Jazz and Poetry: The Words Project
“ The deeper I have gotten into poetry, the more I have found it shares with jazz. ”
When most people think of jazz and poetry coming together, they immediately think of the jazz tradition of poems being read over a musical background, the famous image of the quintessential beatnik (you know, the beret, striped shirt, funky glasses...) fronting a band that plays a cool cool blues behind him. Though limited, this spoken-word tradition has helped to highlight the common ground that exists between jazz and the mostly beat (sometimes freestyle) poetry that accompanied it. However, its prominence in jazz has too often overshadowed the art of actually basing composition on poems, which has long existed in other genres and is relatively uncommon in jazz.
Basing a composition on a poem presents a multitude of challenges artistically and musically. A poem, regardless of form or verse, exists on its own, its own entity, possessing a rhyme, rhythm and a music within. I constantly ask myself whether poets actually want this done to their work. It can often feel like clothing a great nude sculpture or framing an unframed work of art and thus must be approached with great delicacy.
After selecting a text (sometimes the most difficult part of the process), the composer must dig to find the essence of the poem, the unshakable, immovable aspects of the work that transform it from a collection of words or ideas into a work of art. This is deeply connected to a musician's art, bringing creativity and vitality to a work without ignoring the intents of the composer, much like an actor brings himself to a character without compromising the script.
In setting the poem, the composer must pay careful attention to preserving the clarity of the work, its flow of ideas and subtle manipulations. They must caress each word, each line, as if the poem were being read to an audience hearing it for the first time. Balance is key, as music can easily distract from the poem, especially if the work is dense and abstract to begin with. No matter how much I wrestled with them, some of the greatest poets, such as Hart Crane (whose poetry is so full of references and has to be read almost backwards to be understood) and Sylvia Plath (who wrote some of the most powerful and evocative lines of the English language) were unappealing candidates due to the density and sheer intensity of their work (though I could not resist writing a spoken-word setting of Plath's beautiful poem to the child being conceived inside of her, "You're ). Conversely, works that have too literal of a tone, especially narrative poems, did not contain the aura of mystery that I like for a composition to have. Poems with too simple a rhyme scheme felt constricting musically and length was also critical, since my goal was to create songs with simple forms for improvisation rather than any extended works. Much like great music, ideal poems for settings, though they can be enjoyed on the first encounter, leave room for reimaginings and reinterpretation and may leave one conflicted with what the subject or message of the poem is or perhaps wondering if there is one at all.
I must confess at this point to having never been a serious reader of poetry before starting The Words Project, nor do I tend to even listen to song lyrics attentively. I have always had an analytical mind, sometimes rather impatient, one that first tries to discern the meaning of what I read before appreciating its more visceral or sensual aspects, always hungry to get to what is next. Poetry teaches us to slow down, to quiet the mind, to enjoy the subtleties of language, its sounds and minute expressions.
The deeper I have gotten into poetry, the more I have found it shares with jazz. Though many people have tried to define jazz over the years, the definition remains murky and unattainable, leading me to think that its closest definition is its precious indefiniteness. The most sure way to ignite controversy in the jazz community has always been to try rigorously to define it. Similarly, what defines a poet or a work of poetry? Many passages of literature are considered 'poetic' but are not classified as poetry, while William Carlos Williams' 16 famous and simple words about a red wheelbarrow stands as one ot the pillars of modern poetry. As a novice to poetry, I am not qualified to delve into this topic nor am I the least bit interested in an objective definition of jazz. However, this sense of indefiniteness intimately weds jazz and poetry as art forms.