This past summer a dear friend posted one of those provocative questions on a social networking site. She solicited ideas for good music to play while working, something up-tempo to get her motivated. Among the many suggestions submitted was a short list of jazz artists, which she lovingly dismissed as old-fashioned. This is not uncommon. Many find jazz old-fashioned. It’s their parents’ or their grandparents’ music, an endearing but not very compelling reminder of the bygone century. As Benjamin Schwarz has recently put it in The Atlantic Monthly, jazz music is a “relic.”
Likewise, when I assign even modern poetry in the American literature classes I teach, the students scarcely even try to conceal their displeasure. “I just don’t understand poetry,” the bold will announce with defensive pride. This parallels that awkward moment when the subject of my profession comes up among polite acquaintances. People recall fondly a high school or college literature course, list some familiar favorites—Whitman, Dickinson, Frost—and then pine, “I wish I understood poetry,” to cover their confession of embarrassing reading habits. This all-too-common embarrassment is confirmed by two recent National Endowment for the Arts studies (“Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read”) that document declining rates of engagement with poetry. Somehow poetry, like jazz, has become a presumptively dead language in the popular imagination.
At one time though, poetry and jazz were highly-respected art forms in America. As industrialization transformed daily life, poets and musicians developed startlingly innovative approaches to their art forms and commanded popular admiration because they spoke to the mixture of wariness and inspiration that people were feeling. By composing sophisticated responses to the troubling realities of modern life out of vernacular materials, America’s modernists ignited a new culture, a culture that, following Alfred Appel, I like to think of as jazz culture.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, The Great Gatsby, The Waste Land, The Harlem Renaissance, The Jazz Singer, The Modern Jazz Quartet—jazz modernists experimented with an array of compositional techniques to formulate illuminating responses to the startling conditions of life in the modern world. They developed styles of fragmentation, free verse, syncopation, cubism, collage, and stream-of-consciousness to announce their sense that they were living in a new, disorienting world, but the one fundamental feature that pervades jazz culture is the emphasis on sound. Jazz modernists crafted modes of expression to represent the sounds of the new dispensation—the factory’s mechanical thunder, the 20th Century Limited tearing across the plains, the subway tunneling under Manhattan, the electric turbine, the noon-time and the midnight street corner, the internal combustion engine, the airplane propeller, the silent film piano, the talkie, and the phonograph. Poetry and music were uniquely well suited to distill and represent the sound of modern life, and the people listened. Yet, although precious little has changed with regard to the fundamental features of modern existence, jazz poetry and music have been crowded out of the marketplace of vital ideas and relegated to the dustbin of university campuses, public radio, and used record stores where they cling to an intensely loyal but arguably diminishing audience.
With this in mind, I would like to reconsider jazz music and poetry together. I want to question why they are generally presumed to be passé when there are so many innovators in these forms working in relative obscurity today. I’d like to think about the aural relationships between jazz poetry and music, and I’d like to think about their sound as fundamentally rhetorical, a persuasive ethos. Considering jazz poetry and music as rhetorical, I want to evoke Gertrude Buck, who argued that persuasion should put the public good before personal interest and that honesty is essential to social progress. In this essay, I focus on Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, and John Coltrane, who embody Buck’s imperative in jazz culture. By studying Hughes, Strayhorn, and Coltrane as poet/musicians, I’d like to define the discourse of jazz culture and suggest that by hearing the jazz that permeates our culture we are all more likely to listen to each other, to compose our thoughts to be spoken deliberately, and thus to invigorate progressive relationships in America today.
In the essay “Jazz as Communication,” Langston Hughes explains that jazz is “a circle, and you yourself are a dot in the middle” (492). He means that jazz is expansive. He argues that jazz is vastly more than merely music; rather, for Hughes jazz is a feeling about modern life that is sometimes expressed musically but that as often “seeps into words” (493). Implicitly jazz is also expressed in relationships, in work, in dance, in sex, and in politics. He suggests that people are drawn to jazz arts because they recognize in it articulations of their own ideas on life in the modern world. Hughes claims that he has been only one of many writers through whom jazz has been “putting itself into words” (494).
In 1923 Hughes wrote probably his most famous jazz poem, “The Weary Blues”:
The poem is a classic of the Harlem Renaissance because in the spirit of jazz it is composed to speak to (and for) a generation of the free children of former slaves who had migrated from the South to the North and stood up to Jim Crow segregation and terrorism. The poem gives voice to the uncertainty, the frustration, and the defiance of the New Negro Movement.
