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Kissing Cousins: Jazz + poetry = jazz poetry

Jeff Winke By

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Believe it or not there have been times when jazz and poetry intertwine. The music inspires the poetry and creates a non-mainstream style of writing... jazz poetry.

Innovations in music and poetics in the early part of the 20th century surfaced in the 1920's. The simultaneous evolution of poetry and jazz music was not lost upon musicians and writers of the time. The two art forms merge and form the genre of jazz poetry. However, note that there's a distinction between poets who write about jazz music (jazz-related poetry) and poets who capture the tone, rhythm and cadence of the music in their writing (jazz poetry).

During the Harlem Renaissance, poet Langston Hughes—considered the first true jazz poet—incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of jazz and blues into his writing. Case in point, his 1923 poem "The Weary Blues."

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox 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.

Jump to the early 1950's and Beat Generation writers find a kindred spirit with jazz musicians. Both the Beat poets and jazz musicians are outsiders. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Neal Cassady, Anne Waldman and Michael McClure would often have musical accompaniment for their poetry readings. Lawrence Ferlinghetti collaborated with saxophonist Stan Getz.

A rough-at-the-edges Beat poet, Bob Kaufman, captures the sense in his poem "Round About Midnight," which clearly tips its black beret to Thelonious Monk:

Round About Midnight

Jazz radio on a midnight kick,
Round about Midnight.

Sitting on the bed,
With a jazz type chick
Round about Midnight,

Piano laughter, in my ears,
Round about Midnight.

Stirring up laughter, dying tears,
Round about Midnight.

Soft blue voices, muted grins,
Excited voices, Father's sins,
Round about Midnight.

Come on baby, take off your clothes,
Round about Midnight.

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