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Rhythm and Words
Jazz Poetry

Rhythm and Words
  • Twentieth - Century Poetry (by )
  • Jazz Masters of the Twenties (by )
  • The Negro Speaks of Rivers (by )
  • The Poetry of the Negro 1746 1949 (by )
  • Blues People Negro Music in White Americ... (by )
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In a June 23, 1926, essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” published in The Nation, Langston Hughes, perhaps the first true jazz poet wrote, 

... jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.

In its origin, jazz was much more than music to enjoy in leisure time. To many African-Americans, it was a bastion against the ills of a country mired in racism and the residue of slavery.

Just like jazz, jazz poetry incorporates a range of forms, but in its freedom it is always informed by the music, whether rhythmically or thematically. One of Hughes' most well known poem “The Weary Blues” captures the cadence of a spiritual exhibiting phrasing that mimics the feel of early jazz and blues rhythms. The first lines read:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
    I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lennox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
    He did a lazy sway....
    He did a lazy sway....
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody. (The Poetry of the Negro p. 98 )

Alongside an already storied blues and jazz scene, Hughes understood jazz poetry as a distinctly African-American writing style in the midst of a pantheon of white voices. Indeed, jazz poetry seemed to capture a harmony of rawness and musicality not yet seen in the poetry world. It persisted from the Harlem Renaissance, to the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, into the Watts Writers Workshop, and continues to resonate in poetry today. Read later jazz poet Amiri Baraka's (also known LeRoi Jones) collection of essays on blues, jazz, and their influence on other art forms in Blues People: Negro Music in White America.
Jazz, jazz poetry, and African-American culture quickly became an influential touchstone for all alternative American culture. In the 1950s, Beat poets such as Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Kerouac found an aesthetic brethren in jazz's evolution, bebop, hard bop, and anti-jazz from musicians like Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, and Ornette Coleman. Poets would read and musicians played in accompaniment, each feeding off of one another. Musician and composer David Amram recalled in an All About Jazz interview his performances with Kerouac, "We never once rehearsed. We did listen intently to one another. Jazz is all about listening and sharing. I never drowned out one word of whatever Jack was reading or making up on the spot."

The influence of jazz poets can be seen today, everywhere from spoken word and slam poetry and hip-hop to different forms of free verse. Nuyorican Poet's Cafe in New York City became famous for slam poetry, jazz infused poetry readings. Musicians like Gil Scott-Heron (read his poem “Black History”), The Watts Prophets, and The Last Poets composed music around their spoken word poetry, preceding hip-hop music. For more jazz poetry, check out The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Hughes and Twentieth Century Poetry by John Drinkwater.

By Thad Higa

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