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.