Other Matters: Amabile And Yates, Coltrane And Monk

Old Pal Mike Yates mentioned in an e-mail note that he’s going to see his old pal George Amabile for the first time in 40 years. J. Michael Yates (pictured left) is one of Canada’s pre-eminent poets, radio dramatists and prison memoirists. We met in New Orleans in the 1960s and have stayed in touch. The story is too long to go into here, but without Mike my novel Poodie James (right column, scroll down) would still be in a digital desk drawer.

The Winnipeg Review says that Amabile (pictured right) is, “the éminence gris of Manitoba poetry and indeed is an eminent figure in North American poetry.” When Amabile shows up in Vancouver next month to collect the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize in two categories, poetry and short fiction, he and Yates will get together. That’s bound to be a momentous reunion.

But, wait. There’s more about Amabile

Curious, I did a search and found that Amabile, a transplanted American, has a deep connection to jazz. Victor Enns, yet another Canadian poet, interviewed Amabile for the Winnipeg Review and asked him how much jazz had influenced his writing. Amabile’s answer contains a lovely assessment of the unexplainable magic and evanescent nature of spontaneous creativity in jazz and other art forms.

I’ve never been able to discover or invent a methodology for accurately measuring the influence of anything, including other poems and poets, on my writing, or anyone’s writing. What I can say is that I began listening to jazz while I was still attending Princeton High School. Even after I left for college, gangs of us would go up to New York during the summer or spring break, and hit the clubs, the Five Spot, Birdland, the Blue Note, the Metronome, and half a dozen dives where jazz players would come in very late, after their paid gigs, to drink and jam.

This was in the fifties, Kai and Jay, Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Cozy Cole, Mingus, Rollins, the MJQ, Brubeck and Stan Getz, Gillespie, Adderley and one night in some dive or other, we saw Thelonious Monk sit down and hammer out his Quadratics. We got very pumped about this. Then in comes Coltrane and sits in. It went on and on, like they had tapped into some inexhaustible resource deep in the earth or the sea or the night sky – breathtaking, and one of the things it taught me was the way maybe the best of jazz or poetry, or anything else, precipitates like that, so perfectly, out of the flux, out of unpredictable energies that come together and vibrate with such colour and clarity it seems their intensities are accessible anywhere, anytime, and just as you think that, the music fades, as if whatever brought such magic together also burned it away.

To read all of the Enns interview with George Amabile, go here.

To get at least a glimmer of what he may have heard from Monk and Coltrane that night, let’s listen. This is “Nutty” from their 1957 Carnegie Hall concert with Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass, and Shadow Wilson, drums.

Here’s a poem from J. Michael Yates’s 1969 collection, Hunt In An Unmapped Interior. It reflects the spirit of what Amabile told Enns, and of what Monk and Coltrane did together. I reproduce it with Mr. Yates’s permission.

It must speak of things
Which go quickly
Through shadows of consciousness

Like small animals in the thicket
You cannot quite
Be sure you’ve seen.

©J. Michael Yates

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  1. Terence Smith says

    Thanks. Words aren’t often up to the realm Monk and Trane inhabited, but Yates and Enns seem to have phrases from and to that “place.” Amabile’s last quoted sentence seems to describe the ineffable–

    As per Yates’s “POEM”, we all have flickers of that consciousness which your linked music speaks. Especially when we are listening. And hearing.

  2. says

    It was such a sensational discovery, that concert at Carnegie Hall: I’ve immediately ordered the CD; no words about the music, you know that Monk & Trane are God-like creators for me; but I’m still wondering in anger:

    What’s the idea behind that cover “art”? Instead of using an expressive photo, perhaps from that concert (I simply can’t believe that there was no photographer), they did this one which is @!?§xyz/:( …you know what I was gonna say :)

    There was a working band on stage, no “invisible men”, if that’s the idea:

    Monk & Trane @ The Five Spot

    • Terence Smith says

      Yes, Brew.

      Doug R’s choice of this “Nutty” was apt. It is beyond beyond, maybe right there all the time but we wouldn’t have known it without Monk and Trane. And your post made me think of, and so thankful for, another priceless capture from the ozone:

      Alice Coltrane’s tape of “Discovery: Monk and Trane Live at the Five Spot”, as finally released by Blue Note.

      There is a strange synergy between Amabile’s quoted sentence which follows “Then in walked Coltrane and sits in. It went on and on…”, and the Yates “Poem” (which strikes me as a great conribution to the pantheon of poems about the function of art).

      I have returned to reread these several times, and each time I hear not “Nutty”, great as it is. The sound track I hear is the live version of “Trinkle Tinkle”–in “self-eradicating ink”!

      • Doug Ramsey says

        Nonetheless, anyone in need of a “Nutty” fix will find several versions by Monk on this web page, as well this one by Jessica Williams. I think it’s from a performance at The Triple Door in Seattle.