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 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.
Pinsky, 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.