Jazz Poetry

28 December 2015 Articles Poetry

Jazz poetry is a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz. Jazz poetry, like the music itself, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the start of the twentieth century, jazz poetry is can be seen as a thread that runs through the Harlem Renaissancethe Beat movement, and the Black Arts Movement—and it is still vibrant today. From early blues to free jazz to experimental music, jazz poets use their appreciation for the music as poetic inspiration.

Jazz artists make appearances in jazz poems as well: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bessie Smith, and Lester Young are just some of the muses for jazz poetry.

But writing about jazz poetry is, as they say, like dancing about architecture. Perhaps the form can be best understood through a few lines from the poets themselves:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

          —from “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

Over many decades, poets have written about great musicians, they have addressed jazz as a type of music and its inspiring atmosphere, using strong visual images as an attempt to represent sound. Just as in normal poetry, each poet does that in his/her individual way:

Just as jazz musicians interpret standard songs according to their own musical styles and changing moods, so do poets responding to music create verse that reflects their own poetic sensibilities as well as their individual associations with jazz

In the beginnings of jazz, one main problem was racism. Some white people just did not want to accept the fact that “black” musicians were playing in “white” bars, black people seemed strange to them or the whites simply feared them. To many people, jazz music and the migration of many black musicians was an enormous threat, which also was represented in poetry of that time (e.g.:Percy Haselden: “The Jazz Cannibal”). However, not each poet at that time wrote about hatred, racism and fear. Among others, one poetic voice who had a more sympathetic attitude towards “the new music” was Carl Sandburg who is nowadays seen as one of the predecessors of jazz-poetry.

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Nathaniel Turner










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