Friday, June 17, 2011


Since I considered myself a fiction writer until my mid-30s, I never thought I'd perform jazz poetry. The first time I heard the idiom in the mid-1960s, it sounded like two clashing acts performing simultaneously. The poetry and the music needed to fit together to be effective.

In too much of the jazz poetry I've heard, a booming voice recites an impassioned tirade of social-issue cliches that lack a connection to the tempo or texture of the music. Even brilliant poets who read powerfully when performing solo can sound maddeningly off-base when their declamations lose track of the music's pace and pulse. Musicians, in turn, can diminish a powerful recitation by arranging for a subdued instrument, such as a bass, to solo at the time the poet is reciting the poem's climactic segment and needs more powerful support to heighten its excitement.

Some of the most highly-regarded jazz poets I knos of perform in the manner just described, and their audiences seem to love it. For some people, it's a matter of taste. For me, however, it violates a personal aesthetic I developed and formed strong opinons about during the years when I performed jazz poetry on a regular basis, 1984-1994. To me, the performances I've described don't enhance the idiom; they perpetuate the inability of poets and musicians to recognize and explore the close relationship between jazz and the American vernacular.

Jack Kerouac had a gut-deep grasp of the relationship. The syncopations of bebop and poetry found parallel accents in his recitations. The first time I heard him read with music, the idioms fit. His approach influenced my thinking when I began my own attempt to fuse the idioms .

My approach differs from many other poets because playing a musical instrument has given me a deeper understanding of music than many poets bring to the fusion. In creating my own bassline for my first attempt, my training helped me find the most appropriate musical context for the poem. Once I laid down the bassline, I recited the poem in tempo, using space in my recitation the way an instrumentalist would in a solo.

When I recite, solo or with music, I try recite more slowly than my normal speech pattern, to give the audience time to grasp them. The music fills the spaces between phrases. When I completed “A Slick Set of Wheels, the bassline and recitation fit together far better than I thought.

The reception the poem received led me to create others. Soon I was selling home-produced cassettes, whose pieces I later recorded on The Sex Queen of the Berlin Turnpike, in 1987. I was fortunate enough to know sensitive musicians who needed minimal direction or none at all, such as Thomas Chapin, Brian Johnson, Joe Fonda, Steve Davis, Richard McGhee III and Mario Pavone, to name just a few.

When I scheduled a party for the record's release, all my accompanists on the recoridng had gigs scheduled in Manhattan. Since I was the only bassist available that I could afford, I spent two months teaching myself how to play and recite at the same time. The multi-tasking made me a less effective reader, but still more than adequate, and playing bass in the band helped me control the flow of the music. The record party led me to form my own poetry band and to perform as a single or duo wherever I could find a gig.

I told my band members: play anything you like in any key, so long as it relates to the poem, in effect challenging them to play with freedom, but at the edge of their comfort zones. If, for example, a poem contained a phrase about a bouncing ball, I expected the musicians to find phrases that recreated the ball's bounce musically, not a pat musical phrase.

Over the past decade, my poetry has become more abstract. “Talking monkey grinds to curvature polish” defies literal representation, although a musician could mimic or repeat sounds that might relate to an aspect of the phrase, e.g. a pattern of growls for “grinds” or a smooth glissando for “curvature polish.” The difficulty of finding musical counterparts to abstract phrases allows much more room for improvising. But the same principles apply; the recitation still has to fit within the band's tempo or pulse, however free it may become at any moment.

Once I started my poetry band, I practiced my recitation and basslines every night so that I'd be prepared to work with any unexpected musical situation that might develop during a performance.

This thumbnail sketch of my aesthetic and my working methods may appeal to some jazz poets or it might not. I'm offering an opinion, not a treatise.

Personally, I recommend that poets who want to work with musicians learn something about music and vice-versa. The poet Ottone M. Riccio put a fresh spin on Ezra Pound's famous dictum when he asserted, “Poetry is music made with language.” To make an effective fusion, poets and musicians need to know something about the idioms they're trying to fuse. A poet doesn't need to be a musician to work effectively in the idiom, but he needs to understand basic rhythm and pay attention to phrasing the lines of the poem. The musicians should recognize that a poet can't recite comfortably at certain tempos and count off tempi that don't twist the poet's tongue in mid-performance. It should also build its tunes so that the musicians are playing at peak intensity during the poem's climatic moments, instead of winding down. Knowing the poem will help the musicians create the appropriate dynamics. Grasping the rudiments of the other's idiom helps both execute the fusion more effectively.

I suggest that poets recite their work to recordings or a metronome to sharpen their sense of time and tempo, and, with increased practice, syncopation. The English language has a number of built-in syncopations. The word “idiom, for example, has a built-in triplet rhythm, i.e., three beats superimposed over two notes played in the same tempo. If repeated several times, it can sound like a musical phrase.

In certain situations, poets walk onstage and recite a piece cold---at a jam session, for example. The band has never heard the poem and the poet has never worked with the musicians. Trying to make specific poetic and musical phrases fit will be very difficult to accomplish under the circumstances. But reciting a poem with a sense of musical rhythm over a tempo that allows comfortable recitation will bring the poem and music closer to synthesis.

Poets who I believe fuse the idioms effectively include Barry Wallenstein, David Meltzer, Kirpal Gordon, Steve Dalachinsky, Jim Cohn and Jack Foley I recommend that you listen to their work wherever you can find it. Some have released records, others have performed on YouTube or other online venues. They don't necessarily employ my approach, but they know how to make their verbal music fit with the band.

That's my take. Feel free to disagree.