The Journal of Provincial Thought
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Fortescue "Kid Spats" Deepelum- Iss 17 Fortescue
"Kid Spats"

A few years later Robert Hillyer, a minor scholar-poet now long forgotten, wrote an eighteenth-century pastiche satire called “Letter to a Young Scholar” (1936) as a commencement address.  In its heroic couplets, he surveyed the state of undergraduate education with a portrait that could have been at least ten years old.  He lines out his ideals for scholarship and notes “My scholar must have music in his heart” as part of “that one art toward which the others yearn” (cf. Walter Pater, “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”), but he finds his present students deficient:  “. . . hearers, weak from following Beethoven,/Relax with Gershwin, Herbert, and de Koven.”  This is a fairly genteel pop music triad, but Hillyer has a more scathing portrait of the college-boy jazzhound:
                        Where is the creature?  Nay, but is that he?
                        A saxophone is nuzzling on his knee!
                        His eyes pop out, his bellied cheeks expand,
                        His foot taps “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
                        Ungraceful and unpardonable wretch!
                        Was it for you my eager pen would sketch
                        A new, sensible curriculum?
                        Burst with your panpipes! And we’ll both be dumb.
The stereotype here, a standard device of classical satire and a relic from the Roaring Twenties mythology, is nonetheless recognizable as the popular conception of the college boy and of the jazz addict—always emblemized, as with a heraldic device or an allegorical banner, by the saxophone, even though jazz saxophone “stars” hardly existed before the 1930s.  Something fascinating about the hybrid woodwind-brass instrument of Adolphe Sax made it a convenient abbreviation for all of jazz, even more than the slide trombone, the tenor banjo or the trap drums. 
            In contrast to Hillyer’s vivid but cartoonish sketch is one of the most original and unclassifiable poems of the era, Joseph Moncure Marsh’s The Wild Party (dating like Hughes’ and Crane’s poems from 1926).  A rambling Juvenalian satire in prominent but irregular vernacular rhythms, The Wild Party is a continuous narrative that often recalls the barroom joviality and slanginess of Robert Service’s frontier doggerel (“The Cremation of Sam McGee,” etc.) or, more closely, the vast literature of anonymous obscene oral “toasts” and comic poems (“Eskimo Nell,” “The Titanic,” etc.—see Bruce Jackson’s “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me”).  The poem is a summary of the recklessness and confusion of the 1920s, but in a late reminiscence, “A Certain Wildness,” written for a 1968 reprinting of his poem, March denied that he was simply retailing the stereotypes of the decade:
                        The era of the '20s has become a grotesque stereotype:  everybody
                        nowadays knows that we all looked like caricatures by John Held, Jr.
                        All the girls danced the Charleston, had itsy-bitsy voices like Carol
                        Channing, and went around squealing Boop-boop-a-doop and vodeo-
                        do.   All the boys drank from hop flasks, strummed ukuleles, and parted
                        their hair in the middle to look like Rudolph Valentino . . . (March 9)
March’s The Wild Party, an on-the-spot view of the times in 1926, is grittier, more vulgar and obscene, more shocking than the usual blurred comic-magazine vision of bowdlerized nostalgia. 
            With considerable precision, March recalled the circumstances of writing the poem and its basis in a realistic vision and vernacular language:
                           Four lines into The Wild Party  I made up my mind that I wasn’t
                        going to try to write anything “poetical” or “lyrical” about these
                        characters, whoever they were.  It might be interesting to see what
                        would happen if I talked about them in the colloquial slang phrase-
                        ology of the native New Yorker. (March 38)
A student of Robert Frost when at Amherst, March said “I went along with Frost, who didn’t believe in conventional standards of beauty.” (38)  As he wrote, March discovered a strange rhythm or cadence, echoing the music of the day in its heavy emphasis, irregularity and “syncopation” in unexpected line lengths and rhymes:  “. . . this was not a conventional verse-rhythm at all:  it was the rhythm of a military drumbeat:  the interval ‘break’ that keeps the cadence going until the drums begin their full roll again.” (39)
            The process of writing the poem in a long single siege during the summer of 1926 was also like jazz and the blues, an improvisational feat of self-discovery and self-expression:
                        From line to line, The Wild Party is an improvisation.
