Jazzonia: May Music Find a Way on International Jazz Day

The end of U. S. National Poetry Month is approaching and there are things I meant to get done (and didn’t) this year, but the last day of April is also International Jazz Day, and I can’t let that go by without a piece to celebrate. Poetry Month and Jazz Day — shouldn’t that be a piece of Jazz Poetry read in front of a Jazz combo?

I looked around the house and didn’t find one. Not the Jazz poem, it was easy for me to think of Langston Hughes, one of the originators of the form, and find a poem of his, “Jazzonia”  that I didn’t perform when I celebrated his book The Weary Blues  a couple of years ago.

No, it’s the Jazz combo that’s missing. Not in the garage, not in my studio space, not under the table in my office amidst that messy pile of stuff. Not in my phone’s contacts list. None marching down the street in my city too northern and cold for Mardi Gras.*  Oh sure, there are a couple of Jazz clubs in town, and local musicians who can play Jazz, but I don’t know them. I’ve handed out Parlando demos to a couple over the past few years, and heard nothing, which may indicate politeness around my audacious use of my limited skill-set — and that would be right. I can sort-of hang with a Jazz feel on a good day with guitar as long as I’m under control of the context,** but Jazz isn’t about tightly controlling the context. It’s about surprise, about flexible chops that fit with a multitude of things.

So, I went about doing my best with what I had at home. I have a little device I use to practice instead of a metronome. It lets one play-in a set of chords in rhythm, and then generating from the form you play a drum and bass track following the harmonic material in tempo you’ve given it. It’s a fine quick practice tool, but I’ve only used it a couple of times here for public Parlando Project pieces.

I prefer to put in work on the digital drum tracks, adding hand percussion, even playing a real ride cymbal I collected from a neighbor a few years ago, editing the hits and beats on drum patterns — but I let that go this time. The machine had supplied a serviceable walking bass part, I let that stand as well. I played the guitar part in a single pass after warming up. I had to duck out a couple of egregious clams, but it represents one of my good guitar days.

Jazzonia 2

In the whirling cabaret, guided robots and human jazzers play for Poetry Month and Jazz’s Day.


Looking at Hughes’ poem (full text here)  I see that he specifies there’s six Jazz players in his poem’s combo. If I count my reading at the mic as a player, that got me up to four, including the two robots on bass and drums. So, I next checked out my naïve piano skills. I was pleased with a couple of little motifs I came up with. My repetition with under-elaboration of those motifs marks this piece as more of the simplified “Soul Jazz” emanation*** than a hardcore blowing session. That’s OK with me, I liked those records. For the sixth and final musician, I played some vibraphone over MIDI from my little plastic keyboard.

The above account may have convinced too many readers to not listen to the result, but for a one-day-wonder I think it came out pretty well. It’s a little longer than most pieces I present, but that lets its relaxed celebration grow on you if you’re receptive. The audio player gadget to hear it is below for many, and this backup highlighted link is for those that don’t see that.


*One thing my town once had, and I now miss, was the May Day parade that happened each year in my neighborhood. Elaborate giant puppets, kids on decorated bicycles, dancing troops, folks on stilts or riding on fantastic creations, and usually more than one amateur shambling marching band with a touch of second -line New Orleans flavor. Alas, lack of funds and what seems to be a case of sectarian infighting has stopped this annual event. I did some videos of this while it was still a going thing. You can see some here, here, and here.

**Jazz guitar is much about chord chops, something I’m embarrassingly bad at. Similarly, advanced Jazz harmony will confuse me quickly if I try to understand it in real time. Luckily, with this Project I usually get to be the composer and bandleader, so I work with myself the player to do what I can accomplish.

***You’re still here reading the footnotes? Good, this probably should have been the main thing in this post. Langston Hughes’ long life and immediate and lasting appreciation for Jazz meant that he could write about and be influenced by early Jazz when Dixieland was fresh, and then he continued to dig it, incorporate it, and perform his poetry with Jazz musicians in the post-WWII years. So even though Hughes wrote “Jazzonia” about 1920’s Jazz, he lived long enough that he could have performed it more in the mid-century bag I experienced then and sought to manifest today.

What’s extra cool about how Hughes presented the still emerging Jazz of the 1920s in “Jazzonia”  is that he sees it already as part of a continuum from the African Garden of Eden, and then via Cleopatra, and through Harlem Renaissance — so it’s no surprise his Jazz, and Jazz itself, can keep on reformatting itself into new ways of expression. The honesty I shared regarding this audio piece above? It’s part of living the Musician’s and Composer’s Prayer: “May music find a way.”

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