Jazz poetry is poetry that "demonstrates jazz-like rhythm or the feel of improvisation". The genre also includes poems written about jazz music, musicians, or the jazz milieu. During the 1920s, several poets began to eschew the conventions of rhythm and style; among these were Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and E. E. Cummings. The significance of the simultaneous evolution of poetry and jazz during the 1920s was apparent to many poets of the era, resulting in the merging of the two art forms into jazz poetry. Jazz poetry has long been something of an "outsider" art form that exists somewhere outside the mainstream, having been conceived in the 1920s by African-Americans, maintained in the 1950s by counterculture poets like those of the Beat generation, and adapted in modern times into hip-hop music and live poetry events known as poetry slams.
The Harlem Renaissance
Early jazz poetry did not mimic the sounds and improvisational spirit of jazz. Instead, it heavily referenced the musical form with allusions made to musicians, instruments, and locations key to the burgeoning jazz scene. Poets like Vachel Lindsay (who actually abhorred the "primitive" sound of jazz music) and Mina Loy wrote poetry in this vein. It was with the advent of the Harlem Renaissance that jazz poetry developed into what it is today.
Poets like Langston Hughes incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music into their writing. Many Harlem Renaissance writers were deeply concerned with racial pride and with the creation of purely African-American poetry. Since jazz music was an important part of African-American culture at the time, Hughes and others like him adapted the musical genre to create their own, singularly African-American voices that could easily be distinguished from the work of white poets. Many of Hughes' poems, such as "The Weary Blues," sound almost exactly like popular jazz and blues songs of the period, and vice versa. His work is also highly evocative of spirituals.
Bebop and the beat generation
As members of the Beat generation began to embrace aspects of African-American culture during the 1950s, the art of jazz poetry shifted its focus from racial pride and individuality to spontaneity and freedom. In this case, both jazz poetry and jazz music were seen as powerful statements against the status quo.
Jack Kerouac would often have musical accompaniment for his poetry readings. His colleague, musician and composer David Amram, would often play the piano or bongos as Kerouac read. Amram later wrote of their work together:
We never once rehearsed. We did listen intently to one another. Jazz is all about listening and sharing. I never drowned out one word of whatever Jack was reading or making up on the spot. When I did my spontaneous scatting [...] he would play piano or bongos and he never drowned out or stepped on a word or interrupted a thought that I or anyone else had when they joined us in these late night-early morning get-togethers. We had mutual respect for one another, and anyone who joined us received the same respect. We almost never used a microphone. Most of the time, there weren't any available!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti had a similar collaboration with saxophone player Stan Getz. Beat poet Bob Kaufman was said by some to be the greatest jazz poet ever to have lived, with the exception of Langston Hughes. Kaufman paid homage to jazz in poems like "O Jazz O" and "Morning Joy." His work is notable for its syncopated rhythms, surreal imagery, and a quality of alienation stemming from his own life as a drifter and a jailbird.
In the 1960s, Beat poet LeRoi Jones renamed himself Amiri Baraka and revived the idea of jazz poetry as a source of black pride. Baraka was a cultural nationalist who believed that "Black People are a race, a culture, a Nation". Elements of jazz show up often in Baraka's work, such as syncopation and repetition of phrases. Gil Scott-Heron, often seen as one of the founding fathers of rap music, also used many of the artistic devices of jazz poetry in his spoken-word albums of the 1970s and 1980s.
The use of jazz poetry at coffee houses and places of that sort has often been seen as a great tool to help people who are very busy lower their stress levels. The smooth sounds of the soft music and flowing words makes it a great way to relax; however, real jazz poets do not intend to relax listeners.
- Article by Pittsburg State University faculty
- Jones, Meta DuEwa Jones (2011). The Muse is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. University of Illinois Press. pp. 23–25. ISBN 0252079264.
- David Amram: Poetry and All That Jazz at allaboutjazz.com
- Article from the Beat Museum website
- Amiri Baraka: Biography and Historical Context