Creative fusions of jazz and poetry on the page and stage have been part of the cultural arts scene almost since the earliest beginnings of the music itself, and jazz poetry remains a thriving genre to this day.
The unique art form may be understood in part as poetry that incorporates the historical figures and stories of jazz into its text while employing the poet’s interpretation of the music’s classic moods and downbeat rhythms. Not surprisingly, one of the first poets to explore and help develop the form was Harlem Renaissance great Langston Hughes.
Other poets of America’s “Jazz Age” period, like Helene Johnson and Carl Sandburg, also drew literary inspiration from the then new and controversial music. It developed further during the Beat Movement of the 1950s, and on into the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s through 1970s. Among the most notable names associated with these periods are poets Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman, Ted Joans, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper, Al Young, and Sonia Sanchez.
The late Jayne Cortez also gained considerable fame for both her compositions and performances of the jazz poetry with her band, The Firespitters. In addition, though possibly best known for her choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” (adapted for the movie screen by Tyler Perry) literary lioness Ntozake Shange has produced notable works in the genre as well.
Robert Garnell Kaufman (April 18, 1925–Jan. 12, 1986)
Although less lionized, as it were, than many of his contemporaries, New Orleans native Bob Kaufman (1925-1986) is often cited as one of the founding fathers of the Beat Movement. In addition, he is credited with coining the term “beatnik,” often used to describe those associated with the movement.
The poet won as much acclaim for his spontaneous and seemingly improvised recitals of politically charged and surrealistically-vibrant verses as he did for vows of silence that he sometimes observed for years at a time. His presence became a celebrated one in San Francisco and his published works highly favored among readers in Europe. Writing in ChickenBones literary journal, Katherine V. Lindberg noted the following about his life and career:
“From the late 1960s onward, through stretches of withdrawal and suffering the ill effects of political blacklisting and harassment, alcohol, drugs, electroshock treatments, and imprisonments, Kaufman recorded both with humor and pathos the pain of society’s victims.”
In poems where he addressed the nature and value of jazz, Kaufman often referenced the music as a framework in which to critique the oppressive elements of American society and advocate a philosophy of self-liberation from politically-imposed psychological and spiritual restraints. By way of example, note the contrasts he draws between “the swinging sounds of jazz” and “sick controllers” throughout the following poem:
(By Bob Kaufman)
Believe in this. Young apple seeds,
In blue skies, radiating young breast,
Not in blue-suited insects,
Infesting society’s garments.
Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,
Tearing the night into intricate shreds,
Putting it back together again,
In cool logical patterns,
Not in the sick controllers,
Who created only the Bomb.
Let the voices of dead poets
Ring louder in your ears
Than the screechings mouthed
In mildewed editorials.
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.
––from Cranial Guitar (Coffee House Press, 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Eileen Kaufman.) Online source: Poetry Foundation
At this point in 2015––just after the 90th anniversary of his birth–– the closest anyone seems to have come to a book-length study of Kaufman is Mel Clay with his Jazz, Jail and God, described as an “impressionistic biography.”
Nevertheless, enough poets have joined Kaufman’s celebration of the union between jazz and poetry to fill a number of well-received anthologies and critical studies. These include the Jazz Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets) anthology edited by Kevin Young, the now-classic Jazz Poetry Anthology edited by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, and Jean-Phillippe Marcoux’s Jazz Griots: Music as History in the 1960s African American Poem. Either volume makes a great read for anyone interested in adding literary and musical substance to their observances of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month.
author of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
More on National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month
- Cultural Appeal of Jazz and Poetry Expand across the Globe part 1
- Cultural Appeal of Jazz and Poetry Expand across the Globe part 2
- A Brief Guide to Jazz Poetry
- About Bob Kaufman
- International Jazz Day
- National Poetry Month April 2015
- 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day Number 1
- 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day Number 2
- 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day Number 3