Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Jean Kittrell, Eugene B. Redmond, and Jazz Literature at SIUE

Eugene B. Redmond performs at SIUE with Reggie Thomas and Hamiet Bluiett in 2005.

Langston Hughes was an important pioneer of representations of jazz and jazz musicians in poetry as early as the 1920s. And during the Black Arts era of the 1960s and 1970s, writers such as Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Michael Harper, and many, many others incorporated jazz into their works and even collaborated with musicians. Nonetheless, the terms "jazz poetry" and "jazz literature" as a points of reference in scholarly discourse did not begin appearing with frequency until the mid to late 1990s. 

Jazz poetry and literature have a distinct history in the department of English at SIUE. Most notably perhaps, Eugene B. Redmond has long produced what would be known as "jazz poetry." For decades now, he has composed and performed poems that showcase the music, and he regularly collaborated with jazz musicians. During readings of his well-known tribute entitled "Milestones" for Miles Davis, Redmond often begins by humming Davis's tune "All Blues."

In the process of documenting a wide rang of artists over the decades, Redmond frequently photographed blues and jazz musicians. Miles. B. B. King. Wayne Shorter. Eddie Fisher. Herbie Hancock. You name it. Redmond is widely known as a literary historian, but in fact, his massive record collection, his role as a organizer for events showcasing jazz artists, and his many writings reveal that he is also something of a musical historian as well.  

[Related: The Redmond Effect]

And it turns out that the department's links to jazz literature or jazz and literature even predate Redmond's work as a professor. By the time Jean Kittrell arrived at SIUE in 1972, she was already more than 15 years into a career as a jazz artist that persisted until 2008 when she officially retired. (And even after that, she would still make special appearances). Kittrell was an English professor by day and the lead vocalist, and sometimes pianist too, for jazz bands on the weekends.
Kittrell performing a few blues pieces:
• "I Had Someone Else" (in 2011)
• "Downhearted Blues" (in 2011)
• "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None Of This Jelly Roll" (in 2009)
• "Empty Bed Blues" (in 2009)
As evident from those clips, Kittrell is, in addition to jazz, also immersed in the blues. She has a special fondness for Bessie Smith. She regularly covered Smith's tunes, and her academic reveals that from 1988 - 1993, she pursued a research project entitled "Songs Lyrics of Bessie Smith."  

[Related:Jean Kittrell, Barbara Schmidt & Af-Am literary studies at SIUE]

In recent years, there was discussion on campus of a "teacher-scholar" model, where professors were encouraged to blend our identities as teachers with our research interests. Kittrell was ahead of the curve, as she was some embodying a jazz artist-teacher-scholar model. Indeed, in her performances, she offered cultural histories, and in her classes and scholarly writing, she highlighted aspects of the blues and jazz. 

Taken together, Redmond and Kittrell ensured an extended run on jazz literature in the English department, particularly in the African American literature courses that were offered. Over the years, I've sought to extend that history in bits and pieces. When I arrived, I regularly discussed jazz poetry while covering the Black Arts Movement. In recent years, I have done more with rap in the classroom, thus at least continuing the overall focus on black music in the department. And now that I've become aware of Kittrell's and Redmond's interrelated, long-running contributions, I'll do much more to make SIUE students in my classes aware of our department's histories with blues and jazz literatures.

African American Literature @ SIUE

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