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Jazz Poetry

(Four articles by Kenneth Rexroth)


A little short of two years ago, jazz poetry was a possibility, a hope and the memory of a few experiments. Today it runs the danger of becoming a fad. The life of fads is most often intense, empty and short. I feel, on the contrary, jazz poetry has permanent value or I would not have undertaken it.

When it is successful there is nothing freakish or faddish about it nor, as a matter of fact, is there anything specially new. At the roots of jazz and Negro folksong, especially in the Southwest, is the “talking blues.” It is not much heard today, but if you flatten out the melodic line, already very simple, in Big Bill Broonzy or Leadbelly, you have an approximation of it, and some of their records are really more talked than sung. This is poetry recited to a simple blues guitar accompaniment. Long before this, in the mid-nineteenth century, the French poet Charles Cros was reciting, not singing, his poems to the music of a bal musette band. Some of his things are still in the repertory of living café chantant performers, especially the extremely funny Le Hareng Saur. Even today some rock ’n roll “novelties” are recited, not sung, and they are some of the most engaging, with music that often verges into the more complex world of true jazz. It has become a common custom in storefront churches and Negro revival meetings for a member of the congregation to recite a poem to an instrumental or wordless vocal accompaniment. I believe Langston Hughes recited poems to jazz many years ago. I tried it myself in the twenties in Chicago. In the late forties Kenneth Patchen recited poems to records. Jack Spicer, a San Francisco poet, tried it with a trio led by Ron Crotty on bass. The result, more like the Russian tone color music of the first years of the century, was impressive, if not precisely jazz. Lawrence Lipton has been working with some of the best musicians in Los Angeles for almost two years. William Walton’s Facade, Stravinsky’s Persephone, compositions of Auric, Honneger, Milhaud, are well-known examples of speaking, rather than singing, to orchestra in contemporary classical music. Charles Mingus and Fred Katz, two of the most serious musicians in jazz — to narrow that invidious distinction between jazz and serious music — have been experimenting with the medium for some time. The music has been impressive, but in my opinion, speaking as a professional poet, the texts could be improved.

What is jazz poetry? It isn’t anything very complicated to understand. It is the reciting of suitable poetry with the music of a jazz band, usually small and comparatively quiet. Most emphatically, it is not recitation with “background” music. The voice is integrally wedded to the music and, although it does not sing notes, is treated as another instrument, with its own solos and ensemble passages, and with solo and ensemble work by the band alone. It comes and goes, following the logic of the presentation, just like a saxophone or piano. Poetry with background music is very far from jazz. It is not uncommon, and it is, in my opinion, usually pretty corny.

Why is jazz poetry? Jazz vocalists, especially white vocalists and especially in the idiom of the most advanced jazz, are not very common. Most Negro singers stay pretty close to the blues, and there is more to modern jazz than blues. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, there are not many singers whom all schools of jazz find congenial. Curiously enough, the poet reciting, if he knows what he is doing, seems to “swing” to the satisfaction of many musicians in a way that too few singers do. I think it is wrong to put down all popular ballad lyrics as trivial; some of them are considerable poetry in their own right, but certainly most are intellectually far beneath the musical world of modern jazz, and far less honest. The best jazz is above all characterized by its absolute emotional honesty. This leaves us with the words of the best blues and Negro folksong, often very great poetry indeed, but still a limited aspect of experience, and by no means everything, translated into words, that modern jazz has to say. In other words, poetry gives jazz a richer verbal content, reinforces and expands its musical meaning and, at the same time, provides material of the greatest flexibility.

