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I was struck recently, listening to a broadcast interview with Kurt Elling, to hear him describe vocalese as a branch or sub-set of poetry rather than a musical style. Though I’ve always admired the verbal dexterity of “Twisted” and its like, and though my aesthetic interests are fairly neatly and evenly divided, with the musical and the literary commanding equal lobal space, I’ve always had a slight difficulty with jazz and poetry in conjunction. That may belatedly be shifting, thanks to the generosity of some old and newer friends, but also perhaps to something cyclical in the culture that brings these things round again.
I grew up, or at least began my apprentice in jazz, listening to the jazz and poetry experiments of pianist and composer Michael Garrick, and to those musicians and vocal artists who gravitated to the wonderful Michael Horovitz, the ringmaster of the long-standing Poetry Olympics and New Departures publications. At a moment when English poetry was effectively defined by the Eliot of The Four Quartets – that is: formal, architectonic, transcendent rather than disruptive, incantatory and immanent, as in the abandoned Blakean model – Horovitz was a virtuoso of spontaneous action, of the power of the said over the printed, of poetry as athletic performance. Of course, Michael was also aware – and made clear in his later reworking of The Waste Land – that there was an earlier Eliot, whose work had happily riffed along to the jazzy cadences of “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag / it’s so elegant / so intelligent” until Ezra Pound, accurately but self-defeatingly defined by Eliot as “the better craftsman,” got his hands on the manuscript of He Do The Police In Different Voices and trimmed and reshaped its jazz poetry into the blocky, mythic thing that redefined Anglo-American verse after 1922. The Waste Land is still a great poem, but it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy and its musical subtexts have to be pried away from those misleading footnotes and learned allusions.
Horovitz and Garrick aside, jazz and poetry suffered by association for some time, in Britain at least, as rock and roll culture and the kind of semi-literacy it knowingly encouraged took over the commercial mainstream. To be a young jazz fan in 1971 – in Britain at any rate - was to belong to a small antinomian sect. To admit to an admiration for poetry, other than the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and possibly Joni Mitchell and Elton John, all of whom were hauled into the English curriculum by well-meaning teachers with hair that reached the collar, was to risk complete ostracism. Putting the two together just seemed impossibly quaint to people who thought that Yes’ Jon Anderson or Van De Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill were the major poets of the day. I had no problem conceding, then as now, that both Anderson and Hammill wrote lyrics of genuine quality and that poetry suffered in proportion to its distance from music, just as jazz suffered in proportion to its distance from dance, but neither of them was exactly Wallace Stevens, or John Ashbery, and nor had their music that harmonic depth and rhythmic spring that only jazz delivered.
I was recently asked to give a selection of favorite verse, or a kind of mini-biography in verse, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, and to make some kind of point about those same relationships, I decided to recite “Suzanne” which I have almost always found impossible to do without a Scotch snap on the first two syllables and without the deathly plod of the recorded version. It’s difficult to get round this problem at the best of times and one always runs the risk of sounding like Peter Sellers reciting “ It has been . . . a HARD day’s . . . night / I should be sleeping . . . like a log” when reading pop lyrics qua poetry. There haven’t been many lyricists since about whom I’ve felt remotely the same. Interesting to notice that in the current vogue for jazz arrangements of Radiohead songs, it’s piano players who tend to predominate; the singers steer clear.
When I started to travel more freely, in Europe and beyond, there seemed to be a greater acceptance, and certainly more fashionable cachet, in jazz-and-poetry encounters, but then it’s much easier to appreciate the musicality of a lyric when you don’t have to struggle with the meaning. And I do mean struggle. I’ve struggled along to my share of poetry slams in the last few years, only to wince at the banal wordsmithery, in the same way that I tend to regard a rap dropped into a jazz tune the way I might react to a dog teed on a marble floor. Sheer snobbery, but when Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery are your bellwethers, listening to some girl with her finger in her ear yelling “Orgasmic walls, you make me smile / sad for the lovers beyond you” is a hard sell. “Orgasmic walls”: is that the pathetic fallacy? I found myself asking myself. And why is she both smiling and sad? Or am I just too old for this?
