JAZZ POETRY: Beginnings and its contemporary developments

Seminar Paper, 2001

24 Pages, Grade: very good




2)Jazz-Poetry – A Definition

3)The Beginnings Of Jazz And Jazz-Poetry
3.1)Carl Sandburg
3.2)Paul Laurence Dunbar

4)“The Harlem Renaissance“ And James Langston Hughes
4.1)James Langston Hughes
4.1.1)“The Weary Blues“

5)Contemporary Jazz-Poetry
5.1)William Matthews
5.2)Yusef Komunyakaa
5.3)Hayden Carruth
5.4)Kenneth McManus
5.5)“The Last Poets“


7.1)Works Cited
7.2)Information Taken From the Internet


To many people, the relationship between the terms “jazz” on the one hand and “poetry” on the other hand might be anything else but obvious. On the one hand, jazz, one may argue, is a type of music, most of the time associated with black musicians, used for relaxation purposes or which is suitable for a nice evening out listening to a concert. The term poetry, on the other hand, is mainly associated with well-known poets like W.Shakespeare, W.Wordsworth, or W.B.Yeats. Everybody had to sit in school, learn po­ems by heart and had to recite them. Furthermore in poetry, concepts of rhymes, stanzas, rhythm, or metre have a major importance. Most of the time, poems have to be interpreted to fully get their meaning, which as well might be an obstacle to many readers to enjoy them, for inexplicable reasons.

As mentioned above, poetry is closely linked to terms like rhythm and rhyme, and so is music. Almost any pop-song which has been composed in the last decades has a cer­tain structure, a meaning when it has been interpreted, their lines rhyme and they are sung in a certain rhythm by the artists. We can observe the same phenomenon in jazz, where the artists sing or play on stage, they want to make their message clear to the audience that dances according to the rhythm and listens to the lyrics of the song. Thus, one might argue, there is a more than close and obvious link between jazz and poetry. Brian Dorsey, for ex­ample, states that “poetry and music are two expressive idioms that naturally complement each other”(ii)[1]. Many jazz-poets have set their lines to jazz, or even performed their po­ems with musical accompaniment.

In this seminar-paper, I will deal with the link between jazz and poetry. At the be­ginning of this piece, I will define the concept of jazz-poetry, which has been a term in English Literary Criticism for many decades now. Furthermore, the paper will also deal with contemporary jazz-poetry. Starting from dialect poetry (Dunbar), moving on to one of its main and most important representatives, Langston Hughes, this paper then will com­pare jazz-poetry at the turn of the last century to contemporary jazz-poetry, interestingly enough at the turn of a new millennium. The comparison will not only focus on sociocul­tural backgrounds influencing music and poetry at specific times, but will also deal with the poems’ topics, how poems are structured, and their, if there are any, peculiarities, dif­ferences or similarities.

2)Jazz-Poetry – A Definition

Without any doubt, jazz and some of its main figures have inspired poets for over three-quarters of a century. Starting from the 1920s, with one of the most important blues/jazz-poets, Langston Hughes, poems have dealt with major and minor figures in jazz. In the 1950s, Charlie Parker was the source of inspiration for the poets, similarly was John Coltrane in the 1960s. By the 1970s, many of the big names in jazz (Ben Webster, Duke Ellington, or Bud Powell) were dead, which led to an enormous number of homages and remembrances in jazz-poetry.

However, there is still the question of what exactly is a jazz-poem. Is it any poem that is about jazz, that deals with music, musicians and their instruments, or is it rather a poem that simply suggests jazz in its rhythmic structure, in other words that tries to imitate rhythm and beat? Sascha Feinstein, General Editor of Brilliant Corners, A Journal of Jazz and Literature, one of the leading writers on this topic and a contemporary jazz-poet him­self, gives a very useful answer and a definition of jazz-poetry:

A jazz poem is any poem that has been informed by jazz music. The influence can be in the subject of the poem or in the rhythms, but one should not necessarily exclude the other[2].

As one can see from this definition, Feinstein relates ‘jazziness’ not only to the sub­ject of the poem, but also to its rhythmic structure. Most poets do not want to write music itself, but rather create a verbal equivalent of the music.

Over many decades, poets have written about great musicians, they have addressed jazz as a type of music and its inspiring atmosphere, using strong visual images as an at­tempt to represent sound. Just as in normal poetry, each poet does that in his/her individual way:

Just as jazz musicians interpret standard songs according to their own musical styles and changing moods, so do poets responding to music create verse that reflects their own poetic sensibilities as well as their individual associations with jazz[3].

Further on in this paper the focus will be on contemporary jazz-poetry. Kenneth McManus, an American jazz-poet, whom I am very grateful for answering some questions via e-mail, will tell us about his reasons for writing jazz related poetry.

The next part of this paper will deal with the beginning of jazz itself. As we have been talking about that in greater detail in class anyway, I will deliberately make this dis­cussion short. Furthermore, I will mention some important antecedents of jazz related po­etry.

3)The Beginnings Of Jazz And Jazz-Poetry

Generally speaking, jazz is a type of music that emerged out of the social tumult of the turn to the last century. Many critics see the social and economical problems after World War I as important factors. The most cosmopolitan city in the USA, New Orleans, is gener­ally seen as the birthplace of jazz. Jazz combines elements of Ragtime, marching band mu­sic, and Blues, but what jazz differentiated from earlier styles was the widespread use of improvisation, often by more than one player at a time[4]. According to some critics, jazz took its name from ‘jasm’, a slang term for sexual intercourse. Thus, jazz had negative connota­tions, was oftentimes associated with being the devil’s music and was banned from concert halls and conservatories. Looking for better working conditions, more money and more possibilities to perform in clubs and bars, many jazz musicians decided to move from the southern parts of the country to big cities such as Chicago and New York. There, jazz began to flourish, and its image got better and better. Jazz was not only a total change in terms of music, it also was a social phenomenon. It was different from everything musical that had been produced previously. Jazz represented a break from Western musical traditions, where the composer wrote a piece of music on paper and the musicians then tried their best to play exactly what was in the score. As well as in music, the concept of Modernism with its main representatives T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, or W.C.Williams, found its way to poetry, which meant a total change in poetry. Poets at that time were looking for new ways of expressing their revolutionary ideas, but not in the form of conventional or classical poetry. “American poets struggled to establish their voice, their idiom; in music, the new American idiom was jazz”[5].

