It has been a banner time for high-profile jazz-poetry collaborations. Last year saw the release of Matt Wilson’s long-planned tribute to Carl Sandburg, Nicole Mitchell’s teaming with Haki Madhubuti and Jane Ira Bloom’s musical refractions of Emily Dickinson’s terse verse, among other projects. But now there is The Poetry of Jazz, providing us with the revelatory phenomenon of the wordsmith being the heppest musical cat on the scene.
Philip Levine was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress in 2011, at the age of 83. By then his poems had already garnered him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. What remained was four sessions with his jazz-musician friends in Fresno (where he had retired from teaching) and special guests, which took place between the summers of 2012 and 2014, ending seven months before his death in February 2015. Saxophonist Benjamin Boone, a former colleague of Levine’s on the faculty at Cal State Fresno, composed and arranged the vast majority of the music and organized all the sessions.
For those who knew his work, Levine’s love of jazz was no secret. Some of his poems pay explicit homage to the horn players of bop, and four of these 14 collaborative pieces enlist a kindred luminary to represent the cited artist—Chris Potter for Sonny Rollins, Tom Harrell for Clifford Brown, Branford Marsalis for John Coltrane and Greg Osby for Charlie Parker. They are the lengthiest and most ambitiously arranged songs, and each guest star delivers the goods. But the best material here puts the focus on Levine.
You don’t expect such brilliant phrasing from an octogenarian poet. Levine isn’t ostentatious—there’s no hint of Lord Buckley or Allen Ginsberg here—preferring the acute rhythmic accents of a brush-drummer or contrabassist in the subtle pace and weighting of his syllables. Many of the poems are blue-collar narratives from Levine’s youth in Michigan, ranging from “Gin,” a dense, sprightly ode to copping booze as a teen, to the sojourn of his Uncle Yakov from the woods of Siberia to the factory of Detroit. We learn that the mere dream of a Coltrane solo made his elderly mother cry; we take in the accurate observation of Rollins that “his woodshed was the world”; and we understand the feeling of walking toward the door of a tavern where Clifford Brown was blowing.
The climax may be “A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One,” 13 vivid vignettes cum “tone poems” further etched by the music of Levine’s jazz-soaked oral sensibility. Or the apex may be how The Poetry of Jazz ends, with a line of men waiting in the rain to be hired for work outside a Ford plant, on “What Work Is.” Levine brings precisely the right honorable melancholy to the setting. The world was his chapbook, and it was brimming with music.