Jazz poetry is a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz. Jazz poetry, like the music itself, encompasses a variety of forms, rhythms, and sounds. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century, jazz poetry is can be seen as a thread that runs through the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat movement, and the Black Arts Movement—and it is still vibrant today. From early blues to free jazz to experimental music, jazz poets use their appreciation for the music as poetic inspiration.
Not only the music but the artists make frequent appearances in jazz poetry: Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bessie Smith, and Lester Young are just some of the muses for jazz poetry.
But writing about jazz poetry is, as they say, like dancing about architecture. Perhaps the form can be best understood through a few lines from the poets themselves:
from The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
from Jazz Fan Looks Back, by Jayne Cortez:Poets in the Jazz tradition include: Amiri Baraka, Marvin Bell, Sterling Brown, Hayden Carruth, Jayne Cortez, Michael S. Harper, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Yusef Komunyaaka, Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, and Sonia Sanchez.
I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang "Don’t Blame Me" with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted "How High the Moon" with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
Jazz at the Philharmonic
For further reading, consult these anthologies: Jazz Poetry Anthology, Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, eds. (Indiana University Press, 1991); The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Vol. 2, Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, eds. (Indiana University Press, 1996; and Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present, Sascha Feinstein (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997).
In April 2002, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
launched Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) to draw greater public attention to
the extraordinary heritage and history of jazz and its importance as an
American cultural heritage. Every April, the Smithsonian produces a Jazz
Poetry event as part of JAM and National Poetry Month.