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Poets and jazz artists find rhythm and rhyme

'Words & Music' performers trade lines and some surprises in an improv experiment.

January 10, 2008|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Poet Charles Simic grew up in the former Yugoslavia, where his family listened to jazz over a "fantastic radio" whose dial told them where to turn for stations from Paris or Oslo, though he later figured out that an American Armed Services broadcast from Italy was the source of the Big Band music he heard in 1944, when he was 6. "To us, jazz meant America," recalled his younger brother Milan, "freedom and America."

Robert Pinsky did them one better, however -- he dreamed of being a jazzman himself, a saxophonist -- and still plays, at 67, in the privacy of his home, using those pre-recorded rhythm tracks as accompaniment.

But neither man was carrying a horn, or any instrument, when they arrived Tuesday at the Jazz Standard club on East 27th Street. The nation's current poet laureate, the 69-year-old Simic, and its former poet laureate, Pinsky, were there to do their practiced thing, read poems. And while they'd share the stage with three jazz musicians, it was still undecided, two hours before showtime, whether the two groups would perform together. In the best jazz tradition, the night was going to be an improvisation.

"We've never done this before," Pinsky told the evening's drummer, Andrew Cyrille, who at 68 has only about five decades' experience freelancing with the likes of Cannonball Adderley.

"No worry," Cyrille said.

The "Words & Music" event was the brainchild of Milan Simich -- the two brothers spell the name differently -- who is a veteran jazz producer but admitted to apprehension about "being a little too '50s."

A tight end-sized figure with a shaved head and gray beard, Simich was worried that having the musicians play and the poets recite at the same time might seem like a stilted return to the drugged-out days of Allen Ginsberg and other beatnik poets.

"They had that kind of mad genius then, that was the idea," he said of those poets. "Now they're all college professors."

Pinsky, who proved to be a populist poet laureate by inviting Americans to send him their favorite verses, indeed teaches at Boston University. But the plan did call for him to try one exercise out of the jazz world, not academia: a round of "trade fours" with the drummer, Cyrille. Normally, musicians throw a few bars back and forth, "just have a conversation," the drummer noted, the wrinkle here being that Pinsky would throw him couplets instead, two-line rhyming poems, such as one by J.V. Cunningham that went, "This Humanist, whom no belief constrained, / Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained."

Sporting a taxi driver-type cap, Cyrille gave only a cursory response on his drums at their run-through but reassured the poet that he'd be ready when they let the crowd in. "I won't count the bars; I'll just follow your rhythm," he said, and even offered his own short rhyme: "I will listen to what they say, and they will listen to what I play."

Then one more wrinkle: Pinsky hoped to recite his own jazz-themed "Ginza Samba," which begins, "A monosyllabic European called Sax / Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah . . . ," the poem then following the instrument "in the belly of a slaveship" to where it gets an "American breath."

And for all the talk of avoiding echoes of the Beats, he wondered if the trio might know the Cal Tjader tune for which the poem was named, or another samba, to play behind him.

"Sure," replied vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, who by age 14 was playing shows with Paul Whiteman. Sure he knew sambas, and launched into one.

"You'll say if it seems too corny," Pinsky said of their joint effort, speaking to Milan Simich. "I don't want to sound stupid."

Charles Simic was the last to arrive, and also the most skeptical of his kid brother's pairing of their poetry with jazz.

"He was talking about it for years. I still don't know if it's going to work," said Simic, explaining that poetry "needs its space" and how the works of Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, say, are best read "in solitude, all alone."

But Simic also recalled how his family arrived in America in 1954 and stayed in a hotel near Times Square, and his father took him to hear saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, so "my sort of American experience started on a high note."

A few years later he was living in the city and would have a drink at the Five Spot, where Thelonious Monk played. One night Monk wobbled over and Simic tried to tell the legendary pianist how great he was and Monk said nothing back, "he seemed to be on another planet."

Simic wrote a poem about the experience, a quarter century later, that began: "Monk at the Five Spot / late one night / . . . / One beautiful black transvestite / alone up front / Sipping his drink demurely / The music Pythagorean / one note at a time / Connecting the heavenly spheres . . ."

Milan Simich gathered the two graying poets to plot out the show, saying to his older brother, "I don't know if you want to trade with the drummer . . ."

Simic said back, "I don't know if my poems . . ."

"OK, fine, fine," said Simich.

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