The Interlocutors: Poetry and Jazz in Collaboration

By | 1 November 2012

Lynn Hard, on the other hand, writes almost always in free verse and so is inclined to read his work (quite serenely) across the top of the music’s rhythm. Both possibilities seem to work well and there can be occasional crossovers between them – especially if the free verse becomes more iambic in places or the iambic verse is ‘roughened up’ with more unstressed syllables than usual. The choice of tempo and harmonic underpinning (and, sometimes, the resonance of actual tunes) is, of course, designed to pick up on and reinforce the emotions of the poem.

In all these performances the musicians have, of course, been given copies of the poems and have had them in front of them throughout. As with jazz solos, the rhythm section provides both an underpinning and a running commentary reinforcing the thrust of the poem (as the musicians perceive it). Usually, the novelty of this familiar yet unfamiliar role tends to console them for their lack of solo space. It’s a challenge for them.

The bassist, Eric Ajaye, commented that the 35-minute gig he did with me (just voice and double bass) was one of the hardest he’d ever done – and I’m sure he meant that to be a compliment! I think quite a few jazz musicians are intrigued by the possible interaction with other art forms (dance and the visual arts, to name just two). Poetry is merely one of the (not often available) opportunities for such initiatives. Alex Boneham, another highly-accomplished bass player, had similar feelings about the collaborative gigs we did at the 2011 Wangaratta Jazz Festival and in a Canberra bookshop this year to launch my book of jazz poems, A Sudden Sentence in the Air (extempore, 2011).

I suppose one of the ineradicable difficulties of jazz/poetry collaborations is that, however the two ingredients are mixed, the audience has somehow to concentrate on two inputs at once. The voice has to be clear and unmistakable but the jazz cannot be reduced to a mere backing-track (even if the musicians were prepared to tolerate it). If the music is too strong however, the poetry may seem no more than an unnecessary irritation. This reaction may be exacerbated by the audience’s probable unfamiliarity with one side or the other of the new convention. They are used to one or other of the art forms but not both simultaneously. Typically, a listener’s first loyalty will be to one form rather than the other so the presentation of the unfamiliar form at all may, in itself, constitute a problem.

Having had the experience of reading my poetry (at fairly wide intervals) with a number of top jazz musicians over the past forty years or so, I have no doubt about the combination’s potential. I wouldn’t want to do every reading in this way but those I have done seem to me to have had a special rhythmic and emotional urgency quite different from my ‘ordinary’ readings. Being an amateur musician only, I can’t speak for the musicians I’ve worked with but they have assured me that they enjoyed the experience and remain keen to try it again should opportunity offer.

As I’ve indicated jazz/poetry collaboration has a long tradition, going back (albeit patchily) some 70 years or so. There is no reason why these two forms, currently enjoying greater-than-usual popularity, should not combine more frequently. We have, unfortunately, seen government and university cutbacks and ‘re-structures’ in both art forms (some of them calamitous) but I remain optimistic about their resilience. After all, poetry and jazz existed well before government or university funding became a factor in their health. They will almost inevitably continue, albeit diminished in size but not in intensity, after the barbarians have had their say. Poetry and jazz speak to things deep in our human psyche: a love of patterned language and a love of the unpredictable, for a start. Neither is likely to disappear any time soon.


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