J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Jazz Poems

Jazz Poems
Edited by Kevin Young
Everyman/Knopf
1-4000-4251-8


Capturing jazz performance in words is a difficult challenge. It often requires poetic expression more than simple descriptive prose. Many such attempts have been collected in Jazz Poems a collection finely edited by Kevin Young in a new Everyman gift edition.

Often jazz poems are elegiac, written on the passing of great artists like Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” in which he recalls:

leaning on the john door in the FIVE SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.


Some poets are able to capture the ephemeral nature of music, like current NEA Chairman Dana Gioia in “Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931):”

He dreamed he played the notes so slowly that
they hovered in the air above the crowd
and shimmered like a neon sign.

Certain themes reoccur, like the classless nature of jazz. Langston Hughes’ “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” exhorts:

Play it for the lords and ladies,
For the dukes and counts,
For the whores and gigolos
For the American millionaires,
And the school teachers
Out for a spree.


Jazz Poems is a consistently rewarding collection. It was a handy volume to refer to while reading Yaffe’s Fascinating Rhythm, since it anthologizes many of the poems that book analyzes. While many of the selected poems are darker than what you might expect to find in a small trim size gift book, it is appropriate. Jazz is a music that demands honesty and integrity in all things, including editorial choice.

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