The Poetics of Jazz

The Poetics of Jazz

A new book presents an alternative aesthetic history of jazz—and is also a challenge to all music critics.


Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album Skies of America is more often discussed for what it could have been. The famous free-jazz pioneer’s first orchestral recording, it was conceived as a suite for his quartet with backing from the London Symphony Orchestra, but a misunderstanding with the British musicians’ union prevented the other three players from joining. The resulting 41-minute cut, recorded in notoriously poor quality, features Coleman soloing above the full orchestra rather than the concerto-grosso dynamic that he had intended. Nevertheless, there is brilliance.

Coleman takes over for nearly 10 minutes on the album’s second side, at one point slowing down over a memorable cadenza until he seems to be addressing the listener directly instead of his anxious supporting strings and winds. This slice of the composition is titled “Poetry.”

In 1997, Coleman sat down for an interview with Jacques Derrida, during which the saxophonist, composer, and bandleader spoke candidly about his well-developed aesthetic vision and the practice of jazz. The interview took place ahead of Coleman’s residency at La Villette, where he was presenting “Civilization,” a program of concerts that included his first performance of Skies of America in many years. Responding to a question about the title “Civilization,” Coleman says: “I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another. I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

Derrida is curious about the ways in which jazz can inform political action, asking, “When you say that sound is more ‘democratic,’ what do you make of that as a composer? You write music in a coded form all the same.” Coleman turns back to “Poetry,” saying, “In 1972 I wrote a symphony called Skies of America and that was a tragic event for me, because I didn’t have such a good relationship with the music scene: like when I was doing free jazz, most people thought that I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”

Derrida enthusiastically agrees: “But if I translate what you are doing into a domain that I know better, that of written language, the unique event that is produced only one time is nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation—that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation.” In short, a word isn’t a word until it’s repeated, and it doesn’t exist without that hope of repetition—and just so with musical sequences. Almost conspiratorially, Derrida and Coleman argue that it is the promise of repetition that provides order where many people hear chaos.

It is this attention to form—and particularly to the exchange across artistic forms—that the scholar and writer Brent Hayes Edwards celebrates in his new book Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination. The conversation between Coleman and Derrida represents the sort of interplay between jazz and literature that Edwards has written about for more than a decade. Indeed, the title of his book is an allusion to another embodiment of the same.

For most, “epistrophe” may be an unfamiliar word for a familiar poetic maneuver. Borrowed from the ancient Greek, it literally means “turn around,” and denotes a repetition at the end of a line or stanza. Often encountered in religious call-and-response, in poetry it gives a sense of ritual or incantation, establishing a refrain that can hold other statements in relief or become troubled by shifts in context. Think of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock repeatedly asking what he should “presume” after descriptions that become unnervingly abstract. This uneasiness is, perhaps, what Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke had in mind when they came to call their most famous composition “Epistrophy.”

In the introduction to Epistrophies, Edwards explains that the song title’s “turning about” might refer to its rotating melody as well as to Monk’s movements onstage, an “unusual little dance…that Monk would often do during his concerts, standing up and leaving the piano while his sidemen soloed.” This is a context that would likely elude even devoted listeners, unless they’d caught Monk at Minton’s Playhouse. But, Edwards implies, it wasn’t missed by the poet Amiri Baraka, who wrote a 1964 poem called “Epistrophe” (which, curiously, doesn’t employ its namesake device). Edwards sees Monk’s tromping chords as the tonal counterpoint for Baraka’s awkward conclusion—“I wish some weird looking animal / would come along”—demonstrating that “a resonant figure of musical immanence can be the impetus behind an innovative poetics.” Edwards is more interested in Baraka’s exchange with Monk, and the passage of an idea from poetry to jazz and back again, than he is with the poetic device itself.