The speaker ostensibly listens while a musician plays and sings, but the speaker really performs both his voice and the musician’s. The speaker’s voice favors standard American English, but the quoted lyrics of the musician’s song are annunciated in African American dialect: “ma self,” “gwine,” “ma frownin’.” Nevertheless, the standard American English of the speaker takes up the characteristics of the music being played. Hughes essentially sings both voices. In Hughes’ understated delivery, his voice accentuates the sonorous o and u sounds of “droning,” “drowsy,” “syncopated tune,” for example; he lingers on the word “moan” and quavers on “tone,” conveying the emotion of both listening and performing.
The use of occasional end rhyme complements this aural pattern. The poem is built around a series of linked couplets; however, the couplets are irregularly spaced around interjections of various lengths. The first and second couplet, “tune/croon” and “night/light,” are interrupted by one line, yet later couplets are interrupted by two lines here, three lines there, and even whole verses of the musician’s songs. These rhymes distribute the poem’s aural effects throughout the poem, lending a sense of overall cogency to the interplay of the poem’s two distinct voices.
Finally, whereas poetry of previous generations followed rigorous prescriptive patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, Hughes’ lines are deliberately uneven and loosely syncopated. The stressed sounds come not from preset, classical patterns. They are improvisational, keyed to the expression of feeling. For instance, the lines “Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool / He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool” have 11 and 13 syllables respectively, and they each follow an organic voicing rooted in the poem’s articulation of emotions. Taking all these features of the poem together, there’s little doubt that Hughes is translating the styles of jazz—multiple voices, harmonic interruption, improvisational performance, and syncopation—into his lyrics as he explicitly represents both the voices and the tribulations of black people in a racist world.
Throughout his career, Hughes crafted jazz poems. His 1947 “Trumpet Player: 52nd Street” is another example:
Like “The Weary Blues,” this poem evokes the legacies of slavery by suggesting that the collective memory of slave ships inspires the musician’s playing, and it extends the defiance of the New Negro into the Civil Rights era by evoking cocky urbane fashions and the fraught doctoring of kinky hair. Likewise, “The Trumpet Player” is as ambivalent as “The Weary Blues,” both admiring and pitying the black artist’s complicated social position. In the cabaret, under the spotlight, the trumpet player is simultaneously the representative of black culture as well as an individual seeking happiness and comfort, for which fame, fashion, alcohol, opiates, and even music are but meager substitutes.
Hughes’ arrangement of the poem imitates a jazz solo in which an instrumentalist will improvise on a standard melody through a series of measures. The “melody” of the poem follows on the repeated line, “The Negro / With the Trumpet at his lips.” Each verse varies on the theme, describing both the trumpet player and the sources of his musical ideas. The pattern of rhyme and assonance is irregular, evoking improvisation by taking on new variations in each verse. Hughes sings the lines organically, speeding up his tempo in staccato bursts of thought or slowing down to linger in febrile drawls over key words. His voice is both syncopated and melodic, following the sound as much as the sense of the words. Calling attention to the unifying idea of the poem, he growls then glides through the lines, “as the tune comes from his throat / trouble mellows to a golden note.” Even his slight unintentional lisp individuates his performance, lending it inimitable personality.
Langston Hughes was a master of jazz poetry because the sound and the power of his lyrics are keyed to progressivism. As a black man, as a gay man, and as an advocate for the disenfranchised, Hughes translates jazz into words as he persistently explores the theme of “trouble” mellowed to that “golden note.” His poetry is a model of the style upon which so many poets would innovate and improve—Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Michael Harper, Jayne Cortez, Yusef Komunyakaa, William Matthews, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Nikky Finney, and Terrance Hayes, to name only a few. And certainly Hughes’ influence resonates beyond his own medium—in the art of Romare Bearden, for instance, the plays of August Wilson, the novels of Toni Morrison, the films of John Cassavetes and Spike Lee, and the albums of A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and The Roots. Certainly, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoes Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred. Crucially, Hughes’ sound encouraged and inspired jazz musicians.
Hughes’ poetry was potent then and it remains popular now because it reminds us, when we really listen, that jazz can be thought of as a distinctive culture with its own attitudes, customs, aesthetics, commitments, and concerns. By seeing jazz as culture we begin to see it as a great conversation about the meaning of the modern world that includes (and evokes) voices working in a variety of modes and mediums from fashion to film to funk. Much of the appeal of jazz culture is rooted in its resistance to a discriminatory status quo. That resistance is encoded in sound, and that sound is conversational, inviting participation. In jazz culture, therefore, women, African-Americans, homosexuals, the poor, and all the marginalized and excluded can listen to, dance to, and reflect upon a sound that defies tradition and thus seeks to establish new social arrangements based on the justice of personal exploration and shared interests.