How is it done, in actual practice? Kenneth Patchen has been working with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet. The music is composed; it is actually written out, with, of course, room for solo improvisation, but with the voice carefully scored in. There is nothing wrong with this. Far more of the greatest jazz is written music than the lay public realizes. Some of even the famous King Oliver and Louis Armstrong records of long ago were scored by Lil Hardin, a very sophisticated musician. Duke Ellington and his arranger, Billy Strayhorn, are among America’s greatest composers. For the past year I have been working with my own band, led by Dick Mills, trumpet, and including Brew Moore, tenor, Frank Esposito, trombone, Ron Crotty, bass, Clair Willey, piano, and Gus Gustafson, drums. Recently in Los Angeles, I played a two-week engagement with a fine band led by Shorty Rogers. In each case we worked from carefully rehearsed “head arrangements.” The musicians had each in front of them the text of the poetry, and the sheets were used as cue sheets, scribbled with “inners and outers,” chord progressions, melodic lines and various cues.

I feel that this method ensures the maximum amount of flexibility and spontaneity and yet provides a steadily deepening and thickening (in the musical sense) basis, differing emotionally more than actually from a written score. The whole thing is elaborately rehearsed — more than usual for even the most complicated “band number.” I would like to mention that jazz, contrary to lay opinion, is not just spontaneously “blown” out of the musicians’ heads. Behind even the freest improvisation lies a fund of accepted patterns, chord changes, riffs, melodic figures, variations of tempo and dynamics, all understood by the musicians. In fact, they are there, given, as a fund of material almost instinctively come by. Even in a jam session, when a soloist gets as far out as possible, everybody has a pretty clear idea of how he is going to get back and of how everybody is going to go off together again. Then the major forms of common jazz are almost as strict as the sonata — the thirty-two bar ballad, the twelve bar blues — bridges, choruses, fillers, all usually in multiples of the basic four-bar unit, in four-four time. Needless to say, the poetry is not “improvised” either. This has been tried, but with disastrously ridiculous results, and not by me. On the other hand, several poets have read over their things once with sensitive musicians and then put on a thoroughly satisfactory show. I have done this with Marty Paitch on piano or Ralph Pena on bass — both musicians with an extraordinary feeling for the rhythms and meanings of poetry. It all depends on the musician.

I hope the faddist elements of this new medium will die away. The ignorant and the pretentious, the sockless hipsters out for a fast buck or a few drinks from a Village bistro, will soon exhaust their welcome with the public, and the field will be left clear for serious musicians and poets who mean business. I think that it is a development of considerable potential significance for both jazz and poetry. It reaches an audience many times as large as that commonly reached by poetry, and an audience free of some of the serious vices of the typical poetry lover. It returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours. It forces poetry to deal with aspects of life which it has tended to avoid in the recent past. It demands of poetry something of a public surface — meanings which can be grasped by ordinary people — just as the plays of Shakespeare had something for both the pit and the intellectuals in Elizabethan times, and still have today. And, as I have said, it gives jazz a flexible verbal content, an adjunct which matches the seriousness and artistic integrity of the music.

Certainly audiences seem to agree. Wherever it has been performed properly, the college auditoriums, the night clubs, the concert halls have been packed, and everybody — musicians, poets and audiences — has been enthusiastic.

In the past two years it has spread from The Cellar, a small bar in San Francisco, to college campuses, to nightclubs in Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York, Dallas and, I believe, Chicago; to the Jazz Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where Lawrence Lipton put on a program with Shorty Rogers, Fred Katz, two bands, myself, Stuart Perkoff and Lipton himself, heard by about six thousand people in two weeks. Kenneth Patchen and Allyn Ferguson followed us, and played there for the better part of two months. Dick Mills and his band have performed with me at several colleges and at the San Francisco Art Festival, and we are now planning to take the whole show on the road.

If we can keep the standards up, and keep it away from those who don’t know what they are doing, who have no conception of the rather severe demands the form makes on the integrity and competence of both musicians and poets, I feel that we shall have given, for a long time to come, new meanings to both jazz and poetry.