Epistrophies spends only a few pages on this artistic exchange, and neither Baraka nor Monk receives a chapter-length treatment, but we can discern a methodology from Edwards’s choice of title. A remarkable intellectual with many affiliations, Edwards is above all an archivist, excavating art and its history to make arguments about the innovation and complexity of black avant-gardes. His first book, The Practice of Diaspora (2003), showed how English-centric criticism has limited our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance: “Diaspora is a term that marks the ways that internationalism is pursued by translation. This is not to say that internationalism is doomed to failure, but instead to note that it necessarily involves a process of linking or connecting across gaps—a practice we might term articulation.” The story that Edwards went on to articulate in that book, focusing on the transnational and translinguistic inspirations for Alain Locke, Claude McKay, and George Padmore, clarified the intertwined histories of literary experimentation and black radicalism obscured by the American tendency to concentrate on national or even state-oriented struggles for civil rights—as well as on struggle itself being the foremost experience of blackness. Edwards is more interested in what he calls, quoting Locke, “cosmopolitan humanism.”

Which is also to say that Edwards typically allows his subjects to supply the terms of his theorization. His chapter in Epistrophies on the dueling historicist and experimental impulses of the pianist Mary Lou Williams borrows the title of her 1974 album Zoning to explain the way she situates her work: “Williams ‘zones’ the avant-garde, containing its infectious threat and pulling it back into its place within a blues-based pianistic tradition.” He draws on correspondence, diaries, and small magazines to explain how (and why) artists describe their work and experience, and he provides lively accounts of how he came to them. This commitment is doubly rewarding for the reader: Every section teems with multifaceted asides and comes with a grounded critical vocabulary. Almost conspiratorially, Edwards, by way of Monk, Baraka, and others, works to “argue that pseudomorphosis—working one medium in the shape of or in the shadow of another—is the paradigm of innovation in black art.”

In Epistrophies, both of those mediums—jazz and poetry—are broadly imagined. For instance, the chapter on Henry Threadgill, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 for In for a Penny, In for a Pound, investigates the “micropoetics of the song title.” And each section of the book balances deep dives into the past with sensitive investigations of popular misconceptions. Part of Edwards’s impetus for the Threadgill chapter is the mistaken “preconception that the title can or must have a programmatic function in relation to the music.” Instead, Edwards argues that, in jazz, the title of a song is better understood as an aperture, an opening that gives signals as to how to hear the song, as opposed to a prescription for what the work is about.

In Threadgill’s case, his titles often provide openings into the long history of jazz that his songs then extend or confront; or they supply a “demystifying irony” to defang his recondite arrangements. As Edwards writes, “Rather than ‘Toilet Paper,’ an ode to hygiene or a paean to the excremental throne, Threadgill gives us a tune entitled ‘Paper Toilet’: suddenly, a sculpture, no longer porcelain, but a tree’s leavings. A fragile access to the septic, even a place of inscription—write the slate clean? A utilitarian seat that is perhaps itself temporary and disposable, even combustible.” For Edwards, Threadgill’s titles are best understood as stimulants: They “‘contaminate’ the musical medium with the poetic in order to amplify its call to be taken up elsewhere—its demand for the sugar of a tainted retort.”

Edwards’s tone is similarly sweet, rarely disparaging other, earlier critical works at length. For instance, rather than make a big deal of them, Edwards chooses to dismiss Theodor Adorno’s notoriously condescending comments on jazz in a footnote: “This is not the place to rehash the heated debates around Adorno’s castigation of ‘jazz,’ but it is worth noting (as many other scholars have) that it is not at all clear what music Adorno is referring to with the term.” Fred Moten, whose 2003 book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition uses the relationship between jazz and radical politics to argue that all black performance is improvisation, is Edwards’s most likely contemporary counterpoint. But Moten’s work is guided by a Delphic theoretical abstraction, with turns to Heidegger and Marx, that contrasts with Edwards’s patient and comprehensive archivism. Instead of sending us to the philosophers, Edwards would have us sharpen our attention to the minutiae of reading and listening—after all, the units of exchange between them are often portably small.

