Arts: ‘Kick-Back Sundays’ Mixes Jazz and Poetry By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Tuesday August 09, 2005

I play it cool 

And dig the jive. 

That’s the reason 

I stay alive. 

—Langston Hughes 


The Jazz House, formerly on Adeline Street, has announced that it will begin a new program of poetry and jazz on Sunday evenings starting Aug. 14 at Kimball’s Carnival in Jack London Square. 

Jazz House founder and programmer Rob Woodworth will be putting the two art forms, long allied, onstage together in regularly scheduled performances. Brooke Schroeder will be the host for the shows of jazzy words and lyrical sounds.  

The Sunday shows will start at 6 p.m., with a sign-up for open mic reading at 5:30 p.m. Initially, sets of music and poetry will alternate, “eventually commingling,” Woodworth said, adding that he hoped both poets and musicians would get the vibe and start working together, maybe beginning with a bassist grooving behind a reader reciting. 

Trumpeter Geechi Taylor’s Quartet will be featured on Aug. 14, followed the next week by Oakland-based pianist-composer Hyim, then Berkeley native, saxophonist Dayna Stephens and his Quartet on Aug. 28. 

“Dayna’s just back, probably just for awhile, after a year of gigging in New York,” Woodworth said. Stephens played at Jazz House’s former Berkeley location. 

Jazz House lost its lease at the Adeline Street address last October, and Woodworth has since produced a number of shows at community halls and other venues “to keep the music out there, and keep Jazz House involved in the scene,” he said. 

After a benefit at Kimball’s Carnival for “a kids’ nonprofit” Woodworth coproduced, the project for the Sunday night series developed. 

“It’s something I always wanted to institute in the jam sessions at our old location,” Woodworth said. “I’ve been intrigued with the element of improvisation in both forms. Picking up old jazz books, I read about Langston Hughes and other poets coming into sessions and getting up onstage with the players. And listened to the spoken word on the Weary Blues album of Charles Mingus.” 

Though inspired by Hughes and older poets, Woodworth said he expects all styles to be represented, including hip-hop and neo-beat, at the open readings. But he foresees collaborations that will feature a kind of poetry that “may not be what’s expected—a more formal voice over the music.”  

The history of this collaboration is ancient, even primeval. Besides lyric poems set to, or written for music (what composer William Bolcom referred to as “the way words and music marry, at the root of every culture” during last spring’s Ernst Bloch Lectures at UC), dramatic and epic poetry has always been intoned, or half-sung, to musical accompaniment. In Europe and America, the Romantics valorized music in their poems, and, taking a leaf from Edgar Allan Poe, the Symbolists endeavored to give poetry the quality of music. 

Both Villiers De L’Isle-Adam and Lautreamont (Isidore Ducasse) reportedly played chords on piano while reciting verses. The avant-garde movements of the early 20th century experimented with word and music in performance.  

Jazz poetry dates back at least to the Harlem Renaissance, when Hughes and others would step up to recite with players backing them. An early poem of William Carlos Williams, about Bunk Johnson’s band, shows the influence of the music’s rhythms and dynamics. After World War II, the revival of public poetry readings in Europe and America ushered in a new era of collaboration. 

Poet Kenneth Patchen—whose poetry Charlie Parker read to his band during rehearsals—recorded with both the Chamber Jazz Sextet and Alan Neil in the late ‘50s. San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth recorded with groups at The Cellar jazz club, and Jack Kerouac laid down the tracks for “Jazz Haiku” with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. In the 1960s, Amiri Baraka (LeRoy Jones) recited on a New York Art Quartet album (a reunion CD was recorded in 1999) and Archie Shepp electrified the UC Jazz Festival in 1970 with his “Take This Cannibal’s Heart and Turn it into a Rose!” 

Host Brooke Schroeder, a Sacramento native, has written poetry since grade school and was part of a group of poets lead by Gerren Liles in Baltimore while attending Morgan State University. 

“Poetry open mics and poetry with music are big back east,” she said. She cites poets like Tennyson and Oscar Wilde alongside contemporaries. Though an admirer of jazz and of socially conscious poetry, she characterizes what she writes as lyric, and calls herself a folkie, musically. She recalls one reading that went awry, when she was improvising from words taken from the Bible. 

“The audience had no idea what I was talking about; they just wanted to get on to the next rap artist,” she said. 

She said she encourages “all poets, any poets, anybody who’s written something to share; it’s the first step to giving back to the world.” 

Speaking of the series as an ongoing experiment, Woodworth said, “What you hear may catch you off guard.”