, and Paul Zimmer, have used jazz in way that it is elemental to understanding their work. However, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that a deliberate effort was made by editors to anthologize jazz poems and pinpoint a canon of jazz poetry. Since then, jazz has become the raw material for hundreds of contemporary poems internationally.
The Jazz Poetry Anthology, and its sister volume, The Second Set, both edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, were significant in establishing this definitive sub-genre. In the preface to The Jazz Poetry Anthology, the editors make a point about the confluence of race, jazz, and poetics:
This breaking of cultural barriers was already true as early as 1926, as seen in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Hart Crane. These two poets used jazz in the same year and city (New York) as a catalyst for their poems, but in different ways. Hughes, for whom the blues form was indistinguishable from poetry, used a jazz aesthetic as a way of talking about culture, race, history, and as a choice—perhaps emblematic of the jazz aesthetic—to be joyful in spite of conditions. Crane, on the other hand, used a jazz aesthetic as a lens or rhythm by which he could discuss the city, his psychological state, and the mania of his enthusiasm for the freedoms jazz represents.
Hughes’s poems were the product of years of practice, talent, and thought, but appear effortless, and are reminiscent of blues figures like Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker. His poems are short, lyrical, filled with allusion—Biblical, historical, blues—and with voices of people in Harlem at the time. His early poems use jazz culture as a framework to discuss Africa, Lincoln, slavery, colonialism, Reconstruction, and apartheid. For Hughes, jazz is an anodyne to suffering; it is symbolic of a response to struggle, and it is the lexicon of Harlem’s streets, its nightlife, its emotional trajectory.
Hughes’s later jazz-related work was more directly about the music, as well as more layered and less straightforward. This shift can be seen in "Ask Your Mama—12 Moods for Jazz" and "Montage of a Dream Deferred," which he said was "like be-bop, marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms. "5 "Montage" was set to music by pianist Horace Parlan and Charles Mingus.6 During the jazz poetry trend in the late 1950s, Hughes read his work at the Village Vanguard with Mingus and pianist Phineas Newborn. "Ask Your Mama" was supposedly inspired by a July 1960 visit to the Newport Jazz Festival.
By contrast, Crane’s poems did not use jazz to make a cultural statement. Crane used it aesthetically, particularly in terms of rhythm. In a letter to Allen Tate he said: "Let us invent an idiom for the proper transposition of jazz into words! Something clean, sparkling, elusive! "7 Crane then proceeded to do so in his poem "The River," which takes its form and its content from the rhythms of a subway and what passes, moment to moment, from a subway’s windows. It is representative of Crane’s voice, and his apparent attraction to variations within given forms. Crane himself described the poem in a letter to Otto Kahn: "The subway is simply a figurative, psychological ‘vehicle’ for transporting the reader to the Middle West….The extravagance of the first twenty-three lines of this section is an intentional burlesque on the cultural confusion of the present—a great conglomeration of noises analogous to the strident impression of a fast express rushing by. The rhythm is jazz."8
It is worth noting that the breaking of racial boundaries was true not only of jazz poetry, but of the music itself. Jazz was integrated far earlier than other American institutions, such as baseball or the military. In July 1935, Benny Goodman, a Jewish clarinetist, asked Teddy Wilson, a black pianist, to record with Gene Krupa and himself.9 Today, jazz musicians come not only from Pittsburgh or New York, but from such distinct places as Poland, Nigeria, Japan, Cuba, and Argentina.
Other writers since Hughes and Crane have used jazz as a political statement and as a rhythmic statement. In Ralph Ellison’s famous prologue to Invisible Man, for instance, the unnamed, underground narrator listens to Louis Armstrong while eating vanilla ice cream and sloe gin because Armstrong’s "made poetry out of being invisible."10 Jean-Paul Sartre’s anti-hero Roquentin, in Nausea, listens to Sophie Tucker singing "Some of These Days" to make his Nausea disappear, because the notes "come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm."11 In these texts, jazz has both a moral future and an aesthetic future.
Jazz has had extensive influence on poetry, and many of our contemporaries, as far-ranging as Wanda Coleman and Marie Ponsot, have used jazz in their poems. They use it because of its malleability, its points of comparison to writing as spontaneous composition, its ecstatic function, its elements of ritual, and its rhythmic interest, embodying Ezra Pound’s swinging dictum of "constant and variant." Feinstein founded a journal solely devoted to jazz-related literature, Brilliant Corners; Komunyakaa recorded a CD, Love Notes from the Madhouse12, with John Tchicai, best known for his reeds on John Coltrane’s Ascension. At the 2004 Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, the readings by famous poets were interspersed with the drummer Susie Ibarra’s Trio, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and pianist/composer Uri Caine. Poets today admire and utilize jazz because of its everlasting freshness. As a rhythmic source, jazz provides the illusion of simultaneous spontaneity and inevitability. The velocity of jazz’s rhythms, too, offer progressive and compelling alternatives to iambic meters. These are some of the reasons I am attracted to jazz as a catalyst for my poems.
When I was a jazz-obsessed undergraduate in Indiana, Komunyakaa taught me about the breadth and depth of jazz poetry. He was also the first person to tell me, a young white poet using jazz, that poetry was something to which I could dedicate my life. At that time, I had intended to be a newspaper reporter. Taking my cues from my poetic ancestors Hughes and Crane, I employ jazz both as a political force and as an aesthetic one. I used jazz in my first collection, Discography, as a way to talk about racism, colonialism, and the Holocaust. I also used it as a wider metaphor for invention in art, coming from the belief that art is a legitimate response to suffering and oppression. For me, jazz is a way of hearing and seeing. It is a way of making art that I aspire towards.
1Lindsay, though, did not appreciate jazz. He said: "Jazz is hectic...it is the dust of the dirty dance....The Saxophone is the most diseased instrument in all modern music." (quoted in Feinstein, Sascha and Yusef Komunyakaa. The Second Set. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996. 218.)
2Patchen, Kenneth. Collected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1989. 293.
3When Rexroth was asked by a reporter if the Beats had an influence on him, he supposedly said: "An entomologist is not a bug!"
4Feinstein, Sascha and Yusef Komunyakaa. Preface. The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991. xviii.
6Langston Hughes with Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather, "Blues Montage / Testament / Consider Me / Dream Montage," rec. 1958, Weary Blues, Verve, 1990.
7Crane, Hart. "To Allen Tate." 16 May 1922. O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane. Ed. Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997. 85.
8Crane. 346. Letter written September 12, 1927.
9Benny Goodman Trio, "After You’ve Gone, Body and Soul, Who?, Someday Sweetheart," rec. 13 July 1935, Victor, 1935.
10Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Modern Library, 1994. 8.
11Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions, 1964. 174.
12John Tchicai and Yusef Komunyakaa. Love Notes from the Madhouse. rec. 1998. 8th Harmonic Breakdown, 1998.