During the past decade, there have been many new and radical jazz movements. Some have flowered and prospered. Many have fizzled out like damp squibs. Few, however, have fizzled out so dismally as the jazz-poetry movement, which, a year ago, came bravely out of the west like a young Lochinvar. Today it is difficult to understand the high seriousness with which it was greeted. If any jazz style bordered on the comic, it was the fusion of jazz and poetry; as presented in the east, it bordered the farcical.
Prior to the outbreak of the jazz-poetry movement, there had been a number of attempts to fuse the two idioms. In the 1920’s, poet Langston Hughes recited poetry with piano backing, and Kenneth Rexroth experimented with poetry and jazz about two decades later in Chicago. Perhaps the world of jazz was not as sensitive as it is today, because these early experiments cause hardly a ripple as compared with the excitement generated by the 1957-58 jazz poetry brouhaha.
Jazz-poetry, unlike many other art forms, did not spring spontaneously into being. Rather it was carefully planned. As put succinctly by Kenneth Rexroth, “it is important to get poetry out of the hands of the professors and out of the hands of the squares. If we can get poetry out into the life of the country, it can be creative. Homer, or the guy who recited Beowulf, was show business. We imply want to make poetry part of “show business”.
In other words, although many musicians took it avidly, it was the poets, not the musicians, who started the jazz-poetry movement. The new jazz-poetry began in San Francisco, a city often called “the Paris of the younger generation.” It is logical that this city, currently undergoing a “cultural renaissance” should have been the birthplace. San Francisco has become a gathering place for many of our writers and poets, including such contemporary personalities as Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac. It has many jazz clubs and a number of modern jazzmen work and live there much of the time. Further, it is the mother city of the intriguing group of young men and women know as the “beat generation”, or the vernacular as the b.g’s or beatniks. There are links among all three groups but perhaps the strongest is the attention paid to avant garde movements by all three.
Since there were poets who wanted to read their poetry to jazz, musicians who wanted to play music to this poetry and an audience who wanted to hear the mélange, there was little difficulty in getting the jazz-poetry movement going. Although it is questionable how much of the “beatniks” know of either jazz or poetry, they came to listen and returned to listen again. Soon there were clubs with regular jazz-poetry readings flourishing in San Francisco.
In addition to attempting to enlarge the audience for modern poetry, as Rexroth wanted to do, some poets believed that by reading to a jazz accompaniment they were adding to the poetry itself. There is an interesting dichotomy here on the part of the poets. Some felt that their conventional poetry, poetry originally written to be read without music was enhance when music was added. Other felt that poetry should be written especially to be read to music. Lawrence Ferlinghetti reportedly holds the singular distinction of writing the “…first poem in the English language written specifically to be read with a jazz accompaniment”. The poem is Autobiography.
Jazz musicians, too, were caught up in the spreading appeal of the verses. Allyn Ferguson’s Chamber Jazz Sextet contributed to the alliance of jazz and poetry via its work supporting Kenneth Patchen’s poetry readings on a Cadence record issued last fall. In commenting on jazz-poetry, Ferguson stated, “The final product should be conceived in terms of the poet’s interpretation of the text…the music…composed to the poet’s readings…and designed to fortify the emotional material of the poetry.”
Tenor man Bruce Lippincott expressed his feelings about jazz in relation to poetry by calling it a “Different approach to jazz…responding – not in a preordained way – but in a kind of question and answer sort of relative pitch way. The music becomes visual broader…it has a new dimension.” It wasn’t long before word of the success of the jazz-poetry readings reached the ears of the canny eastern club owners who immediately began playing their part in the avant-garde movement. In New York City, the Half Note, the Village Vanguard and the Five Spot all got into the act. By March, all three clubs were featuring poets reading their poetry to jazz.
The Half Note went wild for poets. Deciding that if one poet did well in a San Francisco club, a group of poets who do sock business in New York, the club auditioned a score of poets for the job. The owner of the Half Note, Mike Canterineo, rounded up his poets by placing a sign in his window, which read “Poets Wanted”. (In spite of business in the poetry line being only so-so lately, the Village always seems to have its share of poets.) Canterino held two auditions for his poets; one public. How did Canterino, admittedly no student of the metered line, select the poets he intended to be heard publicly? He had them recite their words and chose those who he thought would interest his clientele. “Anything a bit off-color” said Canterino “I cut out. After all, I run a family place”.
Three or four poets declaimed their imagery on a fateful Monday night, backed by a small competent modern jazz group. There was no rehearsal; the musicians were just supposed to fall in behind the poets.
Canterino felt that the audience reaction and the opinions of various jazz critics would help him determine which of the poets would get the nod to become regular performers at the club. The best description of that night, according to one judge and critic, is “eerie, man, eerie…”. The poets who not only failed to impress those who had come into the club innocently expecting jazz, but also so disturbed the leader of the jazz group by their odd meter that he jumped off the bandstand while a poet was ranting, shouted, “I can’t stand it,” and was seen no more that performance. As a final blow, the jazz-poetry fans came to the Half Note as spectators, not customers, and retired to a small saloon next door to drink 25 cents beers between the readings.
The Half Note gave up jazz-poetry.