Such conversation is precisely what Gertrude Buck defined as Platonic speech. Rather than an approach to discourse that advances the interests of the individual by any available and necessary means, Buck sought persuasion based on the common interests of all participants in the public forum. Establishing common interests, Buck explains, demands pursuit of truth. Yet, because truth is relative, those involved in the conversation must be willing to both share personal observations and listen to those of others. Thus, she calls for a conversation based on attention, reflection, sharing, and honesty, all of which are rooted in the careful composition of ideas. That’s jazz culture. It’s what we hear in the leading practitioners of jazz arts, like Hughes, but also Billy Strayhorn and John Coltrane.
Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is notoriously difficult to play as music, but when treated as modernist poetry rather than just song, it makes a lot more sense for musicians. Like Hughes’ poetry, the song’s peculiar cadences emerge from the organic improvisational play of stressed and unstressed words:
Likewise the shifts of tempo come from the words rather than a time signature. Repetition in the first chorus—“places,” “life,” “cocktails”—underscores the interchangeability of locations and libations as time drags slowly along. Certain lines rhyme, “faces/traces,” “away/day,” “madness/sadness,” but these are irregular, emerging opportunistically through the narrative, reinforcing the sorrowful rituals of a life without love. The opportunistic rhyming climaxes with the couplet: “A week in Paris will ease the bite of it / All I care is to smile in spite of it.” The double rhyme highlights the speaker’s fruitless quest for solace in romantic love. Similarly, Strayhorn’s performance introduces an unexpected pause in the penultimate line, “while I rot with the rest,” and the piano fill in that moment highlights the speaker’s understanding of his fate in the modern world of circumstantial love affairs.
Tonally, Strayhorn’s performance calls attention to the painful passage of time as he quavers on “day” in the first chorus and enjambs “madness—I” in the second. The piano’s blues-minor chord progression harmonically anticipates the mood change between the second and the third chorus, and Strayhorn’s voice assumes the feeling, changing the mood of the performance from ironic disregard to pained resignation.
As a student of both Ira Gershwin and modernist poets like e. e. cummings (Hadju 135, 195), Strayhorn uses irregular cadences and opportunistic rhymes to translate certain ambivalent feelings about life and love in the modern world into jazz expression. The poem cynically discounts notions of sentimental love without denying the potency of desire and loneliness. As with Hughes, the poignancy of Strayhorn’s performance is tied to the fact that as a gay man his love would be unsanctioned and the worry that he would, therefore, always remain lonely, living the lush life. Yet, such agonies are not exclusively homosexual, because so many people seem to be wearing a mask of gayety to cover their “sad and sullen gray faces,” an observation that speaks to the dehumanizing customs that seem to be inherent in the modern condition.
Although Billy Strayhorn’s name may be unfamiliar to some, he was jazz royalty. Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s musical collaborator, composing his most famous song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a song that also uses experimental modernist lyric as a foundation for music. Strayhorn and Ellington shared a fruitful relationship because Strayhorn understood and contributed to Ellington’s sense that music should tell true stories about modern life, and his innovative lyrical arrangements fostered improvisation and individuated performance over prescriptive rote. For Ellington and Strayhorn, music was a vehicle to pose social questions and bring attention to civil rights causes. Strayhorn even cultivated a friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., the two men drifting into intense personal conversation whenever they encountered one another (Hadju 265). Perhaps these elements of Strayhorn’s music—the poetry, the activism, and the sound—are what attracted one of jazz’s most innovative visionaries, John Coltrane.
Coltrane studied both Langston Hughes and Billy Strayhorn, and their styles are audible in Coltrane’s cadences (Porter 15). In 1957 John Coltrane recorded “Lush Life” as the title track of an album in which he confirmed that he was moving in new musical directions, taking themes from standards and pop tunes and working them through a complicated series of variations and inversions that anticipated the radical directions his music would explore in the coming years:
The choice of Strayhorn’s classic affirms the composer’s stature, yet it also indicates the importance of lyric in the forms of experimental jazz that Coltrane would pioneer. Coltrane clearly takes up Strayhorn’s lyrics in his solo. He is voicing the words themselves as notes, mimicking through his saxophone Strayhorn’s verbal performance. Red Garland’s piano accompaniment reinforces this sense as Coltrane soulfully declaims the first two stanzas of the poem. Then as the rhythm section joins in, the final three stanzas of the poem are voiced with Strayhorn’s ironic disregard of romance. Donald Byrd on trumpet then follows Coltrane’s lead through the choruses, replaying Strayhorn’s words and likewise evoking his themes.
