- Langston Hughes photographed in 1936 from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress (via Wikipedia)
In this writer’s perfect world, National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month would share April by design. Both holding the simultaneous spotlight serves the good of all. Though aspects of poetry have often been identified with jazz, an utter fusing of the two is rarely considered in full. This month, however, I couldn’t resist taking the plunge.
So much of the jazz canon has been affected by poetry, whether in the form of spoken word performance or via song lyrics. Blues form, the heart of U.S. folk and popular song, was shaped by the repetitions inherent in American Black poetics which were in turn derived from the African diaspora. Considered in this regard, the word — written or spoken — can be seen as the foundation of the music we call jazz.
The Academy of American Poets, of which this writer is a member, cites Jazz Poetry as “a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music — that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz.” Surely, but this description neglects the vital emotional impact of the music, performance aspect of the brand, and throughout the development of jazz, the human voice has been an element. As do jazz singers, jazz poets apply the art of creation, variation, syncopation, and of course improvisation to any given work. as well as socio-politics, a topographical schematic if you will, with which to construct verse and, in performance settings, to present the execution of same. When onstage with musicians, one’s approach is built around and through the emotional range they’re hearing as much as the music’s rhythmic and harmonic structure (or lack thereof). The performing jazz poet, then, should be seen as a part of the band!
Within the genre of jazz, its easiest to begin with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s as many of the Great Migration gathered in northern Manhattan. Among them, of course, stood writers, musicians, painters, dancers and actors and as the next generation came to be, so too did a uniquely African American, urban center of culture. Langston Hughes (1901-67) was, inarguably, one of the most relevant American poets of the twentieth century. Embattled by intolerable racism and homophobia, Hughes defiantly stood as the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. More so, he successfully wrapped his high art around the vernacular of African American speech and jazz traditions, all the while writing some of the most revolutionary journalism in the pages of black liberation newspaper ”The Crisis” and Communist Party arts magazine ”New Masses”. His famed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published to acclaim when he was but 20, and then “The Weary Blues”, just five years later, catapulted Hughes to global renown.
Long before he laid down tracks with a band in a recording studio, Hughes was writing a jazz poetry containing the rhythmic cadences of the music.
“Dream Boogie: Variation” by Langston Hughes
High noon teeth
In a midnight face,
Great long fingers
On great big hands,
Where his twelve shoe lands,
Looks like his eyes
Are teasing pain,
A few minutes late
For the Freedom Train.
The visuals in Harlem nightclubs, as much as the sounds, were beautifully documented in much of this work in the 1930s. And much of this literature influenced and was influenced by the other poets in the movement.
“Harlem Night Club” by Langston Hughes
Sleek black boys in a cabaret.
Play, plAY, PLAY!
White girls’ eyes
Call gay black boys.
Black boys’ lips
Grin jungle joys.
Dark brown girls
In blond men’s arms.
Sing Eve’s charm!
White ones, brown ones,
What do you know
Where all paths go?
Play, plAY, PLAY!
Hughes would go on to write not only a canon of jazz poetry during his years in Harlem, greatly, boldly expanding his subject matter, speaking back to power and American injustice. Two chilling and, sadly, still very applicable works include “Kids Who Die” and especially “Advertisement for the Waldorf Astoria.. The former presciently echoes news reports of police killings of Black youth in our midst; the latter shines a burning irony on the brutal inequities in our very city. This closing excerpt of his masterful tome speak volumes:
Ankle on down to 49th Street at Park Avenue. Get up
off that subway bench tonight with the evening POST
for cover! Come on out o’ that flop-house! Stop shivering
your guts out all day on street corners under the El.
Jesus, ain’t you tired yet?
Hail Mary, Mother of God!
the new Christ child of the Revolution’s about to be
(Kick hard, red baby, in the bitter womb of the mob.)
Somebody, put an ad in Vanity Fair quick!
Call Oscar of the Waldorf — — for Christ’s sake!!
It’s almost Christmas, and that little girl — — turned whore
because her belly was too hungry to stand it anymore — —
wants a nice clean bed for the Immaculate Conception.
Listen, Mary, Mother of God, wrap your new born babe in
the red flag of Revolution: the Waldorf-Astoria’s the
best manger we’ve got.
The biting edge of radicalism would not be lost on either side in the struggle for change, and as to be expected, Hughes’ revolutionary writings were leapt upon by the House Un-American Activities Committee as the chill of Cold War raked over the nation.
Langston Hughes’ writings remain immortal and necessary, but the journey through this body of work must include the man’s own voice for absorption. Most of his recordings, to the chagrin of the reactionaries who’d sought to silence him, were made in the 1950s. Smithsonian Folkways’ catalog includes an important collection of Hughes reading some of his best-known poetry: https://folkways.si.edu/langston-hughes/the-voice-of/african-american-spoken-poetry/album/smithsonian
However, to hear Hughes reading in the company of musicians (yes, you’ve got to hear this), turn to “The Weary Blues” (1959) which features his voice alongside the music of bassist and composer Charles Mingus on one side (Jimmy Knepper, Shafi Hadi and Horace Parlan are in this ensemble), and a band led by jazz journalist Leonard Feather on the other (that band includes Henry Red Allen, Vic Dickenson and more). This album is currently available as an expanded set on CD or download, “Harlem In Vogue, The Poetry And Jazz Of Langston Hughes.”
