Jazz And The Poet Laureate

In the 1950s and early sixties, there was a vogue for combining jazz and poetry. It wasn’t new. Poets as far back as Langston Hughes in the 1920s read their work in collaboration with jazz musicians, usually in the privacy of homes, rarely in public. Thirty years later the idea sprang up again in beatnik pads in San Francisco and New York’s East Village, then spread to coffee houses, night clubs, recordings and on at least one occasion, a Los Angeles concert hall. For David Amram’s recollection of the role that he, Jack Kerouac and Philip Lamantia played in the New York phenomenon, go here. In the west, Alan Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth were at the heart of the movement, along with musicians including Charles Mingus, Allyn Ferguson and Fred Katz. Here is a little of what Rexroth.jpgRexroth wrote at the time about jazz poetry.

I hope the faddist elements of this new medium will die away. The ignorant and the pretentious, the sockless hipsters out for a fast buck or a few drinks from a Village bistro, will soon exhaust their welcome with the public, and the field will be left clear for serious musicians and poets who mean business. I think that it is a development of considerable potential significance for both jazz and poetry. It reaches an audience many times as large as that commonly reached by poetry, and an audience free of some of the serious vices of the typical poetry lover. It returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours.
Things are beginning to get out of hand. The other day Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic, said to me that he expected any day to see ads in the trade papers: “JAZZ POET: blues, ballad, upbeat, free verse or rhyme. Have tux. Will travel.” And T.S. Eliot touring the kerosene circuit with Little Richard and the Harlem Globetrotters. Crazes are usually pretty empty, sterile things. It would be a pity if incompetents looking for a fast buck turned this into a temporary social disease like pee-wee golf or swallowing goldfish.

That didn’t happen. Rather, the movement had a brief period of attention, then faded into a subterranean region of the culture. Could it resurface into the mainstream? Maybe so, if Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, continues his interest in jazz and poetry. Pinsky combined forces the other night with the veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille. Paul Lieberman reported on their performance in The Los Angeles Times.

PinskyPinsky.jpg, who proved to be a populist poet laureate by inviting Americans to send him their favorite verses, indeed teaches at Boston University. But the plan did call for him to try one exercise out of the jazz world, not academia: a round of “trade fours” with the drummer, Cyrille. Normally, musicians throw a few bars back and forth, “just have a conversation,” the drummer noted, the wrinkle here being that Pinsky would throw him couplets instead, two-line rhyming poems, such as one by J.V. Cunningham that went, “This Humanist, whom no belief constrained, / Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”

To read all of Lieberman’s story, go here.
In 1957, Kenneth Rexroth recorded an album of his jazz poetry in San Francisco at The Cellar, a Chinese restaurant converted into a nightclub. The performance by Rexroth with a group that included tenor saxophonist Brew Moore and bassist Ron Crotty is reissued on this CD. It discloses that Pinsky was not the first poet to trade fours with jazz players. This essay from the Rexroth Archives contains the poet’s observations on the form.

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  1. Ries says

    I think you have to draw your lines pretty tightly to say it faded away- I would certainly consider The Last Poets and Gil Scot Heron to be Jazz Poets, and they were just hitting their stride in the late 60’s, with The Last Poets featured on the soundtrack to the movie Performance, exposing them to a large white audience.
    Of course, the elephant in the room, the one nobody wants to acknowledge, is that Jazz Poetry spawned Rap.
    The direct lineage from Slim Gaillard and Lambert Hendricks and Ross to the Last Poets and Scot Heron, which in turn inspired Afrika Bambatta and Kurtis Blow- its there if you look for it.
    And even in so called “rock” music, vestiges of Jazz Poetry have appeared regularly.
    Lots and lots of artists doing spoken word riffs over a beat- it crops up in techno and deadpan folk, in Ani DiFranco and Soul Coughing, in King Missile and The Dead Kennedy’s and so many more bands.
    I would certainly consider the spoken word pieces John Lurie did on several Lounge Lizards albums to be Jazz Poetry- but then, I am no purist.

  2. Paul Lieberman says

    I’m not sure that Pinsky and/or Simic intend to try this again, but I’m confident that the one night got them thinking about HOW they might do it if they had another shot. This really was put together on the fly, with some skepticism, with everyone eager to see what worked and what didn’t. Certainly Pinsky’s back-and-forth with the drummer worked very well — I know that Pinsky later thought it might have been worth trying to recite those couplets a second time, once the audience knew them, but with the drummer playing along the second time. And certainly Simic’s terrific poem inspired by Monk could have been more integrated with the music, rather than simply having him recite it, then the trio play another piece by Monk. There’s also no question that having the musicians play simultaneously with the recitation draws some of your attention away from the words. But one answer to that — in a more formal event — would be to have the poems printed in the program so audience members can contemplate them later in solitude, much as Simic desires.