Poetry and jazz. Makes me think of a crowded basement, deep in the city, a man with a cigarette, tapping his foot, nodding toward a trio of musicians. We tend to think of the poetry and jazz combination as the epitome of the avant garde. But actually, it descends from the longest tradition in human communication, where the storyteller is a singer, a songster, a minstrel, a bard.
I have always been intimidated by the poem-song, because it has the potential to go so terribly awry. But my interest was recently revived when I came across this rare gem: San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, live at the Blackhawk. The year is 1958, Rexroth is a center of gravity in literary San Francisco, a reluctant mentor to the Beats, and is performing here at one of the era’s most serious jazz venues.
I suggest starting with the poem-song, ‘I didn’t want it…’ It’s fun. You’ll find yourself both tapping your foot to the rhythm and nodding your head at certain lines in the poem. Both the spoken word and the music become catchier through their combination. How is this done?
We know precisely how it’s done, because -- another reason this is such a rare gem -- the poet tells us. In this text from the jacket cover of the original LP, Rexroth explains the creative process between himself and his band. The playful exchange, Rexroth explains, is the product of a strategic balance between spontaneity and good planning.
Here we sense the flow of something which is improvised and spontaneous, and at the same time, a degree of synthesis which indicates that this performance has been well thought through. Rexroth explains:
We certainly don’t just spontaneously blow off the tops of our heads. Most of these pieces are standard tunes, carefully rehearsed many times with the poet until we’ve got a good clear rich head arrangement. We don’t write it down, because we want to keep as much spontaneity and invention as possible, but at the same time we want plenty of substance to the music, and, of course, we want poet and band to ‘go together.’
It doesn’t necessarily have to be poetry and jazz. It could also be memoir and polka. If there’s one thing we can learn from Rexroth, it’s that we shouldn’t be afraid of the story-music combination, to have fun and get a little silly, to experiment and to invent. But we shouldn’t either relax too much, and should definitely rehearse it a few times. The responsibility is great; we’ll be carrying on the tradition of storytelling as song.
‘I didn’t want it…’
by Kenneth Rexroth. Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, 1958
This poem-song is also on youtube, here.