In 1955, Hughes even wrote a children’s guide to the music, The First Book of Jazz, which remains highly beloved. Most telling, four years later as Hughes spoke on a panel discussion at the Newport Jazz Festival, he offered this encompassing vision,”Jazz as Communication”:
“Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat. And Louis must be getting old if he thinks J. J. and Kai — and even Elvis — didn’t come out of the same sea he came out of, too. Some water has chlorine in it and some doesn’t. There’re all kinds of water. There’s salt water and Saratoga water and Vichy water, Quinine water and Pluto water — and Newport rain. And it’s all water. Throw it all in the sea, and the sea’ll keep on rolling along toward shore and crashing and booming back into itself again. The sun pulls the moon. The moon pulls the sea. They also pull jazz and me. Beyond Kai to Count to Lonnie to Texas Red, beyond June to Sarah to Billy to Bessie to Ma Rainey. And the Most is the It — the all of it.
“Jazz seeps into words — spelled out words. Nelson Algren is influenced by jazz. Ralph Ellison is, too. Sartre, too. Jacques Prévert. Most of the best writers today are. Look at the end of the Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Me as the public, my dot in the middle — it was fifty years ago, the first time I heard the Blues on Independence Avenue in Kansas City. Then State Street in Chicago. Then Harlem in the twenties with J. P. and J. C. Johnson and Fats and Willie the Lion and Nappy playing piano — with the Blues running all up and down the keyboard through the ragtime and the jazz. House rent party cards. I wrote The Weary Blues:
Downing a drowsy syncopated tune . . . . . . etc. . . . .
“Shuffle Along was running then — the Sissle and Blake tunes. A little later Runnin’ Wild and the Charleston and Fletcher and Duke and Cab. Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, and Ella. Tiny Parham in Chicago. And at the end of the Depression times, what I heard at Minton’s. A young music — coming out of young people. Billy — the male and female of them — both the Eckstein and the Holiday — and Dizzy and Tad and the Monk. Some of it came out in poems of mine in Montage of a Dream Deferred later. Jazz again putting itself into words.
“But I wasn’t the only one putting jazz into words. Better poets of the heart of jazz beat me to it. W. C. Handy a long time before. Benton Overstreet. Mule Bradford. Then Buddy DeSilva on the pop level. Ira Gershwin. By and by Dorothy Baker in the novel — to name only the most obvious — the ones with labels. I mean the ones you can spell out easy with a-b-c’s — the word mongers — outside the music. But always the ones of the music were the best — Charlie Christian, for example, Bix, Louis, Joe Sullivan, Count.
“Now, to wind it all up, with you in the middle — jazz is only what you yourself get out of it. Louis’s famous quote — or misquote probably — ”Lady, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Well, I wouldn’t be so positive. The lady just might know — without being able to let loose the cry — to follow through — to light up before the fuse blows out. To me jazz is a montage of a dream deferred. A great big dream — yet to come — and always yet — to become ultimately and finally true. Maybe in the next seminar — for Saturday — Nat Hentoff and Billy Strayhorn and Tony Scott and the others on that panel will tell us about it — when they take up “The Future of Jazz.” The Bird was looking for that future like mad. The Newborns, Chico, Dave, Gulda, Milt, Charlie Mingus.That future is what you call pregnant. Potential papas and mamas of tomorrow’s jazz are all known. But THE papa and THE mama — maybe both — are anonymous. But the child will communicate. Jazz is a heartbeat — its heartbeat is yours. You will tell me about its perspectives when you get ready.” (SOURCE: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69394/jazz-as-communication)
John Pietaro is Local 802’s director of organizing as well as a published poet and journalist. You can reach him at email@example.com or (212) 245-4802, ext. 230
BURROUGHS INFERNO — for William S. by John Pietaro
The sawdust kicking up
Has caused an electrical fire
Small, strained eyes peer through
The blackened veil of a fedora.
Cigarette loosely dangling
His taut, lined face longs to feel.
He bleeds in verse;
Love is but the haunting melody.
It pours through transoms over
Smoke-stained rooms as
Spilled bourbon sizzles lacquer and
Cuts deep dark, hard wood.
Crack of a rim shot,
Cymbal sortie splits thickened air as
The tenor moans bluest mourn.
The next bass drum bomb tears the front row,
Summoning sirens, stirring drinks and
Reciting to fathoms below.
Originally published in ‘The Mercer Stands Burning: Night Poems’ (2021) by John Pietaro