The Vanguard and the Five Sport were more cautious. The Vanguard under the watchful eye of owner Max Gordon, began jazz-poetry readings with one of the luminaries of the San Francisco literary revival, Jack Kerouac. The author of the much-acclaimed novel, On The Road, lasted all of two performances. His short run was due, not to the fact that he didn’t draw well but, rather, that the large crowd of “beatniks” who appeared were either unable or unwilling to spend money. They came and listened, but they forgot to order.
After Kerouac, the Vanguard booked Langston Hughes )not a member of the San Francisco set) for Sunday afternoon readings and made out satisfactorily for a while with a non-beat (but more affluent) audience.
At the Five Spot, owner Joe Termini kept to a Sunday afternoon jazz-poetry pattern, too. He used local poets, some fairly well know, but in spite of names like James Grady and Arthur Weinstein, the poets didn’t draw too well.
This as of March of last year, jazz-poetry had made little progress in New York clubs. Was it that Easterners were too sophisticated to fall for a fad, or was jazz-poetry too delicate at bloom to survive the transplant from San Francisco to New York? Not at all said Kenneth Rexroth in one of the popular magazines. It just hadn’t been handled currently in New York, and most of the people involved had no idea of what they were doing. Given some rehearsal with the musicians, the right poet, and the right poetry, he continued, jazz-poetry could have real meaning. Rexroth, successful via this formula at The Cellar in San Francisco, was booked into the Five Spot for two weeks.
The Five Spot, one of New York’s more outré jazz clubs, usually attracts a fairly wild-looking crowd of jazz aficionados. College girls in short rub shoulders will long-haired painters in mottled dungarees. Village girls in leotards, men in sweaters and leather jackets their eyes shaded by dark glasses, sailors, cadets and the Madison Avenue cool crowd have all made the Five Spot their own. It is home for both the beatnik and the serious jazz student.
Rexroth opened at the Five Spot in April, backed by Pepper Adams’ jazz group. For the two weeks he was there, reading his own and other’s poetry in a loud serious metered style, the club enjoyed two of the best weeks it had known. Who, however, were the enchanted? Not the jazz critics or the reviewers or the jazz students or the beatniks. During Rexroth’s engagement at the club, the audience was composed mainly of neatly dressed people who almost certainly worked at publishing houses and had charge accounts at Scribner’s. He knocked out the poetry fans – buy he lost the jazz buffs.
The final straw for the whole jazz-poetry movement may have occurred last summer. In July, Kenneth Patchen appeared on a coast-to-coast TV show reading his poetry to the backing of the Allyn Ferguson’sJazz Sextet. The show was similar to the album that Patchen and Ferguson had cut for Cadence. The next day, New York Times TV critic Jack Gould not only slaughtered the program, but hammered at the whole jazz poetry movement as well. While he was at it, he attached Patchen’s poets. (We jazz reviewers usually objected only to the lack of fusion between the forms and felt we could let the literary critics handle the quality of poetry.)
While the jazz-poetry movement was at a fever pitch, the record companies edged into the picture, too. Cadence Records released it’s Kenneth Patchen set; Fantasy released one by Rexroth. Evergreen issued an LP featuring San Francisco poets and Dot released an album called “World Jazz” with the voice of deejay Ken Nordine. Nordine’s explanation of word jazz came out like this: “A thought followed by a thought followed by a thought followed by a thought, ad infitintum…” As if to stress the humorous aspects of the matter, the second Ken Nordine album was titled “Son of Word Jazz”. There were other scattered albums and singles of jazz-poetry readings in New York City, but they appear to have little more than curio value. With the notable exception of Rexroth who has been booked back to back into the Five Spot this winter, jazz-poetry spread from the west coast to the east and back again, it left little impress of its visit except for the employment it gave to poets who, at one time, appeared to be more in demand at jazz clubs than musicians. It is doubtful if jazz-poetry will receive much attention in the next encyclopedia of jazz.
Maybe it should have been sung.
Exactly what I want to do… just don’t know where to go and/or whom to go to.. new to the area.. I’m a jazz singer and a poet… If you may have any information please let me know.
google jazz and poetry recordings. the best ones (in my opinion) happened between the years ’57 and ’59. There are also some stellar recordings in the 60’s and 80’s by Amiri Barka with various groups.
I’m producing an album of jazz poetry. The record will be a trio featuring poet K. Curtis Lyle, bassist/multi-instrumentalist William Parker, and percussionist Hamid Drake. Lyle made two recordings with Julius Hemphill in the 1970’s and 80’s. Of course, Parker has worked extensively with Baraka (most recently in Parker’s group “The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield”), in which Drake is a member. The concept of the Lyle record is to have the ensemble function as a jazz trio, as opposed to poet out front with musicians backing him.
So what are your favorite jazz poetry recordings from 1957-59?
Josh, I’d love to hear your project once it’s done! Sounds awesome. I’m a big fan of Lawrence Lipton’s “Jazz Canto Vol. 1” and “Readings from the Cellar” by Ferlingetti and Rexroth. Also, Kenneth Patchen’s work and Jack Kerouac’s readings with jazz are great. If you have not heard the Mingus/Feather & Langston Hughes “Weary Blues” record, it’s a must! Be well, Alex