T. S. Eliot wrote of April as the cruelest month, but as I look out my window on the April day, I’d have to say that T.S. just got up on the wrong side of the bed the day he wrote that line. And we have a lot of good things going this weekend, JazzBabies.
This is National Jazz Month and if that’s not enough, it’s also National Poetry Month. Easter and Passover are upon us and spring is making its overdue way even to the frozen and frigid hinterlands.
Jazz and poetry are in so many ways natural bed mates. Poet E.E. Cummings wrote about jazz and he also wrote erratic stanzas with odd syncopated phrasing and built-in pauses to force the reader into a jazz-like rhythm. One can almost hear the drums and bass notes and the pauses like those Bill Evans incorporates in his melodies.
Michael Ondaatje not only wrote The English Patient and a few other great works, but chronicled the life of trumpeter Billy Bolden and the world of jazz in his brief, poetic novel Coming Through Slaughter. And jazz somehow finds its way into most of Ondaatje’s works.
Jazz is a marker in literature – a way of saying a great deal about a character or a writer without having to say much at all. As I wrote once, “There are two kinds of people – the ones who listen to ‘Body and Soul’ and the ones who talk right through it.”
That pretty well sums up my theory of the human race – relationships, wars, greed, art, politics and – dare I say it – religion. You either feel it or you don’t and no amount of talking is gonna change that, baby. You don’t have to understand it, but you do have to feel it somewhere in your bones and in your soul.
In the 1950s – oh so long ago – jazz musicians and poets hooked up in a continuing experiment to push the borders of both. So to celebrate Jazz month and Poetry month, I bring you an example of one of those experiments on this 1959 recording for Verve with Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis. Kerouac was not strictly reading poetry here, but he knew the sound and he’s got the rhythm on this one: “San Francisco.”
There’s more to April, of course, than jazz and poetry celebrations. April may not be the cruelest month, but it tends to be one of the more romantic, and here’s the man, Frank Sinatra, to remind us with this lovely turn and fine arrangement on “April in Paris.” You’ll be packing your bags before it’s over and you’ll always have Paris. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeKC0vxCc_w
In 1942 an Abbott and Costello movie, “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” featured a song that’s become a jazz standard – who woulda thought? Abbott and Costello? Cowboys? A romantic ballad that’s become a jazz standard? Indeed. And here are Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock live in Tokyo in 1996 to perform it. I dig the opening – how many times does the drummer not only lead but solo for several minutes. I like watching Jarrett and Peacock as they listen. It’s a fine recording of “I’ll Remember April.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Any7ZV-1umA
Poet Billy Collins is another writer who loves jazz and often weaves it into his ironically humorous poems that are more serious than one first thinks. This poem is flat out about the music and the lyrics and Billy performs it well, a tribute of sorts to singer Johnny Hartman, titled “Nightclub.”
Can’t let that one ride without hearing Mr. Hartman himself. Here he is on the very tune with John Coltrane’s quartet: Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. This is a 1963 studio recording, “You Are Too Beautiful.” And Johnny Hartman’s voice is always beautiful.
Last, but not least, we come to the other Billie, who would have been 101 next week on April 7. It was not Billie’s birthday, however, that poet Frank O’Hara captured, but the day she died. His poem is an elegy set in the mundane, every day world of New York errands and small pieces of life until he sees her picture in the New York Post and everything slows to a stop. If you love Billie, get out your handkerchiefs. Writer John Updike is the reader. http://knopfdoubleday.com/audio/thedayladydied.mp3
The Day Lady Died
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARKLANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died” from Lunch Poems. Copyright 1964 Frank O’Hara.
I’m not sure it was at the 5 SPOT, but I know that Billie often opened her sets with this next song. I knew a man who was there on one occasion and I wrote about him in my novel, watching her walk in the door on a cold January night dragging a fur. She walked the length of the bar, he said, and as she got to the end, the bartender handed her a glass of Scotch which she downed as she stepped onstage and came in right on cue. He remembered every detail. Wouldn’t you? Billie might have been accompanied that night as she is here by Roy Eldridge, Lester Boone, Jimmy Powell, Ernie Powell, Eddie Heywood, Paul Chapman, Grachan Moncur and Herbert Cowens. This was rcorded in 1941 in New York. Lady Day is still very much alive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi6NZCPYYxI
And that’s it for this time, JazzBabies. Read a little poetry. Hear a lot of jazz. Be grateful for it all.