Saturday, September 10, 2011

Jazz & Black Arts Poetry

Elvin Jones was one of many jazz musicians celebrated in black arts poetry
No question about it, jazz was a central force and recurring point of reference in African American poetry produced during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In addition to writing regularly about jazz, poets frequently collaborated with musicians on artistic projects and performances. Jazz and blues had been important topics in poetry long before the 1960s, but the music gained increased prominence in verse and African American literary discourse in general during the black arts era.

Not surprisingly, Amiri Baraka, a leading figure of the movement, had deep commitments to jazz. Prior to the rise of black arts, Baraka had authored an important cultural history on black music, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963).  He was also a respected jazz critic, and along with fellow artists A.B. Spellman and Larry Neal, he had created a small magazine The Cricket devoted primarily to jazz and the arts. 

So Baraka, Neal, Spellman, and other literary artists with interests in jazz helped give the music prominence in black arts discourse and in African American verse.

Often, poets honored jazz musicians in their poems, highlighting their talents and overall contributions. Sarah Webster Fabio, for instance, paid high praise to Duke Ellington in her poem "Tribute to Duke," and Etheridge Knight, in  his poem "Elvin Jones: Jazz Drummer," honors a well-known musical virtuoso.

Poets regularly interpreted the music as containing covert and overt revolutionary messages. Since so much of the music was wordless, the poets then envisioned themselves in the position to serve as kinds of translators, informing readers what the instrumentals were really saying.

Negro Digest / Black World, Dudley Randall's Broadside Press, and the dozens and dozens of anthologies featuring African American verse published during the black arts era all facilitated the circulation of so many poems highlighting jazz and jazz musicians. Aspiring poets who read works from any of those sites were certainly inclined to believe that writing about jazz was a solid road to publication.

This entry is part of a series--30 Days of Black Arts Poetry.

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