Editor's Blog

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Braiding Poetry and Jazz

February 9, 2012

Last week, two events on campus brought together poets and jazz musicians, and the joining of the two was partly the result of two people, Paul Harris, chair of the Department of English, and David Ornette Cherry, whose collaboration goes back a generation to their fathers.

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the English Department hosted a poetry reading featuring jazz musician Cherry, who accompanied Professor John Menaghan and several students as they read their work. Menaghan read from his jazz poems, which draw on jazz musicians, music and rhythms. He’s read them elsewhere, too, and you can hear him online in a podcast from City of the Angels Music, website about the jazz music community in Los Angeles. Students Nareen Melkonian, Zahra Lipson, Hillary Scheppers and Bianca Darby-Matteoda read pieces in a variety of forms. They were introduced by Sarah Maclay, poet and profess of English.

Cherry, son of the great jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, often accompanies spoken word artists by playing an electric keyboard or pulling selected instrumentals, DJ-style, from a vast music archive on his laptop. Cherry reads over the poems beforehand, then moves to the music that suits. It’s an exercise in spontaneity, of course, and it makes for a wondrous, improvised experiment in sounds. Watching the duet taking place between each student and Cherry was especially fun. Their interactions, made up of nonverbal glances and nods of the head, reminded me of the unspoken conversation between a drummer and bass player.

The next night, at the Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts, Cherry brought his band The Ensemble for Improvisors and poet Kamau Daaood. Daaood’s poetry — an example is here — rumbled out from somewhere deep in the heart, and the band, overflowing with world music influences, brought the funk, as well as jazz.

A highlight was Harris’ “Don’s Horn,” also delivered to Cherry’s music. Harris practices constrained writing, a literary form in which an author imposes a condition on his or her work. (Harris’ “Alpha Rap” is on the Internet.) "Solo-O's Solo: To Honor Joys Born of Don's Horn," which pays tribute to Don Cherry, is a long poem whose words may use only the vowel “o.” That struck me as a contrivance for only a few seconds. Harris’ work soon became an eruption of thought and comment, full and complete despite its banishing of a, e, i and u. The combination of words and music blew the roof off and reached up to the heavens.

The gig was raucous at times, and to experience world jazz, poetry and shouts and hollers in the Marymount Institute struck me as an appropriate tribute to faith, culture and arts. You could say it was an evening made possible several decades ago. Their fathers were close friends who met in New Hampshire, where Harris’, Joseph Harris, was a physics professor at Dartmouth College. Cherry, who now lives in Portland, Ore., was an L.A. resident for many years, and he and Harris have collaborated often.

During both evenings, I often closed my eyes for stretches at a time. I wanted to prevent my ears from being distracted by my eyes. In church, I often listen to the reading of the Gospel in the same way, to hear and only hear, to imagine the scenes the words describe. That seemed appropriate last week. For me, jazz and poetry are the imagination at prayer.