Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present

By Sascha Feinstein | Go to book overview

I lived long enough to get this down onto paper, knowing well that -- like notations on musical score paper -- it'll go on being strictly dead stuff, an artifact, until another human being runs it through that most marvelous of instruments, imagination, and transforms the look of it into sound by breathing sense and meaning and feeling back into these blues. ( Drowning in the Sea of Love, 136)

In the work by hundreds of writers around the world, we witness the extraordinary influence of jazz music and its mythic anecdotal history. For those who use "that most marvelous of instruments" to combine jazz with poetry, the music actively instructs poetic sensibilities. The varied works by these writers directs others to the limitless synesthetic unions of these two art forms. And it was in that spirit of discovery and joy that Etheridge Knight wrote this inscription shortly before he died: "Be / making / sounds / Words / be / beautiful."


NOTES
1
In his notes from Rising and Falling, Matthews explains, "In the poems for Bud Powell and [the New Orleans bassist] Alcide Pavageau I've given Powell a heroin habit and Pavageau (by implication) a limp, for reasons the poems developed. They are not necessarily good biography" (viii). The discrepancy between actual biography and poetic license evokes a number of creative and ethical issues that are worth pursuing -- but not here.
2
A third poem, Averted Eyes, concentrates on the pathos of Wardell Gray's premature death, but even here Matthews does not dwell on the sadness in the same way that he does in his tributes to Hawkins and Coltrane.
3
In a letter from 1988, Matthews wrote: I'm not aware of any different rhythmic attention in poems about music and poems about other things, except possibly in the Bechet poem, where the shape of his solo influenced the shape of my sentences somehow. I think whatever I know about rhythm in poetry I learned as much from music as from literary study or reading, but there's no way to demonstrate that; I just know it.
4
4. Like Matthews'poem, Larkin's "For Sidney Bechet" is not an elegy. ( Larkin wrote his poem prior to Bechet's death.) But Larkin's radically anti-modernist aesthetic, particularly evident in his collection of essays, All What Jazz, made all his years as a jazz critic seem like an extended elegy for Dixieland and early jazz.
5
Bolden seems to be the perfectly mythic figure for jazz poems, and one of the best poems written in his memory is Robert Sargent "Touching the Past" from Aspects of a Southern Story ( 1983) and reprinted in The Jazz Poetry Anthology.
6
The three Mingus poems, plus a fourth one, have been reprinted as a series in the first issue of Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature, which features an interview with Matthews discussing these poems.

Two other poems about Mingus worth noting are Elaine Cohen's "In Memoriam Mingus ( 1922-79)" and Ira Sadoff's "Mingus: Last Speech." Cohen's poem is one of the strongest pieces in Chris Parker's uneven anthology B Flat,Bebop,Scat

-180-

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