The Jazz Poetry Anthology
Edited by Sascha Feinstein & Yusef Komunyakaa
Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991. $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper, 256 pages

By Lee Bash

If "jazz poetry" immediately conjures up images of coffee houses, bongo drums and beatnik manifestations for you, unfortunately your frame of reference probably dates you and, as far as this book is concerned, you're off the mark. Nor should you feel that the title implies need on your part to have special skills or interest in poetry. Like the music this collection celebrates and honors, the works contained in this anthology run the gamut of expression -- from the social, political, and spiritual dimensions that have always characterized jazz to the intensely private, intimately personal presentations commonly shared between jazz and poetry. This poetry isn't restricted to that esoteric form of expression that seems remote to our everyday experiences either; it is fun, moving, powerful, enjoyable and real! Jazz has always been a primordial kind of music -- it touches the soul and often seeks to move us more powerfully than other styles. It is this same core of raw emotion and highly personal expression that resonates throughout the poetry collected here as well, so that this blending of genres is both exciting and wonderful. Since its inception, jazz has engendered hundreds of poems -- a source of inspiration that has been buoyed by its colorful performers and its accentuated rhythmic nature, which in turn has contributed to a compelling marriage between the two art forms that has endured and flourished.

Clearly, the timeliness of such an anthology is justified by a sense that, with nearly a century of jazz poetry, there must be a mother-lode of related poems that are pure gems from which to select. This brilliant book confirms that speculation in a manner that presents each art form, in all its multi-faceted splendor, so many different ways that the reader may feel compelled to absorb these works in small portions in order to fully appreciate their power, imagery and sometimes-beauty. There is a veritable "who's who" of names offered both from the musician's and poet's roster. At times, it is difficult to decide whether to first savor the work of the poets or to cherish the artists their poems celebrate. Of course, you can try to do both simultaneously, but there's so much to take in all at once that you may opt for concentrating on the work itself or the message separately and then later synthesizing the whole experience. At any rate, the net result is a magnificent book that should serve any artist or arts-advocate as a source of inspiration and pleasure, regardless of whether the reader was heretofore a jazz aficionado.

The anthology is presented in alphabetical order by poet (the easier to access), followed by a "Biographical Notes and Statement of Poetics" section designed to better reconcile the poets and their works for the readers. A helpful appendix is also supplied broken down according to topics such as individual artists, anonymous or relatively unknown musicians, blues musicians, vocalists, meditations about jazz, etc. so that the reader can quickly scan for specific subjects of interest.

What I find most compelling about this work is how fresh and exciting it remains every time I use it. If I hear or think of an artist who I haven't heard lately, I inevitably gain extra insight and pleasure in checking out poetic sensitivity about this artist (sometimes, there is more than one poem about the same musician). Or, if I simply need a lift, there is a special thrill in discovering how these wordsmiths can somehow magically capture the very essence of a music made more alive by their efforts. Pardon me my enthusiasm but this is one of the most exciting new books relating to jazz I've encountered in a long time primarily because it can be used over and over again. For me, I suspect that this will always be one of my few "most essential books" and I don't every foresee tiring of it!