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Poetry Guide: Jazz Poetry

Jazz poetry can be defined as poetry that "demonstrates jazz-like rhythm or the feel of improvisation," from an article by Pittsburg State University faculty. During the 1920s, several poets began to eschew the conventions of rhythm and style; among these were Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and ee cummings. The significance of the simultaneous evolution of poetry and jazz during the 1920s was apparent to many poets of the era, resulting in the merging of the two art forms into jazz poetry. Jazz poetry has long been something of an "outsider" art form that exists somewhere outside the mainstream, having been conceived in the 1920s by African-Americans, maintained in the 1950s by counterculture poets like those of the Beat Generation, and adapted in modern times into hip-hop music and live poetry events known as poetry slams.

The Harlem Renaissance

Early jazz poetry did not mimic the sounds and improvisational spirit of jazz. Instead, it heavily referenced the musical form with allusions made to musicians, instruments, and locations key to the burgeoning jazz scene. Poets like Vachel Lindsay (who actually abhorred the "primitive" sound of jazz music) and Mina Loy wrote poetry in this vein. It was with the advent of the Harlem Renaissance that jazz poetry developed into what it is today. Poets like Langston Hughes and Carl Dunbar incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music into their writing. Hughes and Dunbar, like many Harlem Renaissance writers, were deeply concerned with racial pride and with the creation of purely African-American poetry. Since jazz music was an important part of African-American culture at the time, Hughes and others like him adapted the musical genre to create their own, singularly African-American voices that could easily be distinguished from the work of white poets. Many of Hughes' poems, such as "Weary Man Blues," sound almost exactly like popular jazz and blues songs of the period, and vice versa. His work is also highly evocative of spirituals.

Bebop and the Beat Generation

As members of the (largely white) Beat Generation began to embrace aspects of African-American culture during the 1950s, the art of jazz poetry shifted its focus from racial pride and individuality to spontaneity and freedom. In this case, both jazz poetry and jazz music were seen as powerful statements against the status quo. Jack Kerouac would often accompany his readings of poetry with music, playing the piano or bongos while he read. His colleague, musician and composer David Amram would often scat along as Kerouac read. Amram later wrote of their work together, "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 (Kerouac) was reading or making up on the spot [1]. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had a similar collaboration with saxophone player Stan Getz. Beat poet Bob Kaufman was said by some to be the greatest jazz poet ever to have lived, with the exception of Langston Hughes, as in this article from the Beat Museum website. Kaufman paid homage to jazz in poems like "O Jazz O" and "Morning Joy." His work is notable for its syncopated rhythms, surreal imagery, and a quality of alienation stemming from Kaufman's own role in life as a drifter and a jailbird.

In the 1960s and '70s, the Beat poet formerly known as LeRoi Jones renamed himself Amiri Baraka and revived the idea of jazz poetry as a source of black pride. Baraka was a cultural nationalist who believed that ""Black People are a race, a culture, a Nation. [2] " Elements of jazz show up often in Baraka's work, such as syncopation and repetition of phrases.

Modern Jazz Poetry

The tradition of jazz poetry has been carried on by hip-hop and rap artists, who often set poetic lyrics to syncopated beats. Another parallel that can be drawn is that of the freestyle rap, which features lyrics improvised to a beat, thus capturing the spontaneous, improvised nature of the jazz poem. Slam poetry, a genre made up of experimental spoken word and performance poets, also places an emphasis on the relationship between poetry, performance, and spontaneity. Slam poets may often be accompanied by an instrument. Like jazz poetry, slam poetry discards poetry's roots in academia and instead focuses on popular culture and issues of current social significance.

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