Things are beginning to get out of hand. The other day Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic, said to me that he expected any day to see ads in the trade papers: “JAZZ POET: blues, ballad, upbeat, free verse or rhyme. Have tux. Will travel.” And T.S. Eliot touring the kerosene circuit with Little Richard and the Harlem Globetrotters. Crazes are usually pretty empty, sterile things. It would be a pity if incompetents looking for a fast buck turned this into a temporary social disease like pee-wee golf or swallowing goldfish.

I, for one, take it very seriously indeed. I started doing it long ago in the Green Mask in Chicago to Frankie Melrose’s piano and anybody else who wandered in to blow. The music was pretty gut-bucket usually, sort of paleo-funky, if you dig, and much of the poetry was Service, Sandburg, even Swinburne, but some of it wasn’t. The Waste Land was read to jazz, all of it, shortly after it appeared. Bert Williams and Bert Savoy were both in the audience and thought it was a gasser . . . the cat’s whiskers it was then.

I read poetry to jazz because I like to. I like poetry. I like to read to people. I like jazz. The people like the combination. But there’s more to it than that. Poetry and jazz gain new and different dimensions in association. Poetry has always gained by association with music . . . ancient China, Japan, India, Greece, the troubadours and minnesingers and scalds. Not just as lyrics for songs, but also as recitation. The Homeric poems were recited in this way. There was a special profession for doing it called rhetors. In a sense poetry and jazz as such began about mid-nineteenth century with a friend of Baudelaire and Verlaine, Charles Cros, who recited his poems to the jivy music of the three-piece bands of the bals musettes and cafés chantants. He was a very great and very wise poet as well. This should set to rest the cooked-up dispute as to who invented it. I am sure I didn’t and, as I say, I started in the early twenties.

Why to jazz specifically? Well, I, for one, don’t make any distinction between jazz and “serious music.” Jazz is serious music; some people think it is the only American music worth taking seriously. Not in lush or brutal clip joints, but in the best jazz rooms and concerts, poetry gains from jazz an audience of widely diversified character, people who are seriously concerned with music, but who do not ordinarily read verse and who care nothing for the conflicts and rituals of the literary scene. The audience poetry has today, its official audience, is what is killing it. And, of course, the poet himself gains by the test of popular presentation. Naturally all poetry is not, nor should it be, able to meet this test. But we could do with more. Jazz gains by a new vocal content which can match its own seriousness, depth and complexity. Some jazz is “abstract” like Bach, but most of it is a kind of “program music” like Stravinsky, and obviously the better the program — all other things considered — the better the results. I might mention that Stravinsky’s Persephone does not differ formally from what we are trying to do. Poetry and jazz is not a gimmick, a freak gig, something for the sockless cats and the unwashed chicks of the marijuana circuit. It is not new, but as old as music and poetry, and to be treated with the dignity and respect, by performers and audience respectively, which those ancient expressions of mankind should always merit.

I think that, by and large, poetry is a dying art in modern civilization, dying for lack of a significant audience. Kids who can’t make the team or build a hot rod or toss chicks around in the air jitterbugging tend to gravitate to “The Lit.” and thence to the reputedly adult literary quarterly. Poetry won’t get the chicks that even the poorest hot rod will, but in extremity it will serve. And like poet, like audience. It is not just the Babbitts who think there’s something odd about people who read poetry. I think so, and I know. Odd, and very, very few. And so poetry itself has become insufferably odd and cranky. I think this is due to the lack of living contact with the audience, as well, of course, as to general social and economic factors. There isn’t much to be done about the big factors by any one individual anyway, but it is possible to keep plugging away at putting the poet back into actual physical touch with a live audience. In San Francisco we have led the world in that effort. Today, more than anywhere in the world except possibly Japan, poetry is a real factor in the life of the community and poets enjoy widespread influence — not on literature, but on life.

Jazz poetry reading puts poetry back in the entertainment business, where it was with Homer and the troubadours. Even Victorian epics like Idylls of the King and Evangeline were written to be read to the whole family around the fire in the evening by papa — not, certainly, to be studied for their ambiguities by a seminar of five Ph.D. candidates, conducted by another poet.

