This post was originally published as part 3 of the article series 3 Poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day 2013:
Jazz and poetry have been close cousins in creativity ever since the music provided the classic soundtrack for the prohibition era of “the roaring 1920s.” It is therefore appropriate that both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month are celebrated during April. It also makes a jazz poem (see below) the most suitable for the third Poem in Your Pocket Day title featured in this series.
Readers acquainted with the definitive 1925 Harlem Renaissance anthology titled The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, are familiar with its inclusion of Langston Hughes’ jazz-influenced poems, “Jazzonia” and “Nude Young Dancer.” Those titles arguably marked the debut of what is now known as jazz poetry (sometimes referred to as “jazzoetry”) and additional works published in Hughes’ The Weary Blues in 1926 further established the genre. The relationship between jazz and poetry grew even stronger during the Beat Movement of the 1950s and the Black Arts Movement in the decades that followed. It remains strong in modern times.
For the Love of Jazz
One reason April was elected Jazz Appreciation Month––and subsequently April 30 tagged as International Jazz Day––is because it is the birth month of numerous jazz musicians. These include, just to name a few: the great Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Alberta Hunter, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Carmen McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Often referred to as “the First Lady of Song,” Fitzgerald recorded more than 200 acclaimed albums, including her celebrated American Songbook collections. The third poem for this special Poem in Your Pocket series, “Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll,” is a tribute to the musical artistry of the singer and that of other women whose talents helped to make jazz the great world treasure it is today. It is from the manuscript for Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black:
JAZZ HARLEM RENAISSANCE BABYDOLL
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
does the music mold your face
like a mask of mink desires
and rainbow butterfly wings
or does your face
shield the heated heart of the music
when your lips diddly-be-bop-sweet
like Ella Fitzgerald swing-singing
back-up and up-front, catching
God’s Coltranic future love supreme
as if making it up yourself?
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
I saw your favorite saxophone strip you
naked. And what was love gonna do
except beg to lick those crazy solos
straight off your throat. I saw you
twirl A-flats like swords
on the tip of the tongue of your tears
until E refused to equal MC squared
and Einstein’s gorgeous silver afro
crackled “Blow your soul-horn Jazz Babydoll
and don’t you take jive for no answer!
Said swing that horn and take not jive for thine answer!”
Jazz Harlem Renaissance Babydoll
you inhaled seven known planets
and out of your creation came
four billion heavens.
Each time you exhale a star
I recall a previous life
and I comprehend flawlessly
the trigonometric bolts of rhythm
that shoot from your hips to your lips.
Shall we do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and dance Josephine Baker
laughing out of her grave?
Let’s do the be-bop Lindy-hop waltz
and give all these poets something to rhyme about.
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
(Continuation from Part 1)
Setting aside for the moment debates about starting dates and end dates, the Harlem Renaissance is now among the most documented and studied events in world history with encyclopedias, biographies, major films, theater productions, and conferences all dedicated to sustaining its legacy and preserving its ideals. One contribution toward that effort, and which hopefully will see a makeover by the time of the event’s centennial, is Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts On File/Infobase Publishing) written by Sandra L. West with this author, and featuring a foreword by Clement Alexander Price.
To write an award-winning volume on the phenomenal Harlem Renaissance is to do a lot more than simply author a good book about African-American history. Any sane author, though, would greatly appreciate the honors that have been bestowed upon Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance for some important reasons. Such recognition provides major validation of the years of labor required to create such a work; and, perhaps more importantly, they pay just tribute to the lives of the volume’s Jazz Age heroes.
Considering that these heroes did what they did at a time when the United States witnessed its second resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups determined to exterminate African Americans (as well as Jews, Europeans, etc.) their accomplishments can never be over exaggerated. As Clement Alexander Price has noted, “They wrote, painted, composed, argued, marched, and protested on a scale not seen, or accounted for, earlier.”
To propose a volume in recognition of such individuals is also to find oneself humbled by the privilege of contributing to a global legacy established by the likes of: historian W.E.B. Du Bois, author Ralph Ellison, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, jazz-master Duke Ellington, blues empress Bessie Smith, the great artist Romare Bearden, iconic poet Langston Hughes, renaissance man Paul Robeson, and many extraordinary others. These were the individuals who comprised African America’s “Greatest Generation.”
Closing in on the 100th Anniversary
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, the gifts it showered upon humanity grow more and more relevant. The combination of music technology and musical genres it gave us in the 1920s and 1930s has since evolved into the cross-cultural powerhouse known as hip-hop. Seeds of tenuous literary beginnings have blossomed into strong ongoing traditions. Strategic protests against American apartheid, including the routine brutal lynching of African Americans, developed into a movement that eventually saw the election of the United States’ first African-American president: Barack Obama .
The men and women of the Harlem Renaissance made up a kind of peaceful army of agents of change. Their creative genius as literary artists, musicians, visual artists, social theorists, educators, and political leaders helped move the world forward from times of war, oppression, and poverty, to times of greater political cooperation, racial equanimity, and economic growth. Much of the world is struggling with such issues at this very moment. And, also at this very moment, many of those who are creatively inclined are trying to help humanity weave its way around the bloodshed to more life-enhancing solutions.
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance has come to serve as one of the fundamental works for understanding the wider scope of the much-celebrated movement. Its publication helped to inspire further studies of the period and readers can find it cited in numerous biographies and reference books that were published later. It is a title that is much bigger than the authors who produced it and one that continues to add to the discovery, and re-discovery, of one of humanity’s great cultural heirlooms.
author of The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois
and The American Poet Who Went Home Again
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.