Poetry and Jazz, the two operating together, can be a wonderful thing. Sometimes. Also, as some of my own experiences have taught me, it can be tricky, fraught with difficulty, hard to pull off, to hold together. But when it works, as a performer, as a poet, there’s nothing much to beat it – lifted along on the rhythm of someone else’s bass, someone else’s drums; your words, your lines etched around, embellished, occasionally upstaged (no matter) by this horn player or that; for those moments when you’re up there at on stage, the mike clamped close to your mouth, barely able to read the half-remembered words (I wrote that? I did!) through the sweat pouring off your forehead, over your eyes, your glasses smeared with steam, it’s unbelievable – top of the world, ma! – better than best.
Jack Kerouac did it. Back in ’58. With Steve Allen at the piano. With Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on tenors. With Allen again in ’59. Not strictly poetry this time, but prose. Jack’s prose, the prose of On the Road. “It’s the Beat. Be-at.”
In this country, politely at first. Poetry and Jazz in Concert. Danny Abse. Laurie Lee. The Michael Garrick Sextet.
Less politely, New Departures and Mike Horowitz – the man with the kazoo, the man without whom … The Poetry Olympics. Stan Tracey at the piano.
I myself first read with the Midlands Jazz Quartet, as they were called then, in the Nottingham Playhouse bar in 1992. With only a change of sax player, Mel Thorpe removing himself to France and Ian Hill taking his place, and a change (or two) of name, I’m still reading with them now. Whenever we get the chance.
But last night at the Vortex Jazz Club in East London belongs to Barry Wallenstein.
Barry Wallenstein, an American poet who’s been collaborating with jazz artists such as Stanley Cowell and Cecil McBee since the 1970s, and is here briefly from New York and reading last night – brilliantly – with the Mike Hobart Band – each and all of whom deserve a name check: Chris Lee on trumpet, Danny Keene at the piano, Greg Gottlieb on bass and Eric Ford at the drums. Hobart himself plays a thrilling, sometimes raw-sounding sax, controlled and lyrical where needed, at others wild and echoing shades of R&B as he drives into the edges of the avant-garde. Archie Shepp? Was I hearing something not a million miles from Archie Shepp?[Next time I see him, he’d doubtless tell me my ears need a serious retread.]
But no matter, it was Barry who held it all together, front and centre, the evening’s raison d’être; Barry who exemplified the art of holding our attention without ever being showy, letting the words, the rhythm of the words do, as it were, the talking; barely moving, other than to turn the pages of his poems, remove and then replace his glasses, listening carefully all the while to music around him, just as the musicians were listening to him – hanging, as we were in the audience, on to his every word.