Not Just Another “Jazz” Poem

Vincent Toro is an award-winning, NYC based poet, playwrite, director, actor and scholar. Toro’s most recent prize is the 2001 Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. He is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark and is currently enrolled in Dr. Lewis Porter’s Thelonious Monk/Ornette Coleman Seminar. While taking Dr. Porter’s seminar, the class deeply focused on the Robin D. G. Kelly biography. Toro composed  a poem that captures not only the musicality of the written word but interweaves the historical and biographical blocks that created the “unique” Thelonious Monk.

Vincent Toro

To perform the piece, Toro collaborated with Hardbop editor and Rutgers Jazz History grad student Alexander Ariff. The two crafted a musical performance with a beat, allowing the poet a groove to rap his poem atop. Vincent Toro explains his motivation behind writing the poem, “These Keys” : “In reading anthologies of jazz poems for my research project for this class, I came to an understanding that  I did not want the poem for the performance to be deduced to “name dropping,” as so many jazz poems seem to do. I wanted to deal directly with the defining characteristics of Monk’s music and the draw themes directly from his life.”

“Name dropping” may appear in Monk poems such as Sacha Feinstein’s “Buying Wine”: When I return with a bottle / he’s playing “Blue Monk,” slow for the mood.

Vincent Toro was after something different: “the poem is a hip-hop jazz poem that envisions Monk’s life as a collective dream that we as listeners get to be active participants in. “These Keys” treats Monk’s life as an allegory for finding personal liberation in the face of exterior forces that want to limit, categorize, and exploit your talent and work. The “keys” in the poem are the vessel or weapon through which Monk is able to carve out his own identity. The “keys” are recursive metaphors: The piano keys as a key that opens doors to other possibilities.”

“These Keys” by Vincent Toro
(Lyrics for “Monk’s Dream” by Thelonious Sphere Monk)
these keys     like the projects of Columbus Hill
like a drunk rhombus     or a discombobulated rumba
like dreams slunk on dime store racks
like a trinkle tinkle in time     a melodious thunk plunked
as you squint    diligently    these keys like footprints     scuffing
Mintons floor    like a miniscule Crepuscule     the jewel of Mingus’
bass    chords minced as Evidence     diced fine like Nellie’s veggies
blind like stubborn     sidemen playing out     of time         don’t know

there ain’t no wrong notes      so don’t ask me to lay out
to lay down    to lay low     or hang up this fedora         the explorer
Pandora     these keys     unlocked     unabridged
like the mystery     of Epistrophy         apostrophe
fingers atrophy         from atrocities         wrought by calamity
of the cabaret card     these keys     bop hard     bunched
like whole tone bouquets     buffets of Steinways     plinked with clunky
funky     finesse         as Bud and the     Baroness     baritone of Mulligan bless

these keys     harmonically      sardonically    chronically     sonically
stride and swing    Jackie-ing     Rhythm-a-ning        do your thing
let them call you crazy     when the swing got you swirling
let them call you lazy     when you refuse to play a matinee
either way     they’ll try to play you out     devoutly pout
deny you     vilify you     canonize then     sterilize you
organize     to make an off     minor myth out of you
once you split the scene for good    lord no one sees

that these keys     are     your blood     your
Nutty Mood     your Ugly Beauty food         delicious
dissonant     and misunderstood
the critics will print the banter         about the drugs
the tragedies         black poverty         pry about mental
dis-ease     but nobody will concede
or want to believe     that you were ele
funda    experi    instru        mentally     happy     tapping

these keys like drunk skunk Columbus rhombus
these keys of Mingus     Mintons     Mysterious Epistrophes
these keys that deliver     dissonant epiphanies
that know all the landlord and the labels can’t see
these keys that     capture     and spring    undiscovered melodies
these keys are so far out     dazzling     hilarious
these keys like junk dreams     in junk drawers         toys of chromatic joys
that know     that know     that silence is the loudest noise

In the performance, Vincent Toro is attempting to implement two important characteristics. He explains: “The first is the use of space/silence. Monk’s melodies seem to consist of bunch up notes followed by intervals of silence that create a distinctive voice. Often the silence appears in unexpected moments. I wanted to emulate this in my phrasing of the poem, which is loosely transcribe by space on the page if you look at the poem. ”

“The second characteristic, one that is broader and more general, is the sense of playfulness in the music.  There is a sense of humor in Monk’s playing, a way that he approaches his instrument as if he doesn’t take it too seriously, even though he is dead serious about the music. It creates a spirit of fun that, in my opinion, a fundamental part of why people still enjoy his music so much. I tried to echo this by utilizing word play and slanted repetition in the lines, meaning the repetition doesn’t follow or set pattern and it doesn’t always repeat exactly the way you heard/read it the first time.”

The musical approach to accompanying a poet may appear like a new ballpark of rules but it’s not. David Amram–who participated with Jack Kerouac, among others, in the late 1950s NY jazz/poetry revolution stated that “any musician backing up a poet ought to treat the poet like a singer–know how to listen!” In “These Keys,” the performance engages and requires the listener’s attention. It represents a balanced group mentality that expands on the possibility’s of Monk’s rhythm. With collaborations like “These Keys,” the “jazz” poem’s definition continues to widen into sophisticated hip-hop territory.

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