By Diaa Bekheet
F. Scott Fitzgerald named the 1920s “The Jazz Age,” and he was hardly the only writer to take inspiration from the music. Poets, in particular, have been drawn to jazz, looking to capture its sound and feel in their phrases. Poets like Langston Hughes “incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music into their writing”, according the Jazz Poetry Anthology.
Here’s a mashup someone’s done of Langston Hughes reading his poem “Weary Blues” together with some mournful jazz and some vintage clips of Cab Calloway.
Recently, I listened to an old cassette tape about some of the great American poets. Some poems were read with music in the background, and it was one of them — “Fox-fire 1956” by Robert Penn Warren — that touched me most deeply.
It wasn’t just the words that brought tears to my eyes, it was the brilliant mix of bass flute and guitar under Warren’s voice. Take a listen:
The guitar-flute improvisation also reminds me of the practice of mysticism and Sufism, traditions out of which the great Arab-American poet Gibran Khalil Gibran — also during the Jazz Age — wrote his poetic masterpiece “Give me the Flute, and Sing”
Saxophonist Paul Winter, a musician known for mixing jazz with poetry, considers jazz-poetry as a kind of improvised conversation. “I’ve always enjoyed making music with poetry, improvising in antiphonal response to the different verses, sometimes playing lightly in the background behind the poet,” he tells VOA. Jazz singer Kurt Elling says that part of the beauty of the experience of art is in its mystery – particularly when it comes to poetry and music.
Next month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will hold a Jazz Poetry event as part of its annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and National Poetry Month, which also happens to be April.