"Jazz is a heartbeat—its heartbeat is yours." - Langston Hughes
One of the earliest poems with jazz as a subject was written by Carl Sandburg.
from Smoke and Steel. 1922.
by Carl Sandburg
Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes, sob on the long cool winding saxophones. Go to it, O jazzmen.
Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans, let your trombones ooze, and go hushahusha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.
Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree-tops, moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible, cry like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop, bang-bang! you jazzmen, bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans—make two people fight on the top of a stairway and scratch each other’s eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.
Can the rough stuff … now a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river with a hoo-hoo-hoo-oo … and the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars … a red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills … go to it, O jazzmen.
Early poetry on jazz did not mimic the rhythms and syncopations of jazz music. It wasn't until the Harlem Renaissance when Langston Hughes embraced the nuances of jazz in his poetry. Today jazz poetry is defined by Poets.org as "a literary genre defined as poetry necessarily informed by jazz music—that is, poetry in which the poet responds to and writes about jazz."
But what is jazz?
When I started researching this celebration, I came across a book in our music library entitled The First Book of Jazz (1955). It was written by Langston Hughes and illustrated by Cliff Roberts. Hughes used the story of Louis Armstrong to highlight the history of jazz. Hughes said, "The story of Louis Armstrong is almost the whole story of orchestral jazz in America." In addition to describing the various musical forms that contributed to the development of jazz, Hughes also described the ten basic elements of jazz: syncopation, improvisation, percussion, rhythm, blue notes, tone color, harmony, break, riff, and the joy of playing.
We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie and the Open Culture site. You can also see some terrific images of the illustrations at The Invisible Agent.
Since many consider Langston Hughes to be the standard bearer for jazz poetry, let's start here.
In addition to the poem performed in the video, this is one of my favorite jazz poems by Hughes. You can read a bit about it Modern American Poetry.
The Cat and the Saxophone
by Langston Hughes
No, make it
LOVES MY BABY
corn. You like
don't you, honey?
BUT MY BABY
Sure. Kiss me,
DON'T LOVE NOBODY
WANTS MY BABY
BUT MY BABY
sweetie, ain't I?
DON'T WANT NOBODY
You can learn more about Langston Hughes and Jazz poetry at Perspectives Through Poetry: The Life & Legacy of Langston Hughes.
Another favorite jazz poem of mine is We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks. You can hear her read it at The Poetry Foundation.
Jazz Baby (2007), written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, is a fabulous story in verse of the day in a life of a baby. Throughout the day, family, friends, and neighbors all take part in a jazz-themed dance party. The rhythm and meter are suitably bouncy and so much fun. Here's an excerpt.
Mama swings high.
Daddy swings low.
Swingin'-singin' Baby says,
"Go, Man, Go!"
So they Boom-Boom-Boom
And they Hip-Hip-Hop
And the bouncin' baby boogies
with a Bop-Bop-Bop!
You can watch and listen to Alina Celeste, a family musician and teaching artist, read this title.
If you are looking for some additional children's poetry books on jazz, check out J is for Jazzy, a post from my 2013 National Poetry Month Project.
That's it for today. I hope you'll join me tomorrow for our next celebration.