The musicians get a chance to work with words that mean something, something approximating the really profound levels attained by much modern jazz which certainly does not belong in the banal world of the Tin Pan Alley lyric. Also, the rhythms of modern poetry are extremely complex and the problems they set the musicians are comparable to those he sets himself when he “takes off’ from the hackneyed rhythm structure of the popular tune. Actually, much modern poetry is too complex for jazz, which, aficionados to the contrary, is not as complicated as much quite ordinary classical music.

There is a widespread belief that real jazz is just blown, spontaneously, out of nowhere, and that if it isn’t improvised it isn’t jazz. Nothing could be less true. The most spontaneous improvisation works with an immense repertory of stereotyped patterns, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, which every musician knows, and into which he pours the new life of the immediate performance as he goes along. At any given moment everybody in the band has a pretty clear idea of what is going to happen next. By very definition the great swing bands were elaborately arranged and exhaustively rehearsed. So the idea that you can just get up in front of a band and everybody blow poetry and sounds out of dreams is just plain silly.

We have found that the effects we want are obtained by making sure that each musician knows exactly what the poet is doing — what he means, and what technical effects he employs, for instance the rhythms of his speech, to put his meaning across. Each musician has a sheet with the text in front of him, which he also uses as a cue sheet and for all sorts of other marginal musical notation. Then comes plenty of careful rehearsal, each one taped and played back and carefully analyzed. Rehearsals are pretty elaborate, far more finicky than the average band rehearsal, but the constant effort is to increase spontaneity, not to limit it. We find, like all artists, that you have to work hard to earn freedom of expression. One thing, there is very little room for the intensely competitive self-expression of the bop era. We don’t try to blow each other down. We find that jazz poetry is an exacting, cooperative, precision effort, like mountaineering. Everybody has to be perfectly coordinated; there is no place for the bitter musical dogfights immortalized on some bop records; everybody has to be as socialized as six men on a rope working across the face of a cliff.

I, for one, have tried to treat the voice as another instrument in the band. Whenever the voice takes on the character of a solo singer or the band sinks to background music, we feel we have failed, and we scrap that effort and start over. You can readily see that, contrary to popular belief, this poetry and jazz combination is harder work than either of the arts taken separately. So, as a warning to other poets and musicians, if you don’t work, but hard, you are going to fall on your face. It’s time and trouble, but the final product is worth it; what they call the creative satisfactions are terrific, a real joy, and Lord, Lord, Lord, look how it packs them in!


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 revolutionize 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 storefront 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 matched to the notes in the strict way a song is. The point is that is gives 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. Then, 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 connection with his audiences. Only in modern times has poetry become a bookish art. In its best days Homer and the Troubadours recited their poetry to music in just this way.

How do we do it? We certainly don’t just spontaneously blow off the top 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 a 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.


[Village Voice editor:] The other day Kenneth Rexroth, in town for some jazz-poetry readings at a local bar, dropped by these offices for a chat. Urged to commit his remarks to paper, he said he would write The Voice a letter. Here it is:

Pursuant, as they say, to our conversation, the Village hasn’t changed much. I grew up in it and sat in high chairs at the Brevoort and Lafayette. There’s more of it, and it’s sharper. I don’t think there’s much doubt, for instance, that The Voice is a more civilized organ than Bruno’s Weekly. The place is full of uptowners; it always was. It is expensive; it was in 1920. As a way of life, it goes on unchanged, amongst the call girls, customers’ men, aboriginal Italians and Irish. But where one girl wore colored stockings in 1905, thousands wear them today. Where Floyd Dell read Nietzsche, untold numbers read Beckett in the dim light of cold-water walk-ups.

