From Obscurity to Fad: Jazz and Poetry in Performance
Poetry and jazz is not a gimmick, a freak gig, something for the sockless cats and the unwashed chicks of the marijuana circuit.
-- Kenneth Rexroth, 1958
Poetry read to jazz had only a brief popularity in America. It was ruined by people who knew nothing about either jazz or poetry.
-- Kenneth Rexroth, 1978
Bebop, which began in the early forties and fully matured at the end of that decade, stunned American audiences like no other form of jazz before or since. It divided modernists and traditionalists to such a degree that its only parallel in poetry might be the critical reaction to T. S. Eliot The Waste Land. Bop arrived after the chaos of World War II, after the commercialization of dance bands. It arrived with the popularization of heroin as the "in" drug, and bebop's chief innovator, alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, became a cult hero as much for his suicidal life-style as for his magnificent playing. Whatever the opinion of bop, no one could deny its impact: Bebop radically modernized the sound of jazz and set new standards for all future musicians.
Although a fertile decade for jazz music, the forties produced very few jazz-related poems. The Harlem Renaissance appeared to be over, suddenly considered to be a sensation of the thirties. The jazz bands of that decade had become vehicles for upper-class outings, and the commercial values of the Swing Era, shallow and superficial when compared to the horrors of World War II, did not, for obvious reasons, inspire the poets of the time. 1 No collection of jazz-related poetry from the forties matched