I already said that my renewed confidence in the possibilities of poetry and jazz together was thanks to the generosity of friends. As it is, but it was sparked by a curious moment when I was listening to Lester Young one day and John Harvey’s Ghosts of a Chance (John paid serious money to have a Herman Leonard photograph of Pres on the cover) literally fell off the shelf. John has written more stuff in a “jazz” vein, and has performed it live with Second Nature, and for me he has answered the question of how the two forms work together, which is not to force the union nor simply to rely on the kind of bland juxtaposition – bittersweet words, blue notes and brushes on cymbals – which some people seem to regard as sufficient. Instead, he conjures up what can only be described as a jazz “mood”: Monkian cadences in the choice of words, slow elisions and unthought – of adjectival associations in his descriptions, narrative that relies more on the journey than the destination. He reminds me, quite obscurely, for they aren’t quite in the same bag, of another writer I’m proud to call a friend, even though we live oceans apart and very seldom meet. Harvey’s musical imaginings remind me of Michael Moorcock’s work with Hawkwind and Deep Fix, in which the mismatch of imaginations is almost as important as the common ground. You might need to hear what I’m talking about...
After I picked up Ghosts of A Chance and wondered at what kind of poltergeist popped its fingers to Lester Young, I started quite randomly putting together the two otherwise unintroduced halves of my vinyl collection: jazz records on one side of the room, a less rarely visited holding of spoken word recordings on the other. I know there are certain combinations that ought to work, but they aren’t necessarily the one’s you’d expect. It’s good to remember that it was the late George Shearing who was hailed as “God” by Dean Moriarty in On The Road. You’d have thought that Monk or Bud Powell might be more his speed. I didn’t think to match speaking voices and instrumental sounds in any deliberate way. One senses that Stan Getz and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a marriage made in heaven, though not in a good way but for the most part I’m just dabbling and letting different durations sort themselves out. Basil Bunting is at this moment gruffing his way through the magnificent Briggflats, one of the great long poems in “English” after The Waste Land, The Bridge, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (which works very nicely with bop) and The Night Fishing, accompanied by Martial Solal. It works, I suspect, because both those artists have a personal and “regional” take on the parent language, whether that language is English verse or jazz.
In addition to this odd but fascinating experiment, which runs counter to all my anxieties about reading while listening to music, or listening to music when reading, I’m indebted to that passionate vinyl collector Mats Gustafsson (who also does a bit of saxophone playing on the side) who sent me a replacement vinyl copy of Kenneth Patchen reading his poetry to a jazz accompaniment. True to form, Mats hasn’t had anything back from me yet, though I’m trawling my vinyl arcanae to find something worthy of his attention. Patchen, whose centenary falls this year, and I hope won’t pass unnoticed, is also the author of things like The Journal of Albion Moonlight, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer and that delightful radiophonic esprit The City Wears a Slouch Hat, which is so lyrically beautiful it both demands and doesn’t need an accompaniment. As a “jazz poet,” he isn’t the equal of, say, Bob Kaufman or even Larry Neal, whose “Orisha” is still my all-time favorite jazz poem with its saxophonic opening slither “Is the eternal voice, Coltrane is . . .” and its savage closing yell against the “lackey tom motherfuckers,” but Patchen has a gift for atmosphere and place that few others of that generation could command. Langston Hughes and Kaufman might give you jazz; Patchen can put you in a jazz club.
And then in the post there came Children of the Blue Supermarket (Pine Eagle Records) from that very fine saxophonist Rich Halley, a collaboration at the Penofin festival with a poet I’d never previously heard of, though he bears such a perfectly poetic name in Don Raphael that I immediately wondered why I hadn’t invented him. The other wonderfully authentic thing about Raphael is that he holds down exactly the right kind of job for a proper poet. T. S. Eliot put on a suit every morning – there’s a nice story that, when Queen Elizabeth and her late sister Margaret were girls, Eliot came to the house to read to them (and they call it “privilege”!); at the conclusion Princess Elizabeth turned to her mother and said “He sounds just like a banker!” – and Wallace Stevens sold insurance, as did Britain’s Roy Fuller. As if to top them, Raphael works for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Portland, Oregon. Nothing, I suspect, would give you a greater respect for language. Halley has also worked with poet Dottie Grossman, who is the widow of pianist Richard Grossman, whose early death hit me like a blow. I heard one of his records and discovered the following day that he had just died, aged 55 or so. I took it almost personally, and now I long to hear some of Dottie’s work with trombonist Michael Vlatkovitch.
Elling’s still the king of the new bards. Possessed of a magnificent instrument and in no way hindered by all those years in choirs, he has an instinct for line and cadence. There can’t be anyone else in contemporary jazz who has name-checked Theodore Roethke and Wendy Cope alongside King Crimson, Joe Jackson (could you recite “Steppin’ Out” without that motoric yellow-taxi rhythm behind it? I’m going to try when I put this down), Earth, Wind & Fire and Don Grolnick, all on one record, or who’d have thought to put Grolnick’s peerless “Nighttown” alongside Duke Ellington to create an image of the jazzman as a kind of urban bard, not so much the planetary griot of recent mythology, but something closer to Baudelaire’s city-walker, an improviser of the grid, a soloist picked out against the crowd...