                            If there were “rules” governing the structure and technique of story-
                        telling, I ignored them.  My school for storytelling was the cinema.  I
                        had sat in theatres watching films like “The Last Laugh” and “Variety”
                        over and over again, admiring their tremendous pace and economy, and
                        the way the swift succession of images on the screen kept the story
                        moving without any let-down.  It didn’t take me long to realize that
                        cinema technique is highly selective:  every image is significant; it fixes
                        the audience’s attention to whatever is considered most important, and it
                        temporarily isolates this focal point of interest from everything else.  (March 39)
As for most of his generation, the movies—as well as jazz and blues and comic strips and skyscrapers—became for March the representative experience of the time.  The Wild Party has always had the feeling of a highly pictorial work, its first, limited edition in 1928 being illustrated by the satirical draftsman Reginald Marsh in his Daumier-like style and most recently a distinguished reprinting has been rendered by the brilliant cartoon-novelist Art Speigelman, who created a suitably lurid graphic style for it.
            The Wild Party begins in medias res, with a famous description of its flapper leading lady:
                        Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,
                        And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
                        Grey eyes.
                        Lips like coals aglow.
                        Her face was a tinted mask of snow. (March 65)
The artificiality of Queenie is a stark contrast to her nudity—for the first section of the poem, she is unclothed except for copious makeup, stockings and shoes—so she is an ambiguous creature, both naked and disguised at once, as she makes her “age stand still.”  March details the squalor of her apartment and the brutality of her current lover Burrs, a thuggish circus clown who mistreats her sadistically.  The poem hints that they enjoy a symbiotic sadomasochism and makes much of the oxymoron of Burrs as an “evil clown”—a main theme is the idea of masking and hypocrisy, the way the wild party allows (or makes) everyone throw off inhibitions and live out their own wicked natures. 
            The party itself is the poem’s centerpiece, an attempt by Queenie to stave off the boredom she fears.  As it gets underway, her apartment fills with raffish friends, who quickly become drunk and disorderly, and the gathering slides into an indiscriminate orgy.  In the background of the mingled sex—hetero-, homo- and bisexual—and drunken or drugged abandonment is jumbled music of the period:
                        Over blurred keys swung Oscar and Phil.
                        Their hands were numb:
                        They had lost their skill.
                        With faces ashen
                        And smiles set,
                        They played a duet.
                        Their fingers stuck,
                        Mangled the jarring notes they struck.
And at the same time in the background, a record plays, adding to the cacophony:
                        Through all this sound
                        The Victrola kept flinging
                        Dim snatches
                        That had no end,
                        No beginning. (116-17)
Queenie two-times Burrs with another cad named Black, while he two-times her with a floozie named Kate, various partygoers have sex more or less publicly, a very young girl is nearly raped by a pedophile.  The action winds toward a climax, but it is meaningless and mechanical repetition, as signified by the music grinding in the background:
                        The Victrola played steadily.
                        Beside it sat
                        A white-faced youth, with a battered hat
                        Aslant on his frowsy, dishevelled head.
                        Obliviously, he wished he were dead.
                        He sat hunched over, staring at the wall
                        With eyes that saw no wall at all.
                        With half of one large foot he kept
                        The music’s rhythm
                        He wept.
                        The record played on. (138)
For March’s purpose, the mechanical music is a perfect analogue for the mechanical stupefaction of his sad revelers.  The poem ends abruptly, explosively, as Burrs shoots Blackie in aimless jealousy and the police burst in to end the party (cf.  Fats Waller’s rollicking 1937 send-up of hectic Harlem rent parties in “The Joint Is Jumping,” which concludes with a noisy police raid and Fats squealing mockingly, “Don’t give your right name, no!”).  The joyless sexual promiscuity, random violence and alcohol-fueled rages are much more characteristic of the 1920s, March insists, than the false picture of wholesome flappers dancing innocent Charlestons.  The poem is almost as much an anodyne or diatribe against the sanitized College Humor vision of the era as William Faulkner’s grim, sadistic novel Sanctuary (1932), notorious for its episode of rape by corncob but also featuring lynchings, gangland murders, a “jazz funeral” and the gruesome sadism of the gangster Popeye.
