Unheard In The Transition

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), April 2021

“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.”

Langston Hughes.

Limitations

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. 

Do you have a favorite jazz poet, a favorite jazz poem?   To find out more, check out this link to The Power of Poetry blog series, that has a host of great stories and poems:  https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/search


The Weary Blues

 
by Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967)
 

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.