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Inada and Jazz

Juliana Chang

While jazz and blues rhythms and aesthetics have been used by a number of Asian American poets, Inada's poetry stands out in its consistency and depth of engagement with jazz. Inada himself cites jazz as the strongest influence on his writing. His collection Before the War: Poems as They Happened (1971) begins with a whimsical portrait of a Japanese American figure playing "air bass"; it includes tributes to jazz musicians and singers such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday; and it ends with poems written for Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. His more recent Legends from Camp (1992) has a whole section of poems titled "Jazz." In addition to the Haiku-like sequence "Listening Images," it includes poems written as tributes to Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, and others.

Inada's recognition of the cultural authority of the African American jazz musician participates in an African American cultural practice of counter-legitimation, a practice that implicitly critiques and refuses the authority of dominant institutions and knowledges. Thus his jazz poetics works to redress the pain of racial trauma by enacting an alternative to the dominant time of the nation. His jazz poetics of repetition and improvisation enable re-stagings and re-workings of a troubled past, while his poetics of syncopation enact the rhythm and status of the racially marginalized subject as one outside standard national historic time.

Yet several questions are raised when we frame Inada’s poetics as cross-racial practice. How might we think through Asian American subject formation as mediated through African American culture in Legends from Camp? What are the implications of the Asian American subject being enabled by an African American cultural form to redress racial trauma and rearticulate power? What are the ethics and economics of this cross-racial practice? Inada's jazz poetics is a site of cross-racial identification that enables us to think beyond the centering of whiteness that the binary of "colored v. white" produces. In its engagement with a predominantly African American music, his writing provides an alternative to thinking of the "American" in "Asian American" as white American culture. However, I am not proposing Inada's poetics as a model of cross-racial cultural hybridity that conflates and flattens out the differences between two very distinctive modes of racialization. Cross-racial cultural identification in Inada's writing is not simply assumed because of one's analogous status as a racially subordinated subject, but rather is earned through practice as the labor of learning how to read and produce codes of alternative knowledges.

Given the history of the commodification and consumption of African American culture, and the ascription of a symbolic value to African American culture that does not translate into political power, the use of African American cultural practices by a non-African American writer provokes an interrogation of the economics of cross-racial cultural appropriation. In its more pernicious forms, culturally appropriative acts use the culture of a subordinated group to compensate for some perceived lack in one's own subject position and culture, while disavowing and reproducing the power inequalities that constitute such "cultural differences." Inada's jazz writings acknowledge the centrality of African American culture to the formation of U.S. national subjects that are not necessarily African American. However, Inada is very explicit about the specific racial history that has engendered the Japanese American subject. He does not disavow or abdicate his own subject position. His identification with African American culture is not so much compensatory or substitutive as affiliative. For the subject of Legends, jazz provides a sense of belonging that is not provided by other forms of U.S. culture or politics. The introduction to the section "Jazz" describes the institutional forces and material contexts that produce and are experienced by racially subordinated young people. Although they are excluded in racially specific and distinctive ways from dominant U.S. culture and politics, they respond to this disenfranchisement by building alternative codes of legitimation, codes that they use to signal networks of affiliation with each other. Cross-racial identification is not a given, but is articulated through practices of knowledge formation and code-reading. The introduction to "Two Variations on a Theme by Thelonious Monk" begins with a quote: "I can't do that right. I have to practice that." This quote is ascribed to "Thelonious Monk, composer, to his pianist (himself)..." The introduction then takes us through three decades of Inada studying the prosody of Thelonious Monk, ending with the poet saying, "Prosody--yeah. I have to practice that." The reference to Monk's pianist as "himself" links cultural production and cultural practice, and practice is figured in this poem as labor that is repeated over time. Cultural authority is not simply invested in a subject because of his ontological status as "colored," but is earned through the commitment of practice, which is also a commitment of one's time.

Describing the inscription of his name by Billie Holiday as the moment that inaugurates his poetic practice is Inada’s figure for jazz as that which enables him to speak what would otherwise remain unspoken and unspeakable. His poems respond to this act of naming with similar acts of naming and re-articulation, bringing the signature style of various African American musicians into poetic language. Jazz practices such as repetition, improvisation, and syncopation allow for this kind of meta-response, that is, responses to the art form itself. If jazz enables the Japanese American subject to return to the site of racial trauma, if jazz is what the subject "can take" for this occasion, Inada's poetry also returns to jazz this very articulation of a Japanese American culture and poetics. When Inada begins the introduction to "Jazz" by saying "The music speaks for itself," he implies that his writing does not speak about or for the music, but to the music. Speaking for or about is an act that dichotomizes and hierarchizes a relationship between subject and object of knowledge. Inada's subject is positioned not as an analyst of or expert on jazz, but as a respondent who is an inseparable part of the music. His dialogic response enacts what Paul Gilroy calls "an ethics of antiphony" in which his writing gives back by participating in the building of the culture that has given him an enabling practice. Inada's jazz poetics of citation and reiteration, dialogism and syncopation, produce moments of cross-racial affiliation that provide alternatives to dominant formations of race, knowledge, and time.

