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Chops: Deft Poetry

Kurt Elling, Laurence Hobgood and Roy Nathanson on blending jazz with verse

Kurt Elling, a headliner at 2018 PDX Jazz Festival
Kurt Elling
Laurence Hobgood (at piano) with poet Robert Pinsky
Roy Nathanson

From the Harlem Renaissance through the Beats and the Black Arts Movement, jazz and poetry have long been intertwined. In many ways the two forms are ideally matched: Both can be esoteric and expressive, highly structured or freeform, abstract and profound. But either can also be daunting to approach for a novice, so we asked several artists experienced in marrying jazz and verse for advice.

Saxophonist Roy Nathanson has published a book of poetry, Subway Moon, along with utilizing words in various forms in the music he makes with his bands the Jazz Passengers and Sotto Voce. He says that jazz is a natural complement to poetry, in its ability to extend and illuminate meaning. “Jazz can be an extended language,” Nathanson says. “The idea of the metaphor is the sexy thing in language-the ability to allow the imagination to associate ideas that you wouldn’t think could be associated. When you’re using musical notes with words, the palette of the metaphor is extended.”

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