Words without music about all that jazz
Sitting In: Selected Writings on Jazz, Blues, and Related Topics, by Hayden Carruth. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 192 pp. $22.50. It shouldn't be surprising that a poet here and there goes public with a fondness for jazz. Both poetry and jazz got rhythm, as the song says, and both have to make things new within established forms, whether the 14-line sonnet or the 12-bar blues.
Britain's late candidate for poet laureate Philip Larkin went so far as to write newspaper reviews of jazz, a collection of which was reissued not long ago. Recently a lesser-known American poet, Hayden Carruth, came out with the present volume, in which he possibly goes further - saying that for him poetry has always been ``second-best to jazz.'' Indeed, his criterion for almost anything is how close it comes to jazz.
Such daring judgment falls swingingly on the ear of a reader who tries, like Carruth, to play jazz with his betters on the bandstand from time to time - ``sitting in,'' as the title of the book says. I feel as overromantic in the presence of thorough jazz artists as the poet in some of the verse that Carruth drops in among previously published prose pieces here. I appreciate his professorial wrestling (he teaches English at Syracuse University) with how to analyze a music that continues to tantalize intellectuals at home and abroad despite the folklore that you either understand jazz or you don't.
But some of his analyses seem subjective enough to be unconvincing. For example, ``the blues'' often has echoes of melancholy, as in ``the blues ain't nothin' but a cold gray day,'' with certain flatted notes typically adding to the mood. But the genre includes too many romping, upbeat, even triumphant numbers to sustain Carruth's definition of the blues as ``a sensual experience of seeking and failing, that is, of inadequacy.''
The book's net effect is of an uneven performance with a number of fine, thought-provoking moments.
One important distinction Carruth offers is between the music called jazz and the culture of jazz, including its origins with black musicians, possible social meanings, and widespread influence. He notes that he first heard jazz as a child in a small farming community remote from the culture of jazz. He heard it as music, not cultural phenomenon. He must have been like those Europeans far from the US racial scene who heard the music and began to take it seriously before their American counterparts did.
Even if one disagrees with Carruth's verdict on the blues, it is interesting to see him reach it through scrutinizing the musical elements, apart from the lyrics. And you can see what he means when he says he has been given more aesthetic pleasure by poet William Butler Yeats and jazz clarinetist Charles Ellsworth Russell than by any other artists of this century. (Yes, he means Pee Wee Russell but avoids the nickname in a campaign against being condescending to jazz performers.)
Listen to Russell playing a ``totally new and forever surprising counter-statement'' to the melody on a recording of ``Lulu's Back in Town.'' Carruth says this ``is of the same genre as the `Variations on a Theme by Haydn' of Brahms, and like that work is an assertion of creative independence made stronger, not weaker, by its relationship to the prior text.''
And so another poet does his bit for what so many jazz musicians - and some of their classical counterparts - would like to see: a stage beyond categories where it's just all music, or maybe all jazz.