poem index

Kenneth Rexroth: Poetry Wedded to Jazz

Year

2004

In the liner notes for the 1959 record Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Kenneth Rexroth wrote of jazz poetry: "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."

Jazz poetry is, simply, the recitation of poetry with the music of a jazz band. However, as Rexroth noted, the poem shouldn’t merely be read against music, it should integrate into it. "The voice is integrally wedded to the music and, although it does not sing notes, is treated as another instrument," he wrote in a 1958 essay. He was opposed to poems crudely set to background music, a phenomenon he was displeased to see gain momentum, especially among the "sockless hipsters," who he portrayed as scam artists out "for a fast buck or a few drinks."

Best known as a poet and translator--his translations of Chinese and Japanese poems helped renew interest in Asian poetry among American readers--Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.

Rexroth toured the United States, performing in places like St. Louis and New York, where he once had a regular gig at the Five Spot, the same downtown club immortalized in the poem "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O’Hara. Rexroth was a regular at the famed Blackhawk club in San Francisco, often sharing the bill with up-and-coming bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The desire to get poetry back into the hands of the audience was the implicit motive of Rexroth’s jazz poetry. He wrote that the combination of the two art forms can reach a considerable audience, and that jazz poetry "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."