Jazz and Poetry

Jazz and Poetry
Left: Pat Hall and Rita Dove; Right: Pat Hall with Yusef Komunyakaa

By Patricia Hall

A Great Collaboration

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Jazz means: “A type of music of black American origin, typically instrumental and characterized by improvisation.” But jazz is something that cannot be so easily defined. In my opinion, Jazz is something that you feel, with your eyes closed, as the sound fills the room and the music resonates through your veins. Sometimes we say, “That’s Jazzy,” meaning, it’s sharp, really got it going on. Jazz is a music form that is truly American and invented by American musicians.

According to the book “Women, Music, Culture an Introduction,” by Julie C. Dunbar: “Jazz-inspired melodic devise and improvisations are among the many West African influences that were transformed on American soil by slaves in the rural south.”

Jazz was intertwined with Ragtime that features a syncopated melody against a steady bass, but by the early 1900s, ragtime was phased out and the Swing style prevailed. By the way, you can hear the best Swing music from 8 a.m. – 11 a.m. on 90.5 FM with host Shaun Howe on Saturday mornings, with his show “Swing Set.” He is kind of young to be playing this type of music, but he recounts how he used to listen to swing music with his grandfather, who gave him a lot of his records and Shaun has been a fan ever since. His grandfather listens to his show with prideful enjoyment, knowing that he planted that seed in Shaun. Which is right in line with the last figures I have on my radio station, 90.5 WSNC, that indicate that 75% of our male listeners are between the ages of 35-74 and female listeners between the ages of 50 – 64. So jazz is the music that many of us grew up listening to, and still listen to today.

There is a strong correlation between jazz and poetry as well. There are groups like “The Last Poets” that are known for their political poetic message with their ethnic jazz. Nikki Giovanni often recites her political/activist-type poetry with jazz music behind her.

Many poets identified with Jazz and are known as Jazz Poets. Award winning poet Sonya Sanchez is one such poet who often writes about Jazz artists as well as literature, art, and political activism. There is Pulitzer prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, who is known as a Jazz Poet. His book “Testimony,” published in 2013, is a tribute to Charlie Parker.

There are recently deceased poets like Jayne Cortez, Gil Scott Heron, and Amari Baraka, who are also associated with Jazz poetry, and almost everyone knows of Langston Hughes, probably the most publicized and well-known Jazz poet during the Harlem Renaissance era.

President Barak Obama has done much during his terms in office to promote Jazz and poetry and has had White House performances of Singer/Poet Jill Scott, and Rita Dove, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States, to name a few.

April is Jazz Appreciation Month and also National Poetry Month. Go out and see a performance this month to celebrate jazz and poetry at a coffee shop, library, restaurant or venue of your choice. It doesn’t matter where, but go!


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