            In the 1950s and '60s, a genre of often stagily self-conscious “jazz poetry” grew up as part of the Beat Movement and among associated younger writers.  Designed specifically for recitation with a modern jazz background, the poems were often cast as social criticism and esthetic rebellion, like Allen Ginsburg’s angst-fueled “Howl” (1956), picaresque romanticism like Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues (1959) or gentle pop surrealism like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind  (1958).  All these poets shared an interest in jazz and its milieu, with heavy emphasis on an adolescent,  romantic concept of the jazz musician as an alienated outsider who created high art despite the pressures and seductions of bourgeois society.  The Beat writers followed 1920s traditions of jazz-sounding, jazz-describing poetry but injected a social and political agenda often remote from the experience of most musicians.  The effete hipster culture of the 1950s fed on bop and cool jazz as symbolic departures from both square society and commercialized popular culture.  A close observer of African-American music and culture, LeRoi Jones (aka. Amari Baraka) began his literary career in the Beat camp, as a neo-surrealist, neo-nihilist cousin of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, et al
            More recently, jazz in an accurate historical perspective has become a topic for poetry less ideological, less exotic and more normative as a basic part of U.S. culture.  One recent poet with an interest in the backgrounds of jazz and a verse style adaptable to the subject is Kofi Natambu, whose “Words & Music in America” (see the epigraph to this chapter) describes an ironic-mythic genesis for jazz poetry:
                        It started if you really wanna know
                        (and you damn well should) in a white
                        whorehouse in East St. Louis, Illinois
                        in August 1928 where a bunch of drunken
                        unemployed Negro poets were sitting around
                        trying to sound like LOUIS ARMSTRONG as a
                        rickety Victrola ground out 1900 choruses
                        of “Tight Like That” in the early mourning
                        hours of Eddie Jefferson’s 12th birthday.  (Lange and Mackey 342)
The poem ends with a resonant line, “The rest as they say is MYSTERY . . .”—as good a view of historiography as any, perhaps.
            In a more ambitious poem, “The Funky Butt Legacy Song (An Epic in Progress),” Natambu imagines a scene in 1918 with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet in New Orleans and James Reese Europe in France.  He includes King Oliver and Willie the Lion Smith as the poem unfolds, a fantasy survey of early jazz, in terms of its emotional meaning.  The poem describes Europe’s 369th Regiment U.S. Army “Hellfighter” band in evocative terms:
                        The 369th regiment full of heroic
                        trumpet players and magnificent drummers.  Full of courageous violinists
                        and daredevil clarinetists.  Full of fiery trombones and leaping fusillades
                        of Joy.  It was 1918 and Louis and Sidney Bechet were running along the
                        narrow streets of the French Quarter.  What’s that I heard Buddy Bolden
                        “Swing it, Shake it, Take it Away.  Funky Butt is here to stay!”  (Lange and Mackey 343)
Natambu imagines King Oliver as a kind of tutelary spirit presiding over the scene:
                        This supercharged symphony!  “Give me five strong
                        n****rs with something to say and the nerve to say it and
                        we’ll change the world forever!” the King was heard to pray. (344)
The poem ends by moving across the country with one wandering itinerant:
                        Jelly Roll Morton hustling sentimental
                        cornhuskers in piano poolrooms all across the U.S.A.  While millions come
                        back in freshly hewn wooden boxes as industrialists discuss the “terms” of
                        Armistice.  (344)
It is a view much like the poetic “Newsreel” sketches in John Dos Passos’ great American panorama of the era, U.S.A., especially the second volume of the trilogy, 1919.  Natambu’s cadenced style and free synthesis of history and imagination and the underlying ironies of hindsight recall Dos Passos’ sweeping, cinematic montages of America, tracking from gutter level to eagle’s eye in perspective.
            Al Young, the excellent novelist-commentator on jazz, also wrote brief haiku-like jazz portraits.  Two poems on Lester Young are especially evocative as thumbnail sketches of an enigmatic and creative jazz genius.  The first, “Lester Leaps In,” gives a picture of the saxophonist in almost cartoon shorthand:
                        He had his sensitive side, he had
                        his hat, that glamorous porkpie whose
                        sweatband soaked up all that bad
                        leftover energy. (Lange and Mackey 254)
And it also catches his eccentric personal language, which included rechristening most of the musicians with whom he played:
                        --Sweets Edison, Sir Charles, Lady Day?
                        Oooo and his sound!  Once you savor its
                        flaming smooth aftertaste, what do you say? (254)
In a second poem, “Topsy:  Part 2,” Young meditates on the personal effect of his namesake’s music on him as he traveled in Europe:
                        How overwhelming
                        that Lester tune
                        heard just out of the rain
                        early one night
                        in a café bar
                        full of African students
                        midtown Madrid
                        September 1963  (255)
The evocation here is like a memoir or a journal entry, but it reminds us of the portability of jazz, its universal distribution and the way its unmistakable sound can bring back memories of home and create instant nostalgia anywhere in travel, the quintessential American street sound.
