Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Now you has jazz

I don’t bother with most poetry. I rarely “get” it.

That’s not a criticism of the art form or an opinion of its worth. Poetry's just not what I usually grab from the bookshelf.

I am a storyteller, professionally. I make my living telling nonfiction stories.

Sure, they tend to be stories about criminals or fact-filled features and they rarely last longer than one day before they are recycled, but they are stories nonetheless.

Consequently, I have little use for obfuscated language or symbolism for symbolism’s sake, and poetry is more prone to indulge in that than prose.

But I’ve always loved Langston Hughes. Of course, Langston wrote a lot more than poetry. His short stories and columns, featuring the appropriately named Simple, prove that if you can write, you can write anything.

However—in the same way that Paul McCartney will always be remembered as one-fourth of the Beatles, no matter what Wings did—Langston will always be remembered for his poetry.

My affection for the man is simple. He wrote words to songs that didn’t exist. And while I don’t always “get” poetry, I understand music.

Before I wrote stories, I played jazz piano. I hear the harmonic intervals in a laugh. I tap syncopated snare lines on my desk when I’m nervous. Lo-kan-kan-pi-kan-kan. I wandered onto a backstreet during my honeymoon, so I could buy bootleg Lucky Dube CDs.

I can’t get through my 15-minute commute to work without McCoy Tyner or Isaac Hayes or Wu-Tang or The Clash.

And Langston—more than any other writer I know—understands where music and poetry converge.

When I read “The Weary Blues,” I can hear the drowsy syncopated tune. And it’s not just the subject matter. His pacing, his rhythm. I can hear the chords shift. One-Four-One-Four-Five.

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody

Then, Langston hits you with a horn stab.

O Blues!

Langston wrote blues. He wrote swingers, he wrote spirituals, he wrote ballads. He wrote the sweetest love songs nobody sang.

I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.

Then, just as the music was changing, Langston changed too. When, melody and swing gave away to complexity and lightning-on-methamphetamine licks, Langston decided to write bebop.

With “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” he wrote a poem that could have been a laboratory child constructed from the spliced genes of Charlie Parker, Gwendolyn Brooks and George Gershwin.

Down in the bass
That easy roll
Rolling like I like it
In my soul
Riffs, smears, breaks.

So I can die not “getting” poetry; because, if I have Langston Hughes, I’ll always have music.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Next time, I finish my Black History month series with Richard Wright.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

RuthI recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


April 4, 2009 at 12:26 AM 

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