“Poets find their voices when they articulate the wishes of the dead, especially those slain as sacrificial talismans to a larger frame of existence.
Michael S. Harper
by Michael S. Harper
Some great musicians got no place to play
Above the freeway, over the music,
we speak of the strategy of poems,
bleeding wives who ulcerate
our voices rhythming in the cut-heat
Portland stink from the Willamette River;
arteries of smog fixate this place
in each recording, music, music, on Impulse.
This little racist community has few friends;
thousands of deerslayers hum into Beaverton,
the one talk show driven out for their talk
as the liberals dig in to KGO out of San Francisco;
we troop toward the Lloyd Center for the ice-skating,
the colorette bloomered dream merchants on rented skates,
and the Sunday Chronicle near the big hotel.
The poets, man and wife, write in the dimming air,
their daughter in the toy rooms connecting them,
the typewriter tacking the nails and snaps of her gown.
This image of separation begins in adoption:
her mother adopted out in San Jose; her father
disowned, abandoned, torn out of the will; her name: Phoebe.
And the sun does shine on them for this visit
in squat pigeontoes, and this beach ball sings.
New York City is a character, not just a place in the force that is jazz poetry. Michael S. Harper, like so many other jazz poets, was born there, in Brooklyn in 1938. He took the opportunity as a young man to experience new horizons through his education, getting his undergraduate in California and his MFA in Iowa. He would go on to travel the globe, while being one of the most influential professors of literature at Brown University. Harper during his tenure would influence and mentor generations of writers and poets during his career.
Brown embraced the nuances of jazz and black identity in his writing while finding common ground by embracing global culture and folklore. As important for his academic work as for his art, his playful poetic nature infused his unique style as a writer.
Harper, a celebrated music observer, essayist, and just plain fan, had a life long love affair with jazz. In reading Harper’s poems, Coltrane is a reoccurring inspiration as both a symbol and a character of affection in his writing. Harper connects with the obstacles Coltrane had to over come. In particular Coltrane;s challenges with pain in his embouchure at the height of his career and his need to be constantly looking for ways to ease the discomfort while never wavering in his mastery of master his craft. Coltrane would die of liver failure at age 40 as the result of addictions, to music, to heroin and alcohol. Harper connected with both Coltrane’s music and his humanity. In his poem Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper writes midway through;
Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme:
To read the entire poem, check out this link and try reading it as you listen to this live version of Coltrane playing – A Love Supreme – Pt. IV – Psalm.
“I find myself filled to the beautiful brim with love, and with this shared love I continue to live my poem-life.”
by Ted Joans (1928 – 2003)
If you should see
walking down a crowded street
in the opposite direction
but run toward him
for he is a POET!
You have NOTHING to fear
from the poet
but the TRUTH
Ted Joans was a painter, trumpeter, and a jazz poet. He published a number of books of poetry, all with his trademark collage creations on the cover. He was an original jazz poet, bringing his spoken word poetry to the stage with jazz Musicians in New York City. Like many black poets and jazz musicians of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, he grew tired of the systemic racism in the United States and left to travel the world. He lived in West Africa and Europe, while only sporadically returning to the U. S for the last third of his life. He died in Toronto, Canada.
At his height of his influence in the 1960’s he rubbed shoulders with Jack Kerouac, Malcom X, Wifredo Lam and other influential civil rights leaders and beat poets. The most often cited quote of Joans’ is “Jazz is my religion and surrealism is my point of view.” When Charlie Parker died in 1955, Joans is the one credited with scrawling “Bird Lives!” all over lower Manhattan. Joans believed in the power of poetry to change people’s perspective and change the world. He wrote poetry from the view point of a loving revolutionary, focused on the dream of Black empowerment and a better more just future.
It is unfortunate there is a typo on his name on the video below, but it is a great watch. Check it out if want to see him with all his beauty and swagger.
by Ted Joans
There it is yup uh huh that’s it no doubt about it uh huh that’s it yes sires Man this it it the real thing uh huh no shit here uh huh no lies now here it is the real bit uh huh a fact yep yep right before the eyes a truth uh huh reality well I be damn here uh huh now this is it Uh Huh uh huhuh huh uh huh uh huh THE COLORED WAITING ROOM
a sweating close covering, for the crudely salty soul.
Then back off, and where you go? Box of words
and pictures. Steel balloons tied to our mouths.
The room fills up, and the house. Street tilts.
City slides, and buildings slide into the river.
What is there left, to destroy? That is not close,
or closer. Leaning away in the angle of language.
Pumping and pumping, all our eyes criss cross
and flash. It is the lovers pulling down empty structures.
They wait and touch and watch their dreams
eat the morning.
Amiri Baraka writing and politics were not always controversial. Baraka was born LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey in 1934. After several years in college, he spent three years in the Air Force during the Korean War. When he fulfilled his military service, he returned to New York City and attended Columbia University. It was there that his journey as a poet began.