But this doesn’t mean that Edward’s writing lacks grip. To the contrary, he exhibits what I can only call intellectual glamour. He joins syntax and sentiment with élan, demonstrating a charismatic brilliance that persuades in parallel with, as well as through, his argumentation and evidence. There are stretches of his book that summary would fail, because it could not adequately account for the sheer pleasure in watching him go there. Here, for instance, is a section in his first chapter that examines the etymology of “scat” and “scatological,” in light of Louis Armstrong’s evangelical attachment to a laxative called Swiss Kriss:

One shouldn’t lose too easily the fact that this is a metaphor and not a homology. But if the figure describes the effects of the laxative, it also reflects on the status of music in Armstrong’s aesthetics. A music where the action of words and music falling away from each other might best be described as a release, a sought-out condition of flow. An ethics of discard (“Leave It All behind Ya”) that also provides the foundation for a poetics. This should make us hear that excursion in “Lazy River,” where Pops explodes the lyrics with a glorious run of sixteenth notes (ending with a spoken aside, commenting on his own invention: “If I ain’t riffin’ this evening I hope something”), in a slightly different way. Novelist Ralph Ellison supposedly told Albert Murray, “Man, sometimes ole Louie shows his ass instead of his genius.” I’d put it rather differently, though. Sometimes it seemed that Armstrong thought his genius was his ass.

Hilarious and trenchant at once, Edwards would be a beguiling writer in any field. He doesn’t shy away from the bawdy or bodily but won’t use that engagement as an excuse to introduce shallow thinking. Instead, he’s that rare academic whose work demands attention outside of experts in the field, without sacrificing tone or complexity. Almost conspicuously, William Empson comes to mind.

Edwards’s missteps are few, and modest. I am not clear, for instance, why he grants Northrop Frye responsibility for dividing lyric poetry into melos (melodic, aspiring to music), opsis (optical, aspiring to sight), and so forth, when Ezra Pound had done something similar and with a greater impact on the “literary imagination” 40 years earlier. Louis Zukofsky’s definition of poetry as “approach[ing] in varying degrees the wordless art of music,” which Edwards cites a few pages earlier, borrows from the same Pound schema. Yes, Edwards’s stated interest is in black art, but this swerve away from a white American (albeit problematic) modernism forecloses an opportunity for deeper insights.

In the chapter in which these attributions appear, Edwards discusses James Weldon Johnson’s prefaces to The Books of American Negro Spirituals (1925 and 1926), folkloric anthologies that Johnson collected and transcribed. Edwards is interested in Johnson’s “poetics of transcription”: how the challenge of fixing dialect speech into typed words corresponds with representing improvised melodies in standard notation, and how Johnson’s prefaces account for them. Johnson “posits the ‘elusive’ quality of the spirituals as exactly what must be transcribed,” Edwards writes. “This pushes transcription toward its necessary future realization in a performance; it is incomplete on the page, he says, and the performer must ‘play what is not written down.’” It is one of Edwards’s most compelling chapters, a bravura analysis that uses a fascinating correspondence between poetry and music to ask why form is so often absent from African-American cultural criticism.

As an alternative aesthetic history, Epistrophies is immensely satisfying, but Edwards’s sustained attention to form might have helped us to understand the mechanics of cultural appropriation as well. The correspondences between poetry and jazz extend beyond racial bounds, indeed beyond markers of genre, and have influenced white poets whom white critics are insufficiently retheorizing. For example, Robert Crawford’s recent biography, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land” (2016), makes the “Prufrock” poet’s debt to ragtime plain, but doesn’t ask how that sits beside his obvious racism. I can’t shake the sense that there’s an unspoken argument in here about claiming cultural spaces—we should remember that the metalanguage of rhetoric, including terms like “epistrophe,” first emerged to teach jury persuasion in ancient Greece during a rise in property disputes.

For his part, Edwards frames his work on Johnson, epistrophe, Louis Armstrong, and the rest as an argument for a shift in music criticism. “And if a major element of what I have been tracking throughout this book is experimentation in pseudomorphosis—new possibilities found by hearing across media—then jazz criticism would have to hear across media, as well, and find itself transformed in the process.” And perhaps because of that predetermined point, Epistrophies can read more like an episodic work than a unified one. Edwards has been working on this message for a while—three of the chapters appeared in academic journals more than 15 years ago—and he doesn’t clearly demarcate the new territory he discovers along an obvious critical through-line. Still, what makes Epistrophies such a singular work is the vividness and rigor of Edwards’s storytelling.

As with Coleman’s Skies of America, there exists a temptation to discuss Epistrophies for what it could have been. Nevertheless, there is brilliance.  

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