Sunday, December 11, 2011

A “Teaching Moment:” Jazz and Poetry

Our correspondent Rosie Rosenzweig reviews a performance of jazz and poetry at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston in Newton, Mass... Dec 10, 2011.

A “Teaching Moment:” Jazz and Poetry
By Rosie Rosenzweig
Resident Scholar in Women’s Studies Research Center
Brandeis University.

Stan Strickland began with something celestial-sounding on his bass Flute. John Lockwood followed, plucking his Bass Fiddle and Rakalam Bob Moses started caressing his drums with little broomsticks. And they were off painting an unlikely Improv: a full rainbow. This is called the “Be Here Now Suite,” which according to our MC Strickland is “an ongoing composition when each and everyone is present.” I think that’s code for we’ll never play the same stuff twice.

And I was transported back to my first earful at Bird land as a teenage bride, born in a provincial Canadian border town, with my New Yorker bridegroom, transporting me to a world I never heard before. I was educated that night into what was called, in the olden days, “cool jazz.” Only this time in Newton with a trio riffing away and me moving my head, I knew the evening was going to be a winner. I kept asking myself how could that mother of brass sing such soothing notes and then erupt in a chuckle with an unexpected squawk?

After the first set, I asked another question: So now where’s the poet?
As Robert Pinsky entered to a warm crowd of applause, it seemed that the music was a warm up for the talking guy. How so? His poetry was always a gourmet mouthful that I swallowed in a quick gulp. How would this work with these musicians?

Well, first the orator begins and I have the poem I wanted: Ginza Jazz - the terrible horrible history lesson in the life of the Saxophone, beginning with a Belgian named Sax (sic!) in Paris, morphing into an American child of song and then an African instrument.

The boilerplate form is this: Strickland begins with a familiar phrase on his saxophone, which attendee Professor Suzanne Hanser of the Berklee College of Music described as “idiomatic.”

The posse of musicians then listens and voices a chorus of individual call and responses, which in improvisation is a one-of-a-kind experience. Then, after this bit of a tune up, our former Poet Laureate repeats the poem as another voice, sometimes pausing for a bit to listen to his buddies, sometimes repeating a line again and again until slowly he becomes another voice in the riff, until his voice changes from the loner poet to a crooner, sometimes moaning out the words, sometimes even humming them, swinging his arms and knees until folks in the darkened theatre are moving like a chorus of the Blue Men Group, so popular here in Boston.

“A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirled wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet . . .”
Everyone is listening to everyone else, as they are striffing and strafing with an occasional surprise wise crack in music. We are all smiling as we applaud and hoot.

I goggled the Internet for an appropriate word and found “tunesmithing” to describe their movement of sound. Cantor Lorel Zar-Kessler, at one of the back cabaret tables, later helped me define as a “masterful interweaving of melody.”

And this was only the beginning with Pinsky’s poem “Antique” about his stormy relationships at home growing up. You can imagine the music. Following this, appropriately enough, is a new poem called “Improvisation on Yiddish” describing the language as a
“Tongue of the guts, tongue
Of my heart naked, the guts of the tongue.

Bubbeh Loschen, Tongue of my grandmother
That I can’t spell in these characters I know . . . “

Bubbeh Loschen echoes of “Mama Loschen” the idiom for “Mother Tongue.”
Now I expected a bit of Klezmer, or maybe “Mine Yiddische Mame,” but surprise! Surprise! Play is the name of the game as I see Strickland up what seemed to be a Shekere, a West African gourd surround by seeds. Another subsequent Google search finds it and it’ a recent invention called a Cabasa with “endless loops of steel bead wrapped around a specially textured, stainless steel cylinder.” It can produce a variety of rhythms from scratchy scraping to soft fluid, which the bass and drums seem to love. Pinsky’s description of “previous lives and reincarnations” come to mind as the drums sound voodoo to me.

With Pinsky’s “The Hearts” the music seems to be driving the poet and now everyone’s eyes are closed. And we are expecting more of the same.

Now Boston University’s Professor Robert Pinsky must have recognized a teaching moment by shifting gears to another poet, 17th century dramatist, poet, and actor Ben Jonson, who once accused Shakespeare for “wanting art.” Jonson’s “A Celebration of Charis: His Excuse for Loving, “ which Pinsky calls “candy for the ear,” follows. Listen to this, he says: “here is a natural speaking to the meter of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ ”

And a star filled evening is was with Pinsky’s “Street Music” and “Rhyme.”

Flushed with memories, past and present, and an autographed copy of Robert Pinsky Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), I head home with my old bridegroom to do what we used to do: reread the poems to one another and find new insights in old forms.

Rosie Rosenzweig, Resident Scholar in Women's Studies
Brandeis University, Mailstop 079, 515 South Street, Waltham MA 02254

Author of A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la (Shambhala)
Current Project: The Sources of Creativity Project


  1. Manson Solomon10:01 AM

    Cool, Rosie. Great review. And overnight! It really was a treat. So often poets reading with music or pictures becomes a clash of warring media, but Pinsky and Strickland and the trio really grooved together. Your review captured the magic for those who couldn't make it. And for those who, like me, were there, what can one say but simply WOW!

    -- Manson

  2. Anonymous3:32 PM

    Great - could really feel the evening, the mixture of poetry and music filtered through you, the audience, your reaction. - Beth