Baraka’s legacy as a writer, critic, playwright, novelist and publisher is complicated. He is less remembered for his well crafted beat poetry published under LeRoi Jones early in his career, while living in Greenwich Village and more remembered as a controversial, thought provoking, Black Nationalist during the civil rights movement and beyond, published under Amiri Baraka. Baraka would visit Cuba in 1959 and would return an unapologetic Marxist. Following the death of Malcolm X, he would take his writing to a new level of political intensity that empowered many and angered a few. Baraka’s intent was to move people to action through his art and both responses seemed aligned with his purpose.
Baraka’s greatest influence as a writer came in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, though he continued to write and perform up until his death in 2014. Baraka was a friend of Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and other beat writers in the 1950’s. Baraka was a jazz poet and a scholar and music critic of both jazz and blues. The video below, shot a few years before his death is a great example of his vibrant style in combining his art, love of music and politics and the power of all three to improve the human condition.
A Short Speech To My Friends (Excerpt)
by Amiri Baraka
A political art, let it be
tenderness, low strings the fingers
touch, or the width of autumn
climbing wider avenues, among the virtue
and dignity of knowing what city
you’re in, who to talk to, what clothes
—even what buttons—to wear. I address
/ the society
the image, of
/ The perversity
of separation, isolation,
after so many years of trying to enter their kingdoms,
now they suffer in tears, these others, saxophones whining
through the wooden doors of their less than gracious homes.
The poor have become our creators. The black. The thoroughly
Randall Dudley is a name in poetry that you may not be familiar but from 1965 to 1977 his periodical Broadside Press, published out of Detroit, encouraged and showcased nearly every black poet that was influential in those years in North America. Dudley was the son of a Minister, born in Washington, D. C. who moved to Detroit when he was nine. He began writing poems before he was five and published his first poem in the Detroit Free Press when he was thirteen. He served in World War II and came back and got degrees in B. A. in English and a master’s degree in Library Science. His poetry was published in multiple volumes over a long career, but he was more of a poet’s poet, than a main stream name. His greater contribution to poetry was likely his thoughtful mentoring and publishing of other black authors authors work. Poets such as Ethridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki R. Madhubuti and Nikki Giovanni have all praised Randall for his generous support of black artists and the impact that Broadside Press had during those years.
Dudley wrote in different styles, but contributed to jazz poetry, sometimes gave readings accompanied by jazz music. His poem Ballad of Birmingham was put to music by Jerry Moore and has been recorded by many artists over the years. I have included a link to the song below. Randall spoke fluent Russian, traveled extensively internationally and translated a host of poems from Russian to English. Although a limited number of his poems are available on the internet, he is a name I will check out on the used section in Alibris, which is where I hunt down poetry that is out of print. If you would like to read the poem, Ballad of Birmingham before you listen to it, you can check out the link below which will take you to a copy at the Poetry Foundation.
“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852 – 1916)
The subtlest strain a great musician weaves,
Cannot attain in rhythmic harmony
To music in his soul. May it not be
Celestial lyres send hints to him? He grieves
That half the sweetness of the song, he leaves
Unheard in the transition. Thus do we
Yearn to translate the wondrous majesty
Of some rare mood, when the rapt soul receives
A vision exquisite. Yet who can match
The sunset’s iridescent hues? Who sing
The skylark’s ecstasy so seraph-fine?
We struggle vainly, still we fain would catch
Such rifts amid life’s shadows, for they bring
Glimpses ineffable of things divine.
Langston Hughes, was one of the founders of the jazz poetry movement, a style of poetry in which the beat of the words flow like the syncopation of jazz. It is a style that would be adopted by other writers, including Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Harper, Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka, Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez, just to name a few. This February, I’ll explore some of these writers work and spend some time with jazz poetry.
An interesting question is whether today’s hip hop and rap music is directly connected to jazz poetry? In my mind the answer is a great big YES! Jazz poetry was written by African American writers for black audiences, using language and symbolism that grew out of a uniquely black art form – jazz. Although white writers were attracted to the modernist aspects of jazz poetry and contributed to it’s evolution, it’s legacy, like jazz, has to remain firmly tethered to the great black poets who gave the master class in its halls.
From an academic standpoint, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, is often cited as part of the beginnings of jazz poetry. Published in 1925, it broke free from the traditional verse that still confined most publishing of its time. Hughes playfulness in his rhyme is a big jump from Henrietta Cordelia Ray’s sonnets, though both are dealing with a similar theme, only approaching it from opposite poles.
Jazz poetry has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity over the years in academia and publishing, but has remained popular among black poets since its inception. A testament to the staying power of jazz poetry is since 2002, when the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), they have produced a jazz poetry event every April as part of National Poetry Month.
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. With his ebony hands on each ivory key He made that poor piano moan with melody. O Blues! Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool. Sweet Blues! Coming from a black man’s soul. O Blues! In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan— “Ain’t got nobody in all this world, Ain’t got nobody but ma self. I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then he sang some more— “I got the Weary Blues And I can’t be satisfied. Got the Weary Blues And can’t be satisfied— I ain’t happy no mo’ And I wish that I had died.” And far into the night he crooned that tune. The stars went out and so did the moon. The singer stopped playing and went to bed While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.