Thursday, November 13, 2003


When, last week in Orono, Jennifer Moxley asked me what the role of jazz is with regards to poetry for poets of "my generation,” she had something specific in mind. At the Poetry & Empire retreat at Penn a couple of weeks before, both Herman Beavers & I had used jazz as a model to discuss our work, but had done so differently. And both of us have a certain amount of gray in our beards – indeed, we’re both from a generation in which beards are not that uncommon. Moxley, who characterizes herself as someone who came of age during the heyday of punk, doesn’t relate intuitively to jazz as a genre – tho my sources tell me she listens to opera, so who knows? Yet Moxley is aware that jazz is cited as a primary source by an inordinate number of New American poets*, as well as by several writers from my own generation – Clark Coolidge, Kit Robinson, Doug Lang, Lyn Hejinian, Pierre Joris & Aldon Nielsen all come immediately to mind.


Beavers, whose poetry often employs personae & dramatic monolog, had been contrasting the role of jazz & the church in the African American community. He had in fact gone so far as to diagram it on his notepad as he sat to my left, with church as a vertical axis, invoking both the spiritual & community dimensions of experience, jazz representing both the secular & improvisatory along a horizontal axis. I don’t think Herman said it like this, but I’m sure that at some point I heard (or at least imagined) one axis as community, the other as individuality.


I don’t come to jazz in the same way at all. By the time I was old enough to start listening half-seriously to Mingus, Monk & Coltrane right at the end of high school, jazz had already made the precipitous transition from its role as the most popular musical genre of the 1930s & early ‘40s to a specialist music practiced primarily by black intellectuals. It was this practice & the role the musicians I got to know gradually were playing – Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago – that I responded to most of all. Not unlike Harry Partch, the renegade post-classical composer whom I was fortunate enough to see & hear lead performances of his work, his ensembles filled with invented instruments, invented scales, texts derived from graffiti & the letters of hoboes, these musicians took responsibility for every aspect & element in their music. They saw the possibility of music & its meaning in its largest possible terms, a vision that positions them closer to philosophers or scientific investigators (a role Lester Bowie both underscored & lampooned by wearing a lab coat onstage) than “mere performers.” Indeed, it is just this world of a black intelligentsia I see figured in Nate Mackey’s fiction that makes it so attractive (&, I would argue, politically important), an alternative to the unmarked Eurocentric given we’ve all inherited. That this world is also quite close to the role of the poet in the post-avant community strikes me as self-evident.


When I moved to San Francisco for a second time – the first was to attend SF State in the mid-‘60s – in 1972, I began to spend time at Keystone Corner, a club immediately next to the North Beach police station, so that people like Braxton & Taylor became more than just names on record albums in those days of vinyl. And I gradually became aware of younger, local musicians such as Idris Ackamoor, George Lewis, John Gruntfest, Lisa Rose, Greg Goodman & Bruce Ackley & then, once Larry Ochs & Lyn Hejinian moved down from Willits & Larry teamed up with Ackley, John Raskin & (first) Andy Voight, then (later) Steve Adams, ROVA. Some of my very favorite moments in the late 1970s, especially, but even into the ‘80s, was going to a session at a club like the Blue Dolphin or Pangaea, sitting in back & writing furiously as groups (sometimes up to 40 musicians) improvised simultaneously. A fair portion of Tjanting in particular was produced under just such conditions.


But most important for me, even beyond the syncopations & measures of the music, has always been jazz as a model for thinking through the issues of art. It’s obviously note alone in that regard – one might be attracted, say, to the film work of a Michael Snow or Stan Brakhage or Abigail Child, or to the work of dozens of different painters & sculptors, and get some of the same sorts of inputs as a result. If the influences of jazz seem especially audible, for example, in the work of Clark Coolidge, whose writing sometimes sounds like continuous invention in a largely bebop mode, I sometimes imagine the writing of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge as being painterly, not because she lives with Richard Tuttle, but because her projects feel as tho they’re invented or constructed series complete in themselves, rather the way a solo exhibition at a major gallery would be, and that I sense she takes a long time between projects so that each will be visibly, palpably differentiated. Her sense of “project” thus seems very different from what I expect from writing or music, & that’s one of the values I take from her work.**


Now, having said all this, jazz for me has always been one of several musics to which I attend. I’ve been listening to folk music ever since I first heard it in the civil rights actions of the very early ‘60s (predating by a year or two my exposure to jazz), world music is exceptionally important to me even now. Post-classical music since the Second World War (especially Cage, Partch, the early Reich, Hovhaness, Harrison & more recently Tina Davidson) is always also a part of the mix. All of these musics include, in addition to their formal concerns, other elements, aspects of what it means to be an artists – my sense of a literary community comes right out of my interest in folk music, for example. And to some degree these different genres double in their value because I can think of them in a freeform kind of way. I’m not invested in them the way I am different elements of 20th century literary history.


And that too is one of the values of art. Just as David Bromige & I once had long discussions about the films of Ingmar Bergman because they enabled us to explore aesthetics without getting into the “dangerous” territory of our own writing, other art forms present us always with models of how it could be done differently, if we but look & listen.









* Was it Creeley who first noted that what the poets at Black Mountain shared in common was “Bird,” Charlie Parker? I suspect that may have been an exaggeration, at least in Robert Duncan’s case. But there was Rexroth, Ferlinghetti & Kerouac reading to jazz accompaniment, something Michael McClure still does today with Ray Manzarek of the Doors. And Frank O’Hara wrote more than once of the performers he saw at the Blue Note & elsewhere.


** This is a feature that Berssenbrugge shares with the late Jack Spicer, but I have no idea at all where he gets it. Maybe from Martians over the radio. He doesn’t feel painterly in the least.

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