Ralph J. Gleason for “DownBeat” – On Jazz/Poetry In The Bay Area

“Perspectives” By: Ralph J. Gleason

Down Beat Magazine – March 5, 1957, Issue 24

Rexroth & Ferlinghetti Pioneered The Concept of Jazz/Poetry In The Bay Area

Jazz tunes, even in their best form, always have been hung up with weak lyrics, according to poet Kenneth Rexroth. And he extends this, saying weak lyrics are found even in the best of popular songs including those of such writers as Cole porter. In an attempt to apply the lyric the same freedom that modern jazz has applied to the composition, Rexroth has organized a series of jazz-and-poetry sessions in San Francisco. They have taken place in a subterranean bar called The Cellar. The house band there – tenorist Bruce Lippincott, pianist Bill Wiejans, drummer Sonny Wayne and bassist Jerry Goode with occasional trumpet assistance from Dickie Mills and Mike Downs – has expressed an interest in the project.

Rexroth and another San Francisco poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on three occasions in the last couple months have read their own poetry to the accompaniment of the Cellar band in an effort to achieve a free-style association between the poetry and the music. There is a fundamental similarity between jazz rhythms and the rhythms of modern poetry, Rexroth says, and he adds that this should provide the basis for a mutually helpful experimentation. At the least, he says, this will provide poetry with and audience. And it has. All three of the sessions are packed. It was extremely successful commercially, if not completely so artistically. For the basic problem is essentially that of the lyricist. The words must fit the music and the rhythm or else the music is only an accompaniment in the background in which the poet’s voice, far from being an instrument in the band, is a spotlight or leading actor behind which the music goes its own way, even though related emotionally to the poetry.

Dylan Thomas

The problem is that of fitting a preconceived poem into music that is improvised, until either the musicians learns to think in the poets’ structure of thought and frames of rhythms or poets write poetry in the format of songs – to be recited against 4/4 time at a stead rhythm – there will be difficulties. But no matter the difficulties it is an exciting idea, and the first presentations of it were electrifying. For instance, Ferlinghetti’s poem Autobiography is lyrically an opposite number of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in that it has the same pleasure in the wording and rewording of popular phrases from the mass consciousness as they have had with the playing of bits and snatches of melodies from the mass memory.

Rexroth’s poem in memory of Dylan Thomas, Thou Shalt Not Kill, a powerful written indictment of the culture of the United States today, was recited to a sort of free-form improvisation from the musicians, which came off spectacularly well and reached the audience at all levels with considerable emotion. Rexroth’s other poems, done to the blues, necessitated a breaking up of his sentence structure to fit to the music but still were exciting. However, a clear glimpse of what can be done was obtained only with Thou Shalt Not Kill. With practice and planning, it could be that these men will affect a merger of these two forms of expression into a third form which will be neither one nor the other but, perhaps, something greater than the sum of both. In any case, it is a fascinating experiment to watch.


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