In the beginnings of jazz, one main problem was racism. Some white people just did not want to accept the fact that “black” musicians were playing in “white” bars, black peo­ple seemed strange to them or the whites simply feared them. To many people, jazz music and the migration of many black musicians was an enormous threat, which also was repre­sented in poetry of that time (e.g.:Percy Haselden: “The Jazz Cannibal”). However, not each poet at that time wrote about hatred, racism and fear. Among others, one poetic voice who had a more sympathetic attitude towards “the new music” was Carl Sandburg who is nowa­days seen as one of the predecessors of jazz-poetry.

3.1)Carl Sandburg

Sandburg was one of the first white writers who treated jazz in his poetry and is considered one of the pioneers of jazz related poetry. Even in his earlier poems, he deals with the new sounds by Afro-American musicians. In his poem “Nigger” (included in his collection Chicago Poems, published 1916), in my opinion a misleading title, he “celebrates the importance of the blues and Negro spirituals by virtue of their links to slavery and depth of emotion”[6]. When, from 1919 onwards, he recited his own poems, he always accompanied himself on guitar. This can be seen as a parallel to contemporary jazz-poetry, where many artists, among them “The Last Poets”, recite poems with the backgrounds of musical in­struments. Sandburg’s most popular jazz related poem is “Jazz Fantasia”, included in Smoke and Steel (1920).

“jazz fantasia”

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjos

sob on the long cool winding saxophones.

Go to it, jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy
tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go husha- 5
husha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree-
tops, moan soft like you wanted something terrible,
cry like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle
cop, bang-bang! you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, 10
traps, banjos, horns, tin cans--make two people fight
on the top of a stairway and scratch each other's eyes
in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

Can the rough stuff...now a Mississippi steamboat
pushes up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo... 15
and the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars
...and a red moon rides on the humps of the low river
hills...go to it, O jazzmen[7].

In this poem, musicians play the drums, banjos or saxophones. The poet directly addresses the players (ll.3 10, 18), which enhances the liveliness of the poem. Although it has been criticised a lot because of its poor metaphors, it celebrates the social changes which were going on at that time (i.e. the shift from a rural to an urban society). Further­more, Sandburg does not try to forget about the problem of slavery at that time (ll.14/15).

3.2)Paul Laurence Dunbar

Even before blues or jazz related poetry had their beginnings in the early 1920s, the most authentic form of native Afro-American poetry was dialect poetry. At that time, the circumstances concerning writing authentic poetry were problematic. Most of the time, poets wanted to find their own voices, express their ideas, write in dialect, but how should they manage that and earn money with their poetry if dialect was not respected in the white society? The language of the black people to some others had bad connotations and many white people would not buy dialect poems. Despite all these problems, P.L. Dunbar wrote his poetry in the dialect of the black people.

His dialect poetry depicted the romanticised plantation life of southern blacks that perpetuated the Uncle Tom image, and the stereotyped Negro’s love of food-especially possum[8].

Born in 1872 to former Kentucky slaves, he was enormously fascinated by the tales his parents had told him as a child. Even before he completed high school, some of his works had been published in local newspapers. Dunbar wrote in a dialect which was under­standable for everybody, and suitable for that time:

We is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs,

In dis howlin’ wildaness,

Fu’ to speak some words of comfo’t

To each othah in distress.

An’ we chooses fu’ ouah subjic’ 5

Dis’—we’ll ‘splain it by an’ by;[9] (from An Ante-Bellum Sermon, 1896, ll.1-6).

His poetry was also put to music, again a parallel to contemporary jazz-poetry. His work include the collections Oak and Ivory (1893), or Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Only a short time before he died did he realise that many people underestimated his non-dialect poetry and that many of his critics and the audience wanted nothing more from him than dialect poems[10].

After having talked about two of the predecessors of jazz-poetry, the focus of this paper will first be on a movement that is most important to the rise of jazz related poetry, commonly known as “The Harlem Renaissance”, and then on the first real blues/jazz-poet: Langston Hughes.


[1] Dorsey, Brian. Spirituality, Sensuality, and Literality: Blues, Jazz, and Rap as Music and Poetry. Doct.Diss. Salzburg, 1999.

[2] Feinstein, Sascha. Jazz Poetry. From The 1920s To the Present. Westport: Praeger, 1997.

[3] Feinstein, p.7.

[4] cf. http://www.redhotjazz.com

[5] Feinstein, p.16.

[6] Ibid., p.25.

[7] http://www.ualberta.ca/~mborshuk/jazz.htm

[8] Dorsey, p. 55.

[9] Later, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol.2. Lexington: Heath, 1994, p. 496.

[10] cf.ibid., p. 486.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


JAZZ POETRY: Beginnings and its contemporary developments
University of Salzburg  (Anglistics/American Studies)
Jazz and American Popular Music
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
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JAZZ, POETRY, Beginnings, Jazz, American, Popular, Music
Quote paper
Herbert Reichl (Author), 2001, JAZZ POETRY: Beginnings and its contemporary developments, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/12330


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