--Williams Carlos Williams, "The Orchestra"
The above is my favorite bit of poetry about music. Williams was thinking about classical music in "The Orchestra," but the same thinking applies to "America's classical music," jazz. The answer, of course, to Williams' question, is we should think and listen. I say this by way of explanation for why all my yammering about jazz this week on this blog. Obviously, I'm writing about it because I like it a lot and my directive as BAP guest blogger was to post "about anything you like." But then, of course, jazz seems to me to have several intimate connections and overlaps with poetry, some of which I thought I might elucidate today.
Listening to jazz, as anyone who does it a lot knows, is an active process, an act of will. You must actually listen, concentrate, think. Jazz is music not address wholly to the ear, but also to the mind (the imagination, the short and long-term memory) and to the body. At its root, jazz is based on the idea of variations on a theme the listener knows, either because it's a popular song that everyone knows (or knew, in the case of many standards), or simply because the theme was just played for the listener at the beginning of the tune.
But then, it gets weirder and more interesting than that, and this is where it seems to me we get into a realm that jazz and poetry share. Not only is a jazz listener meant to suspend the basic melody and rhythm of the song being heard in memory, but also all the solos that unfold in that song, the unfolding of the solo from one moment to the next, and, further, every other rendition of that song, every song like it, and, in a way, every other song, period, from the past, present, and future. While a jazz listener is experiencing the music he or she is hearing, he or she is also comparing it to other music, hearing how decision these jazz musicians have made in terms of melody, rhythm and a number of other factors comment on other musicians' decisions about other music, how other musicians make meaning and feeling with their instruments.
Poetry, I would argue, works the same way. When reading a poem, we're not meant to simply interpret the words the way we would a sentence spoken aloud in a conversation. We're meant to compare the words in the poem--taken together and apart--to all other uses of those words, to the echos those words carry from other speakers. The poem is a collection of associations pinned together, disguised as a kind of coherent piece of writing. It's actually much more dynamic than that, in motion like a jazz tune, changing its meaning and feeling not only as it unfolds in the poem, but as its words are used in the world outside the poem. It's big stuff. It's what makes poetry, and music, come off the page or out of the speaker, as it were.
As for an album, may I recommend Paul Motian Trio 2000 + One by the band of the same name, led by the extraordinary septuagenarian drummer (and Bill Evans trio alum) Paul Motian, who is one of the strangest and most original drummers every, thinking of the drums more as textural, rather than rhythmic, instruments. This is music that's alternately melodic and lovely and strange and abrasive. I'd say more but I can't so I won't. Talk to you tomorrow.