Using poetry as a basis for musical composition appealed to Coltrane. As he explained to Michel Delorme in 1965, he liked to use poetry in his compositions because for him this was a way to “capture the essence of a precise moment in a given place [and] compose the work and perform it immediately in a natural way” (DeVito 244). Later, in 1967, Coltrane explained to Frank Kofsky that his music amounted to “a conscious attempt to change what I’ve found.” That is, Coltrane saw music as an instrument to make the world a better place because, as he put it, “it can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people” (Porter 261). Like Strayhorn and Hughes, Coltrane conjured the jazz feeling into art, composing a vehicle to pursue social progress.
A Love Supreme is perhaps Coltrane’s most famous and most personal album. It is a four-part suite that is explicitly a prayer and a meditation on the love of God. It is a work of musical genius; however, the work’s power is augmented by the use of poetry. Most famously and obviously the simple four-note theme that is the basis of the entire record is tied to the words "a love supreme," which are annunciated iambically, duh-Da duh-Da:
To highlight these four note/syllables, after the opening fanfare Coltrane plays these notes in sequence, running them through various scales until a chorus of voices take up the simple phrase, chanting “a love su-preme.” The rhythm of the chant supplies an elemental rhythmic platform upon which the curtains of Coltrane’s musical explorations gambol.
More importantly, however, in the liner notes of A Love Supreme Coltrane explains that the poem printed therein is given “musical narration” in the fourth movement, “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter has demonstrated, Coltrane was being literal (246). He actually plays the words, which MarleelMystic’s youtube video powerfully illustrates:
The words and the music celebrate a simple idea, a love supreme, as Coltrane explores the manifold implications and applications of the idea of a universal, omnipotent, and loving God. Coltrane’s bluesy voicing is suggestive of the difficult “paths,” as the poem explains, to knowledge of God. The key image of the poem is tied to Coltrane’s sense of himself as a musician. The line, “One thought can produce millions of vibrations,” evokes the relationship between Coltrane’s musical ideas and his articulations of them. Alluding to the very reed on his lip, the words draw the listener to focus on Coltrane’s singularly rich timbre, and the line resolves in the idea that all vibrations “go back to God.” Extending this metaphor, Coltrane elaborates, “God breathes through us so completely… so gently we hardly feel it… yet, it is our everything.” God’s breath passes through each of us just as Coltrane’s breath passes through his horn, giving meaning to the instrument and the musician’s life. The life of the world is the music of God in word, in music, and in deed. The metaphor illustrates Coltrane’s adjuration to “In all ways seek God every day,” which lends depth and power to his music and definitively formulates the approach to life that he believes will make the world a better place.
In “Jazz as Communication” Hughes further defines his sense of jazz. He succinctly states, “jazz is a dream deferred” (494). He is observing, in case anybody missed it, that his poetry is jazz and, therefore, a question regarding the progressive promise of the modern world. Certainly the deferred dream Hughes cites is the dream of liberty and equality for African Americans in a segregated country. Less obvious, but no less real and relevant, are the dream’s implicit extensions to include gender, sexuality, ability, age, economic class, and so forth. Put simply, the sound of jazz announces the will to pursue and enact a better life for all. Jazz, for Hughes, is “A great big dream—yet to come—and always yet—to be-come ultimately and finally true” (494). Listening to Hughes, Strayhorn, and Coltrane, we recognize jazz as a culture of voices discussing the dream and its deferral.
The deferral continues in part because too many well-intentioned individuals claim appreciation for Hughes and the jazz ethos he represents but stop there. Instead of exploring the flourishing voices of jazz culture that resonate throughout American culture through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we categorize and separate poetry from jazz, jazz from the blues, the blues from rock & roll, and rock & roll from funk and punk. We divide folk voices from urban voices, straight from gay, black from white, male from female, rich from poor, left from right, old school and old fashioned from contemporary. Hughes becomes categorized as a voice of the Harlem Renaissance, some old-timey movement, rather than a vital voice clamoring with others in the name of more perfect union. By respectfully appreciating Hughes as a great American voice in our classrooms and stopping there, we fail to hear the myriad voices speaking to, with, for, and against him then and now, and that is how we have muted the progressive conversation of jazz culture.
