Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The shifting places of jazz poetry

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People waste spend a lot of time talking about whether poetry is dead or jazz is dead. It might be better to talk about when genres or modes of expression rise and fall, or just shift in general. I was recently thinking about jazz poetry and considering its prominence in the histories of black poetry.

Although we could reasonably make the case that jazz poetry emerged way, way back with someone like Langston Hughes, we'd have to admit that it became most pronounced during the Black Arts era of the 1960s and 1970s. That's when we had the largest grouping of poets regularly publishing poems about the music and musicians.

Between 1968 and 1975 alone, a short list of just 20 poets who contributed to the realm of jazz poetry would include: Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Henry Dumas, Sarah Webster Fabio, Michael S. Harper, David Henderson, Bob Kaufman, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Etheridge Knight, Ted Joans, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Eugene B. Redmond, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scott-Heron, A. B. Spellman, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia Toure, and Quincy Troupe.

(Let me tell you, there are jazz poetry scholars out there who'd name many others).

For decades after the 1970s, Baraka, Cortez, Sanchez, and others continually produced work situated firmly within the domains of jazz poetry. Over the years, we've also witnessed a  range of new contributors. At the same time, we've witnessed shifts; jazz poetry doesn't hold the same prominent role in African American poetry, at least not among contemporary poets born after, say, 1960. 

In the 1970s, jazz musicians were among the most written about figures by black poets. That's no longer the case. At some point over the last over the last decade or two decades, black poets began writing about other figures like ex-slaves and many non-musician cultural and historical figures.

There are obviously some exceptions, but if you've been tracking the publishing and performance histories of African American poetry, the shifts in jazz poetry likely stand out to you.

Black Arts era

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