At MLA in Los Angeles (the city, for me, of ghosts, not angels) I gave a talk on John Taggart’s poem “Giant Steps” and its relation to both the Coltrane composition and to the sound innovations of Louis Zukofsky’s poetry. My talk was part of a panel called “Giant Steps: Jazz and Poetry,” chaired and organized by the indefatigable Aldon Nielsen, whom I sometimes think must do nothing but attend every cool conference there is. I mean, the man is everywhere.
The MLA, as everyone who’s ever been there will tell you, seems to exist for no other reason than to give its participants the opportunity to curse its monstrous size and feel crushed by its utterly pitiless all-engulfing maw. This is Kapital personified. Think of the Moloch scene in Metropolis and you get the picture. At the same time, it’s an exciting moment of wild juxtapositions, awkward mixings, and ecstatic reunions, sincere or feigned. Plus, some damned fine talks (of which more in a moment). Despite its inviting climate, I’m not sure LA is the best site for it. I lived there for 15 years, largely in Hollywood and Studio City, and while downtown has changed dramatically in some ways (the garish, uber-postmodern Disney-esque Staples Center), it’s still kind of a bleak shithole, all the garrison lofts of the hipsters notwithstanding. As Kevin Killian quipped to me, outside the SPD booth in the book exhibit hall, -- “it’s like new Times Square meets old Times Square.” Check. The one bright spot of redemption? Bottega Louie’s, on 7th and Grand. Get there early. Order the trenne pasta … and the “special” Manhattan.
My fellow panelists were brilliant. The delightful Meta Jones discoursed on the genre of Coltrane poetry, focusing in particular on poetic receptions and revisions of his classic and heartbreaking “Alabama,” and then added an audacious, thrilling contribution of her own to that genre that had our hair standing on end, before closing with a consideration of the fate of the black female body in jazz poetry. Michael New, a jazz musician himself and looking very natty in a grey pin-striped suit, offered a masterful overview of the emergence of jazz poetry as a genre (always already racialized) while noting the failures of classification attendant to the genre as well as the limitations of mimetic response by poets to jazz. His conclusion, drawing smartly on Derrida’s seminal “Laws of Genre,” located jazz poetry as a process or methodology, which termite-like, eats away at its own boundaries. (NB – I owe these observations not to any assiduity on my own part, but to the sharp ear of my lovely wife, Ingrid Nelson).
See here for some photos of our panel, and more, from Aldon’s blog, Heatstrings.
The extraordinary and inspiring Jed Rasula was there and asked the first question and it was such a good one I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I stand by my original response, but I’d like to add it to here. Jed’s question went something like this – “why is most jazz poetry about bop and post-bop jazz?” Simple, yet complex, like all great questions. My off the cuff answer was that it had to do with how bop seemed readymade to answer to theories of how the modernist poem worked. Ellington is modernist, but not avant-garde. Whereas Parker, Miles, Monk, Trane are always represented as part of a vanguard scene and moving away from the traditional jazz of Armstrong, Hawkins, Duke, et al, as if their predecessors were not themselves the original trailblazers.
Yet this only begins to cover it. Bop, and all that followed – modal jazz, hard bop, free jazz, fusion – is distinctly a product of the Cold War. Which means that art suddenly experiences a postwar surge toward autonomy, as Adorno might put it. (Think Pollock, think Beckett). A rejection of shared communal values and meaning and a turn to the hermetic as a way to safeguard aesthetic experience from the overpowering encroachments of the culture industry. What’s important to note here is the relationship of jazz to its audience and to mass culture as such – and the post-war turn to the interior. The complicated affiliation of pre-war jazz to mass culture and popular forms of entertainment, like the dance hall, like the Cotton Club, means, I think, that the innovations of Ellington and Armstrong have been scandalously misread. Just because you can dance to “Jack the Bear” or “Caravan,” or whistle “West End Blues” doesn’t mean these are mere pop songs, as disposable as yesterday’s newspaper. Yet this is what has happened.
The modernist jazz idiom pioneered by the Duke and others and denigrated as “jungle music” – like calling Picasso “jungle painting” (which I suppose must have happened, too) – has not been received as sufficiently radical, even though its vocabulary made possible everything that was to follow. Even though its foundational break created a new idiom of expression. After the war, jazz ceases to be a form of mass entertainment. Due to economic pressures and a shift in popular taste, orchestras are forced to disband and small combos arise. Jazz becomes a thing of clubs, not dance halls. The cool effaces its own origins and takes up a mode of expression more in keeping with the increasing sense of cultural fragmentation that marks the postwar era. And poets respond to this sense of exile, isolation and retreat by rhyming their words against the lonely dissonance. If pre-war jazz is largely bold, symphonic, and utopian, postwar jazz is small scale, virtuoso, and messianic. In a word, lyric.
Addendum: Aldon gently suggests to me that what Jed was really asking was why do contemporary poets only seem to write about the bop/post-bop period? Why are there so few poems on contemporary jazz? That's not the question I heard, but it may every well have been the question that was asked. So I'll let the ramble above stand as it is, for whatever it's worth.