Excerpted from Juliana Chang, "Time, Jazz, and the Racial Subject: Lawson Inada’s Jazz Poetics," to be published in an anthology by Syracuse University Press.

Lawson Fusao Inada



The music speaks for itself. And it certainly spoke to me. It called me, called me by my name: "Laaawwwson! Laaawwwson!" And I certainly listened. Yes, I listened to its warm and gentle voice, its soothing, beautiful voice as it told me, told me, showed me its home, that special place. . . .

"Hey, Lawson—what’re you doing?" "Nothing. Just listening." "So come on in. It's cold outside." And there, wonder of wonders, was not just a radio, but a record player. And the man said: "You like that?" "Yes." "You wanna hear it again?" "Yes." "You know what it is?" "Yes--'Mood Indigo' by Duke Ellington." So I just stood there, and listened.

And when I went outside again, it was certainly "mood indigo" -- winter dusk, Jerome Camp, Arkansas. But The Music was there, for our reunion.


The records, those fragile items, are packed, carried and finally played. They become the cornerstone of a collection, which continues to this day. The grooves of those records provide a path, away, a vision, a direction--which continues to this day. The music is tradition, legacy.

Those records are never broken. The music is an enduring philosophy of adaptability, ingenuity, creation; of humor, wisdom, resourcefulness; of individuality and collectivity; of power and empowerment; of the strength and beauty of the human spirit.


Ah, to be so "culturally deprived"! The poor West Side--we had no library, no galleries, no museums, no civic orchestra, no ballet company! To be so impoverished, to get by on the basic "ABC's" of life--Asian, Black, Chicano cultures, whatever they had to offer: folk festivals of primitive origin, amateur art on available walls, whatever foods could be mustered. . . .

Moreover, the music we most loved and played and used was Negro music. It was something we could share in common, like a "lingua franca" in our "colored" community. And in our distorted reality of aliens and alienation, it even felt like citizenship. It seemed so very American—"un-foreign," on "un-foreign" instruments--and the words it used were English. Not "across town" or "Hit Parade" English, perhaps, but nevertheless an English that, in its own way, did the job. (And we were all criticized, continually corrected and ridiculed in school for the way we talked--for having accents, dialects, for misusing, abusing the language.)

But the music spoke to us, and we spoke back--laughing and carrying on among ourselves in a quaint code of "jive" and "hepcat" talk about "boogie" and "bebop" and being "cool." Mexicans, Negroes, Orientals--talking that talk! It did the job, and those same kids would even play that music, on school instruments, at talent assemblies in school. The teachers must have figured: "Oh, why not? If that's what they want to do." (As long as they don't abuse the instruments.)

We were quaint, ignorant, primitive, and deprived. We only knew what we knew, had what we had. It was our community’s fault. It was the fault of the jukeboxes, which were our libraries; it was the fault of the Chinese-owned record stores; it was the fault of all those touring minstrel "revues" that kept us where we were--incorrigible, unimproved.

We didn't know anything. And all we knew--in detention, on suspension, in special education, on probation--were obscure irrelevancies, certain "tunes" by a Big Joe Turner, by a T-Bone Walker, by a Sister Rosetta Tharpe, by a Hamp, by a Bullmoose, a Cleanhead, a Bird, a Dizzy, a Pres. And, yes, we also knew The Globes--a touring minstrel troupe, a "jazz revue" in shorts employing irrelevant stratagems, bopping about to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown."


About a year later, there's an 18-year-old kid-ostensibly a student in the area--hanging around The Blackhawk Club again. He's still underage, but the waitresses don't know that; besides, he seems to be a "friend" of the musicians, or at least they acknowledge him when he says "Hi, Miles" or "Hello, Coltrane." They say things like, "Hey, man," and "What's happening?"

On this night, however, he's gone outside during intermission. It's cold, foggy, and he's leaning against the wall under a streetlight. No one else is around. Except for another person, a woman--likewise leaning against the wall. It's quiet. A car goes by, tires hissing in the mist. The young man, the woman, stare into space.

After a while, in a hushed voice, he speaks: "Excuse me--but may I have your autograph?" Her face lights up as she smiles: "Why certainly, son! What’s your name?" He tells her, and she pronounces it, somewhat "sings" it, as she writes in the book. Then, still smiling, she looks him straight in the eye and says: "You were here last night." "Yes, I was, ma'am. I've been here all week."

And you might say he never left. And what she wrote in that her book, was this:

For Lawson
Billie Holiday

And before he knew it, he was writing poetry.

Adapted from "Jazz," the introduction to the third section of Inada’s Legends from Camp. Copyright 1993 by Lawson Fusao Inada.

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