            Another poet working with the experience of jazz from a highly personal stance is James Schuyler, who in “Let’s All Hear It for Mildred Bailey!” (1988), recalled a youthful encounter with the jazz singer during WWII:
                        . . . Mildred Bailey got it on
                        and the boys all stood up and shouted
                        “Mama Won’t You Scrap Your Fat?”
                        a lively number
                        during the brown-out
                        in war-haunted, death-smeared
                        NY  (Lange and Mackey 45)
Schuyler, like Al Young, is interested in capturing what makes a jazz sound unique, the personality of the singer which shines through her work:
                        Mildred Bailey sang immortal hits
                        marked by that voice
                        with built-in laughter
                        perfect attack: always
                        on the note
                        not behind or above it
                        and the extra something nice
                        that was that voice (46)
The poem darkens with memories of the war and its global horrors and a sadder picture of the singer not in action but in melancholy reflection:
                        And Mildred Bailey, not
                        quite alone
                        in her upstate farmhouse
                        the rain is falling
                        she listens to another voice
                        somehow sadly
                        it is singing a song:
                        in a world gone wrong.  (47)
The poem makes a subtle comment on the context of music and the emotional gradations of jazz, from undiluted joy to profound sadness, all within the brief compass (sometimes) of a single performance, at least within the compass of any musician.  Schuyler’s clipped rhythms are like those of Joseph Moncure March, evoking the terseness and rhythmic insistence of the music, though Schuyler’s emotional plane is much broader.
            The entire spectrum of poems evoked by jazz and blues is very wide and impossible to categorize simply.  That the new African-American music post-1917 had an impact on literature and its language is self-evident from the many works that try to capture or evoke the music in words.  While jazz poetry ranges from misguided commercial attempts to misfired esthetic emulation, it also includes serious works that try to make words a “sister art” to musical sounds or that try to explore the characters and minds of musicians as fellow artists. 
            My title, “A Handful of Riffs,” comes from a tune by Eddie Lang (real name Salvatore Massaro), a classically trained genius of the guitar, who teamed up with one of the greatest black blues/jazz guitarists, Lonnie Johnson, to record this duet in 1928.  The Johnson-Lang partnership is a great example of the mixtures and diffusion in the music, the way it pulled musicians and materials from everywhere and unified them under its aegis.  Lang recorded this under still another pseudonym, as “Blind Willie Dunn,” probably to make the record acceptable to the race market.  So the music reveals Johnson, who learned his blues licks on the streets and across the south and was as nimble and imaginative an instrumentalist as Lang, hooked up with an Italian-American passing for black to invent entirely new ways to make the guitar a jazz voice.
            The idea attracts me, because I think it parallels what happened when poets, white and black, absorbed the sounds of jazz, from horns and strings and keyboards and hides and human vocal boxes, and rebroadcast them to the world through their medium of words.  To call this a “multimedia” movement is to miss the basic collaboration the Lang-Johnson duets imply:  Salvatore Massaro changed his name because it was not a suitable American jazz monicker, while Lonnie Johnson retained his identity.  Massaro reinvented his classical guitar style to accommodate jazz sounds he heard and imagined, while itinerant black musicians like Johnson collected and collated sounds from thousands of nameless and unknown players and singers who never made it to a New York studio, whose legacy is filed only under that largest category of attribution in poetry through the ages—Anon. ###


Crane, Hart.  Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose (ed. Brom Weber).  New
            York:  Liveright, 1966.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, “‘Hoo, Hoo, Hoo’:  Some Episodes in the Construction of
            Modern Whiteness,” American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), 667-700.
Eliot, T.S.  Collected Poems, 1909-1962New York:  Harcourt, Brace, 1963.
Hillyer, Robert.  Collected PoemsNew York:  Knopf, 1961.
Lange, Art, and Nathaniel Mackey (eds).  Moment’s Notice:  Jazz in Poetry and Prose.
            Minneapolis:  Coffeehouse Press, 1993.
Lindsay, Vachel.  The Congo and Other PoemsNew York:  Macmillan, 1916.
Lindsay, Vachel.  The Golden Whales of CaliforniaNew York:  Macmillan, 1920.
March, Joseph Moncure.  The Wild Party and The Set-Up.   Freeport, Maine:  Bond Wheelwright, 1968.
Wooldridge, David.  From the Steeples and MountainsNew York:  Knopf, 1974.

jptARCHIVE Issue 17
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