from Notes on Jazz Poetry

Michael Horovitz

. . . Jazz had gotten so specialized during the late fifties that the idea of 'getting the message' had turned into an empty cliché, a dead metaphor indeed. The time was ripe for more flamboyant elements to enter the arena, & this they did with a vengeance, the best poets cracked out of the shell of 'official' culture in America, as did their more folkie counterparts in Russia. Along came the mass appeal of rock, as written & sung in its various blends of country music (Everley Brothers), city blues (Chuck Berry) & hot gospel (Ray Charles). And from another tributary of the common source viz. the language of the soul of man--came the freshly sprung rhythms of the Children of Albion. Francis Newton wrote in the New Statesman:

Cynics have claimed that 'poetry-and-jazz' is a mere gimmick to increase the audience for poetry by drawing on the large one for jazz, but they are wrong. There is an affinity between all the avant-gardes anyway, and a special one between jazz and the non-rational neo-romanticism which defines the task of writing as 'one man trying to tell another man of the events in his own heart', and certainly between Whitmanesque rhetoric and the less disciplined jazz solo. It is true (to quote the special issue of New Departures on this subject) that jazz rests on speech rhythms, and that "in the best contemporary solo there seems to be a lacuna where the words should be . . . the soloist is playing a mute poem in the free rhythms that language assumes. Consciously or unconsciously, he is taking on the burden of the missing words . . . Billie Holiday says she grew out of Lester Young's saxophone playing . . . without his wordless poems built on the basic impulses in the songs, the lyrics would have frozen her. A verbal equivalent to the up-to-date awareness expressed by new wave music is supplied in up-dated ballads and blues, incantations and anti-ads, blasts) routines, hymns and spells . . ." Thanks to the present crisis in jazz, at least one important outwork has now been stormed.

--This, in reference to the residency of our Jazz Poetry troupes at the Ronnie Scott Club in London & our pioneering, concerts all over Britain (including the first European ventilations of the music of Ornette Coleman, inter alia) during the early sixties. The crisis coincided substantially with that in 'modern' poetry, in that its practitioners were no longer
singing or even figuratively talking to one another; but ringing exhaustive permutations of technical niceties, 'writing'--however brilliantly--to themselves-losing touch with the basic "hear me talkin' to ya" cry & YES of jazz. Vocals had virtually atrophied, & soloists were unremittingly hiding behind their horns like the university wits behind their research--to the demise.of both. Until their roots were nourished in public counterpoint, so that the music began to mean something again, & poetry spoke openly to all. We'd heard the indestructible voices of Leadbelly, Bessie Smith & Woody Guthrie on record, and witnessed Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Rushing & Joe Turner in performance, so it came naturally to write, declaim & ultimately sing our own blues poems which transposed their styles to our environment--without reducing either to the mockery the less intelligent pop lyrics were achieving (both imaginatively and commercially speaking). The words of Pete Brown's 'Dreaming the Hours Away' (for Clarence Williams and King Oliver), John James's 'Ah-Leu--Cha' (for Charlie Parker), Adrian Mitchell's 'You Get Used To It' & 'To Whom it May Concern', Peter Armstrong's 'Be-bop' and Tom Pickard's dialect chants 'Hunga' and 'The Daylight Hours'-all in Children of Albion, my Penguin anthology of 'Poetry of the "Underground" in Britain'-afford good examples of what we were bringing to life thru the sixties, as does my own 'Man-to-Man Blues' or the more recent 'Blank O'clock Blues' . . . .

. . . Dylan's defiant shout, and all his subsequent variations in tone--his demonstration of the uses, the incisive effects, the variations of tone could be put to, have vastly extended the possibilities of poetry, and re-defined the role of a poet today--to purify the dialects of the global tribe--reasserting the different media as well as the messages. So poets are again speaking effectively, teaching their fellows beauty of speech and song, drawing out the gift of speech which is every person's birthright and heritage, thru the medium of the human body, voice, mind and tongue. Many critics have carpingly complained that a lot of what's being sounded abroad isn't poetry, or music at all--as they understand it. One answer was provided by Bird Parker a quarter of a century ago: "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."

 

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