Quincy Troupe & Miles Davis: Fate in a Fish Joint
It was by way of eavesdropping that poet Quincy Troupe discovered Miles Davis on a fish-joint jukebox in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. At the time, the 15-year-old Troupe was enrolled in an all-white high school, where students didn't listen to black musicians as much as they listened to Pat Boone's covers of black musicians. But in the fish joint, he was intrigued by four black men with dark glasses and ascots speaking of "the homeboy across the river from East St. Louis," whose song was playing on the jukebox. That "homeboy" was Miles Davis, and he changed Troupe’s life.
After the four strangers left, Troupe played and replayed Davis’s "Donna" on the jukebox. "Miles set me on a path that is remarkable in a lot of ways," he said in a recent interview. "He’s the one that set me on the path to writing and using my imagination, and being creative…. Because I heard that music, he propelled me into this thing that I do now."
That "thing that he does" cannot be categorized as any one thing. He has penned or edited fourteen books, including seven volumes of poetry and the non-fiction books, Miles: The Autobiography, coauthored with Miles Davis, which earned him his second American Book Award, and Miles and Me, an account of his friendship with Davis and of the influence the jazz master had on his work. Rudy Langlais, who produced the 1999 movie The Hurricane, based on the life of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, is currently turning Miles and Me into a film.
Troupe is equally renowned for his dazzling performances of his poems, which made him a two-time Heavyweight Champion of Poetry at the World Poetry Bout, a national competition held annually in Taos, New Mexico. "Any piece of writing he touches becomes music," the Los Angeles Times has said of the poet. "With an uncanny ear for the language, he combines mere words into phrases and paragraphs that sing the range of life’s raw emotions, from the elation of a Magic Johnson slam-dunk to the melancholy of a Miles Davis trumpet solo."
In his poetry, Troupe has explained, he uses refrain and repetition to capture "a feeling of jazz, a feeling of the gospel, a feeling of sermon, a feeling of spirituals, a feeling even of rhythm and blues and rock 'n’ roll." His poem "Snake-Back Solo # 2" from the collection, Avalanche, invokes these feelings, as in this excerpt:
with the music up high, boogalooin’ bass down way way low up & under, eye come slidin’ on in, mojoin’ on in, spacin’ on in on a rifful of rain riffin’ on in full of rain & pain spacin’ on in on a sound like Coltrane
Troupe has often collaborated with musicians, including the George Botts Quartet (led by saxophonist George Botts, who has performed with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and John Coltrane, among others), the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet (led by poet and saxophonist Oliver Lake), as well as jazz bassists Ron Carter and Glen Moore, guitarist Leon Atkinson, and composer and trombonist George Lewis. In 1995, Troupe recorded the CD Root Doctor, for which he read poems accompanied by jazz guitarist Phil Upchurch, and in 1996 he was featured in the PBS series The United States of Poetry, which showcased poets reading their work accompanied by musicians, with the following motto: "If it ain’t pleasure, it ain’t a poem." Troupe has also recorded poems for George Lewis, including "The View from Skates in Berkeley" for the album Changing with the Times, and "North Star Boogaloo" for the album Endless Shout.
In another effort to merge literature and music, Troupe organized "Intersections," an annual series of literary and musical performances presented at the San Jose Repertory Theater in San Jose, California, that ran from 1999 to 2001. On one evening, "Intersections" brought together poets Derek Walcott and Victor Hernandez Cruz with saxophonist Arthur Blythe. Another performance united poet Amiri Baraka, author Maxine Hong Kingston, saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and pianist and composer John Hicks. "Up on that stage, on each individual night, the audience, which is America, comes face to face with itself, with the artist as the mirror," the poet has said of the series.
All his accomplishments, Troupe has said, can be traced back to the day he heard Miles Davis playing on the jukebox: "If I had not heard Miles’s music in that fish joint, I don’t think that I would be sitting here looking at this beautiful view I’m looking at now."