My book project, Instrumental Voices: Poetic Experiments in Jazz, examines recorded collaborations between African American poets and musicians. Although jazz poetry is typically constructed in terms of musical content and allusions, I argue that recorded performances by poets represent a crucial innovation of literary form. Although the project is primarily concerned with poetry recordings from the Black Arts Movement, I begin by historicizing the intersection of recording technology, black poetry, and music. In my recent article, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say: Recording the Prehistory of Jazz,” I examine Jelly Roll Morton’s 1938 Library of Congress sessions represent a watershed moment. Produced by the folklorist and archivist Alan Lomax, Morton’s lyrics, stories, songs, and reminiscences contain not only some of the first musicological discourse on jazz, but initiated a new genre of recordings.
Morton’s performance was recorded for an anthropological purpose. With the rise of phonographic technology, researchers saw audio recording as an empirical method to collect, preserve, and study oral traditions. With his father, John, Alan Lomax had recorded Lead Belly in the early 1930s—his performances became one-act dramas that wove a literary-historical discourse akin to a West African griot. The introductory chapter of my project embarks from this point to consider early contributions to the emerging genre of spoken word recordings in a literary context. I focus on poets associated with the New Negro Renaissance who recorded for Moses Asch’s Folkways label. Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks were among the early adopters of audio technology in the 1940s and 50s.
Although Hughes is probably the most widely discussed poet in the black literary tradition, critics make little mention of his recordings. During the 1950s, Hughes’ work appeared on eight separate Folkways albums. In part, these records are obscure now because they fall under an even lesser-known dimension of Hughes’ wide-ranging career—his writing for children. Yet, I argue that these recordings speak to a broader audience, anticipating Hughes’ later, more experimental collaborations with musicians like Charles Mingus. I argue, that for Hughes, Brown, Brooks, and Walker audio technology was a politically charged medium—recording black poetry was a populist gesture of resistance toward traditional restrictions on black literacy and language.
I am currently at work revising an essay on the poet, activist, and educator Sarah Webster Fabio, who took her cue from Hughes’ distinctively black American prosody. After earning her MA at San Francisco State in 1965, Webster Fabio taught some of the first Black Studies courses in the country at Merritt College, where the founders of the Black Panther Party and other Black Power organizations took her courses. During the rise of Black Power politics, Webster Fabio earned an international reputation as a prominent voice in the movement. In the 1970s she recorded four poetry albums for the Folkways label. To a great extent, Webster Fabio has been forgotten by studies of the Black Student, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. This essay will become a new chapter of my book project with the addition of a section on the poet’s seven-volume chapbook series called Rainbow Signs. I argue that, like Hughes, Webster Fabio bridged generations and laid the critical foundations for the Black Aesthetic. Ultimately, I plan to return Webster Fabio’s work to print by producing a critical edition of her important, but neglected poetry and criticism.
My subsequent chapters, all part of my dissertation project, examine radical and experimental poets from the Black Arts Movement who are better known for their recorded collaborations with musicians. Still, these recordings remain marginal in the critical narrative of black poetry. Amiri Baraka, for example, is widely acknowledged as a proponent of populist, experimental poetics indebted to jazz, but his recorded efforts have received surprisingly little attention. My chapter locates Baraka’s essay, “The Changing Same,” as a key theoretical insight about the relationship between vernacular music, black language, and ideology that sheds light on his lesser-known recordings from the late 1960s and 70s. Attending to the aesthetic stakes of polemic works from Baraka’s Nationalist period reveals important insights about his more recent recordings with bassist William Parker, dedicated to the memory of Curtis Mayfield. Tracing the evolution of Baraka’s performative style emphasizes crucial continuities and disjunctions among the successive phases of his literary career. Such dissonances, I argue, reflect the evolution of Black Arts poetics more broadly, especially the tension between populist and vanguard commitments.
Where Baraka’s prolific writings overshadow his discography, Gil Scott-Heron presents a case in contrast. As he explains in his memoir, Scott-Heron set out to be a writer, even a professor of literature. In 1970 he published a novel, a book of poetry, and released a live album that debuted his signature poem, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” Now more than forty years and fifteen studio albums later, his influence has registered more with hip-hop fans than with literary critics. Situating Scott-Heron within the African American literary tradition affords a fuller appreciation of his distinctive blend of humor, music, and politics, too often dismissed as street poetry or proto-rap. I argue that this is not a flaw, but a cultivated virtue. Scott-Heron’s fluency with residual oral forms exemplifies the Black Arts ethos. While his recordings prove his mastery of the vernacular tradition, I demonstrate that a closer examination of Scott-Heron’s writing reveals a fiercely experimental undercurrent, linking him to the blues-toned modernism of Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes a generation earlier.
Jayne Cortez has the most extensive discography of Black Arts poetry, but her multimodal collaborations extend even beyond her eight studio albums. Each of her many self-published chapbooks incorporates original artwork by the sculptor, print maker, and painter Melvin Edwards. I argue that Cortez’s multifaceted inter-arts project conceptualizes jazz as an expressive mode that transcends genre—reverberating across poetry, music, and visual art. Cortez’s collaborative ethic helps to think about artistic creation as the basis for social practice. Merging one’s art and one’s life was a core tenet of the Black Arts Movement. Female poets, in particular, invoked this mandate to enact feminist models of social organization.
Sarah Webster Fabio, Sonia Sanchez, and Jayne Cortez all included their families in performances and publications. Webster Fabio’s band was made up primarily of her children. Sanchez’s Does Your House Have Lions? Is written in the voice of her brother, sister, father, mother, and ancestors. And Cortez’s son (with saxophonist Ornette Coleman) was the longtime drummer and bandleader for her band, the Firespitters. Edwards, who illustrated Cortez’s poetry, was her longtime partner. My project contributes to the ongoing re-evaluation of the Black Arts Movement by underscoring the leadership and innovation of women activists, writers, and educators. I argue for a feminist genealogy of radical jazz poetry that links artistic collaboration, improvisation, community, and social practice.
My research also gives a longer historical arc to the Black Arts Movement. Most studies conclude in the mid-1970s, as the momentum of Black Nationalism began to falter. But poetry recordings had only just begun to flourish. In 1974, Gil Scott-Heron had his first top-ten hit on the R&B chart, and Jayne Cortez recorded her first album—both on the independent Strata East label. In fact, all of the artists I consider in my book recorded their poetry until late in life. These twenty-first century developments in Black Arts poetics resituate black poetry’s kinship with jazz as an ongoing site of contemporary innovation.
Younger poets, too, have felt the pull of the recording studio. Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, with other contributors, will soon release a tribute album for Amiri Baraka. Bassist Esperanza Spalding and rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Nas are working with narrative musical forms through film, echoing Duke Ellington’s multimedia experiments. These artists raise vital issues about improvisational performance, technology, and radical democracy in the twenty-first century—an intellectual project that will be reflected in my teaching and research for decades to come.