As for the Beat Generation. Let’s all stop. Right now. This has turned into a Madison Avenue gimmick. When the fall book lists come out, it will be as dead as Davy Crockett caps. It is a pity that as fine an artist as Jack Kerouac got hooked by this label. Of course it happened because of Jack’s naïveté — the innocence of heart which is his special virtue. I am sure he is as sick of it as I am. I for one never belonged to it. I am neither beatified nor pummeled. I’m getting on, but I’ve managed to dodge the gimmick generations as they went past; I was never Lost nor Proletarian nor Reactionary. This stuff is strictly for the customers.

As for Jack himself. Yes, I threw him out. He was frightening the children. He doesn’t frighten me, though when he gets excessively beatified he bores me slightly. I think he is one of the finest prose writers now writing prose. He is a naïve writer, like Restif de la Bretonne or Henry Miller, who accurately reflects a world without understanding it very well in the rational sense. For that, Clellon Holmes is far better on the same scene, shrewd and objective; but, as I am pretty sure he himself would be the first to admit, not the artist Jack is, and lacking, because of his very objectivity, Jack’s poignancy and terror. One thing about Jack and Allen Ginsberg, who, I might remind you, are Villagers, and only were temporarily on loan to San Francisco: I had to come back to New York to realize how good they are. They have sure as hell made just the right enemies.

Now about jazz poetry. Let anybody who wants to have started it go right ahead and have started it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. But Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I did first start it off as public entertainment before concert and club audiences. For better or worse, I guess we started the craze. It is a lot more than a craze as far as I am concerned. I am not interested in a freak gig. I think the art of poetry in America is in a bad way. It is largely the business of seminars, conducted by aging poets for five or six budding poets.

Jazz poetry gets poetry out of the classrooms and into contact with large audiences who have not read any verse since grammar school. They listen, they like it, they come back for more. It demands of poetry, however deep and complex, something of a public surface, like the plays of Shakespeare that had stuff for everybody, the commonalty, the middle class, the nobility, the intellectuals.

Jazz gives poetry, too, the rhythms of itself, so expressive of the world we live in, and it gives it the inspiration of the jazz world, with its hard simple morality and its direct honesty — especially its erotic honesty. Fish or cut bait. Poetry gives modern jazz a verbal content infinitely superior to the silly falsities of the typical Tin Pan Alley lyric. It provides people who do not understand music technically something to hook onto — something to lead them into the complex world of modern jazz — as serious and as artistically important as any music being produced today. And then, the reciting, rather than singing voice, if properly managed, swings more than an awful lot of vocalists. As you may know, most jazz men like two singers — Frankie and Ella. With a poet who understands what is going on, they are not at the mercy of a vocalist who wants just to vocalize and who looks on the band as a necessary evil at best. Too, the emotional complexity of good poetry provides the musician with continuous creative stimulus, but at the same time gives him the widest possible creative freedom.

All this requires skill. Like if you just want to blow a lot of crazy words, man, if you think jazz is jungle music while the missionary soup comes to a boil, if you believe in the jazz myth of the hipster, you are going to fall on your face. Charlie Parker, or many younger men, are just as sophisticated artists as T.S. Eliot, and in some cases better, and have a lot more kinship with Couperin than with the King of the Cannibal Isles. And the combination of jazz and poetry requires good poetry, competent recitation, everybody in the group really digging what everybody else is doing, and, of course, real tasty music. Then it’s great, and everybody loves it, specially you, baby.



The first of these articles originally appeared in The Nation (29 March 1958) and was reprinted in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). The second appeared in Esquire (May 1958). The third appeared on the back cover of the LP Kenneth Rexroth: Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk (Fantasy Records, 1960). The fourth appeared in the Village Voice (23 April 1958). Copyright 1958, 1960. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Four poems from the Blackhawk LP can be heard online here. Rexroth’s powerful reading of “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” which originally appeared on the LP Poetry Readings in the Cellar (Fantasy Records, 1959), has recently been reissued as a CD, available here.

[Some Thoughts on Jazz]

[Five More Articles on Jazz]

[Other Rexroth Essays]




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