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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk

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Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk

by Kenneth Rexroth

[Liner notes by Kenneth Rexroth from the Fantasy Spoken Word Series album sleeve, Fantasy 7008 high fidelity long play record.]

Over a hundred years ago the French poet, Charles Cros, the man who invented the phonograph, recited his poetry to the hot music of a bal musette band. Some of his pieces, especially the very funny ‘The Dry Herring,’ are still in the repertory of café entertainers over there. In the Twenties Langston Hughes, Maxwell Bodenheim and myself recited poetry to the jazz of the time. A few years back, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Lipton and I revived it in California. For a while it was a fad. The Beatniks took it up. Some pretty awful stuff was committed in joints around the country. Now the fad has died away and the permanent, solid achievements remain. The form is not going to revolutionise either jazz or poetry but it is going to stay with us, and both jazz and poetry are going to have one new way of expressing themselves, and so are going to be just a little richer. This is as it should be, because jazz poetry is fun to listen to, and it is even greater fun to do.

During the past four years I have worked around the country with all kinds of top-notch bands. Every one of these dates has been a sheer joy. But always at last I have come home to San Francisco and ‘my’ band. Somehow we seem to go together like ham and eggs. We know each other thoroughly. We are always with it. It’s not just that nobody gets lost too far out. We know perfectly how to bring out each other’s best points. We know what we are doing.

What are we doing? Nothing freakish. Nothing outrageous. Nothing really new. Not just the people I mentioned before, but the ‘talking blues’, recitations of poetry as part of the service in store front churches, highbrow music like Stravinsky’s ‘Persephone’ and Walton’s ‘Facade’, there is nothing strange about the form, it has a long history in both jazz, spirituals and classical music. It is not singing or chanting. It is not to matched to the notes in the strict way a song is. The point is that it is a freer relationship, one which gives the musicians more chance for invention, for individual expression and development. Again,
modern jazz is much better stuff than many of the popular lyrics that go with the tunes on which it is based. Some of these are pretty silly. We think that good poetry gives jazz words that match its own importance. Them too, the combination of poetry and jazz with the poet reciting, gives the poet a new kind of audience. Not necessarily a bigger one, but a more normal one — ordinary people out for the evening, looking for civilized entertainment. It takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world and forces him to compete with ‘acrobats, trained dogs, and Singer’s Midgets’, as they used to say in the days of vaudeville. Is this bad? I think not. Precisely what is wrong with the modern poet is the lack of a living, flesh and blood connexion with his audiences. Only in modern times has poetry become a bookish art. In its best days Homer and the Troubadors recited their poetry to music in just this way.

How do we do it? 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’. I have chosen poems which are about the same things as most popular songs and blues and which are simple enough so that they can be put across to the average audience in a jazz room. Maybe now that the medium has caught on, as it certainly has, we can go on and try ‘deeper’ more complicated poetry. I use poetry from all times and places, again to show that nothing is foreign to jazz treatment. Poets of all times and places have always sung, ‘I loved him but he went away,’ ‘Come to my arms, we ain’t gonna live forever.’ ‘I wish I’d never met you.’

Why do we do it? No theories. We do it because we like to. It’s fun.

— Kenneth Rexroth

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Photo, top: Kenneth Rexroth reading his work to a jazz accompaniment
at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.

This material is copyright © the Kenneth Rexroth Estate and Jacket magazine 2003
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