Nevertheless, the improvisational and performative basis of the culture rewards close listening. As we listen, we begin to feel a deeper impulse. We become inspired to use human thought and energy to build a world that is peaceful and just, a world where all people can be free, where the troubled can find support, where the diligent can prosper, where the devout can find spiritual ascension. We hear in jazz an invitation to participate in the discussion of a dream. When the time comes we each compose and play our own version of the tune. As Hughes puts it, “Jazz is a heartbeat—its heartbeat is yours. You will tell me about its perspectives when you get ready” (494). As we speak we hear our voice collaborate and compromise with the voices around us. Imani Perry, for example, listens to a cycle of 31 versions of the jazz standard, “Body and Soul,” recorded between 1939 and 2009. In this cycle she hears the “care” of what I am calling jazz culture. The return to “Body and Soul” resonates with the idea of an unruly, obstreperous, disputatious, but welcoming and engaging forum, which is what I picture when I imagine Buck’s paradigm for discussion applied to the pursuit of the social good. As a standard returned to again and again, “Body and Soul” illustrates the fundamental spirit of jazz culture—the changes serve as a repository of questions about life in the modern world while simultaneously inviting new arrangements, enunciations, and compositions.
Whether we listen to “Body and Soul,” Langston Hughes, Billy Strayhorn, John Coltrane, A Tribe Called Quest, Kevin Young, Fred Moten, Esperanza Spalding, Yoko Miwa, Gerald Clayton, Maria Schneider, the writers in Sascha Feinstein’s Brilliant Corners, or even the speech of our president, we must recognize that the aesthetic and political dimensions of our world today are rooted in the ethos of jazz culture. As we listen, and then as we start to speak, we must surely hear ourselves questioning and, thus, advancing an aural and rhetorical aesthetics of progress in modernity. Perhaps the ironic cynicism of this postmodern world has made all such sound and fury irrelevant and, indeed, an out-moded relic, but I don’t think so. I’d like my students, my acquaintances, and my friends to recognize with me that we know more about ourselves, about our daily work, about our play, and about what we can say when we hear the legacies of jazz culture that remain inflected in voices throughout America today.
The music that is “cited” as background to the three vocal tracks of this essay are taken from performances of the jazz standard “Body and Soul,” composed by Johnny Green. The performances are by, in order, Coleman Hawkins, Errol Garner, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, and Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli. The citation of these performances is meant to evoke the persuasive sound of discursive care that Perry defines.
I am indebted to the editors of Harlot, especially Kate Comer, for their spirited suggestions that strengthened this essay. Many of the ideas for this essay emerged during conversations with Kevin Kjos, so much so that, in the true spirit of jazz, one couldn’t clearly discern to whom any of the ideas in this essay truly belong. Additionally, credit for the web design and recording/mixing belongs to Nellie Ortiz and Christopher Burkholder, respectively.
a. The purpose and character of your use: The copyrighted work quoted and referenced in this scholarly project is used to illustrate analysis and provide substantiation for analytical claims. The use is transformative in that all cited work is used as basis for original analysis and commentary that expands upon the ideas developed in the original works.
b. The nature of the copyrighted work: The copyrighted work utilized is textual and musical. Proper citations can be found within the work and its accompanying bibliography. Readers are strenuously urged to seek out, purchase, and enjoy the original works. They are well worth it.
c. The amount and substantiality of the work: Most of the copyrighted work cited here is sampled. However, a few works are reproduced in their entirety because complete reproduction is essential to illustrating the thesis of the argument. Sound bites cannot capture and represent the sound that is the basis of jazz culture.
d. The effect of the use upon the potential market: This scholarly analysis and commentary should only have a positive effect on the markets for jazz and poetry, and these works in particular. No profit will be derived from the publication of this essay. This essay is offered in good spirit and with the sincere hope that individuals persuaded by the thesis will seek out opportunities to support the work of poets and musicians, including those cited and referenced herein.
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Brubeck, Dave. “Body and Soul.” 24 Classic Original Recordings. Fantasy. 1990. CD.
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---. Montage of a Dream Deferred. New York: Henry Holt, 1951. Print.
---. “The Weary Blues.” The Voice of Langston Hughes. Washington: Smithsonian Folkways, 1995. CD.
---. “Trumpet Player: 52nd Street.” Langston Hughes at 100. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 14 Jan. 2013. Web.
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Perry, Imani. “Of Degraded Talk, Digital Tongues, and a Commitment to Care.” Profession, 2012. 17-24. Print.
Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor. U Michigan, 1998. Print.
Reinhardt, Django. “Body and Soul.” Djangology. Documents Classics. 2005. CD.
Schwarz, Benjamin. “The End of Jazz.” The Atlantic, November 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.
United States. National Endowment for the Arts. “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” Washington: GPO, 2004. Web.
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