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On The Cultural Aesthetics of Black Jazz

[The interview dates from April 1989.]


Historically, the African American has had to survive by his or her sheer nerve and wit, and it often seems as if we have been forced to create everything out of nothing. Music kept us closer to the essence of ourselves. Thus, there is little wonder that the drum was outlawed in certain slave-owning locales. The drum was a threat because it articulated cultural unity and communication. But we of course began to clap our hands and stomp our feet to sustain that connection to who we are. Music is serious business in the African-American community because it is so intricately interwoven with our identity. Most of us don’t have to strain to see those graceful, swaying shadows of contemporary America in cahoots with the night in Congo Square – committing an act of sabotage merely by dancing to keep the forbidden gods alive.

Jazz also worked for me as a way of reestablishing a kind of trust. A trust in what I had known earlier. For some reason, I think it directed me back to my need to say something.

What do I mean by that? Whatever it is, maybe I’m trying to say it in these words, in a poem called "Blue Light Lounge Sutra for the Performance Poets at Harold Park Hotel": [Komunyakaa quotes the poem in its entirety, whose text is available in Neon Vernacular (Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 1993), p. 176]

Essentially, that’s what I’m talking about. You have to have that need to take risks, and they come to us in varied patterns and intensities. [Claude] McKay’s protest sonnet "If We Must Die" took a risk in content. Why else was it read into the Congressional Record by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge? But McKay took few risks structurally. Poetry has always been associated with the elite, the leisure class, with "high" culture of Europe, and the African-American poet of the 1920s was still in almost the same dilemma as Phillis Wheatley when her work was defined by Thomas Jefferson as beneath a critical response. That is, well into this century the black poet was still aspiring to acceptance by whites, still biding for the wand of approval and recognition as a mere human being.

Consequently, few black poets were willing to admit the influence of jazz because it was defined as "low" culture; it had been created by the descendants of Africa. Only during the 1960s did we begin to rediscover that which was ours, redefining ourselves with Africa as an emotional backdrop. Young black poets began to accept Langston Hughes and Frank Horne and those white poets associated with modernism – an American tongue and ear. Indeed, jazz shaped the Beat aesthetic, but that movement seemed a privilege only whites could afford. Blacks, fighting for inclusion, didn’t have to ostracize themselves voluntarily. Of course, this was a cultural paradox. To many the Beat Movement was nothing more than the latest minstrel show in town with the new Jim Crow and Zip Coons, another social club that admitted hardly any women or blacks. Yet they said that Charlie Parker was their Buddha.

The whole thing seemed like a love-hate complex magnified. …

[Note: Komunyakaa’s last reference is to Jack Kerouac’s "239th Chorus" in Mexico City Blues which opens: "Charley [sic] Parker Looked like Buddha / Charley Parker who recently died / Laughing at a juggler on the TV." The legendary circumstances under which Parker died included the story that he had been watching at the very time of his demise Jimmy Dorsey of the Dorsey Brothers "Swing" Band – like Parker an alto saxophonist – performing on the network television show whose musical tastes made it a forerunner of the Lawrence Welk Show.]

from Robert Kelly, "Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation" (with Yusef Komunyakaa and William Matthews" in Georgia Review 46:4 (Winter 1992), pp. 645-646, 653-654.

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