Friday, August 17, 2012

CONNECTING THE BOP: The How And The Why Of America's Heartland Music

Wow what a treat to visit with fellow poets and painters at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs, LI, to share a reading for Jackson Pollock. No threat of rain or summer heat could slow us down or keep us from sharing our Jackson Pollock related inspiration.

For me it was especially gratifying to ‘connect the bop‘ -- ie, relate  the swirling circular and hugely energetic Pollock canvases to Whitman, to Charlie Parker and the KC vortex, to the bop prosodists of the 50s, and to my own work.

The KC vortex which produced bebop jazz. of course, but also  Thomas Hart Benton, indisputably Pollock’s mentor and whose abstract ideas about rhythm on the canvas transcend the WPA figurative aspects of his work in a manner that profoundly inform his work .

Musically stated, there’s the structural thing -- improvising off and around and beyond and back to the core statement. Being able to jump into the conversation (musical or visual) from anywhere on the scale. Using your woodshed skills to blast out an extended and irrepressible improvisation which seems beyond deliberation, inspired, almost autonomic -- but at its core, is deeply schooled. Camouflaging the subject, circling around it and going tangentially away from and back to it with sculpted micro-flourishes, teasing it out of perceptual existence and back in again. A rhythmic and tonal explosion that never loses its deep reference to the form. And finding the resolution, the landing point. Getting it back there.

It’s the essential HOW of bop, whether its Parker, Pollock or the prosodic flights of Kerouac, O'Hara and the rest.

Then there's the WHY (as jazz musician Tony Scott, born Tony Sciacca in NJ testified, 'I studied the how AND the why' of bop).

The range of emotional statements that can be sustained is wide. Bending the voice of the man, through the plaintive protestations and sly subversions of blues and jazz musicians finding solace, kicks, competition and comradery in the midst of Jim Crow America. The frenzied search for articulation of Pollock. The vernacular longings and raw industrial energies and arguments of Thomas Hart Benton.

The rebelliousness of the Beats and the aesthetic nuancing of the New York School poets. Their playfulness too, and the joyousness and transcendental celebration of our own Walt.

That's right, Whitman -- who in 1879 visited the grass prairie of Kansas, confluence of cattlemen, homesteaders, and declared that a pure new and original American voice would emerge from it.
Whitman didn't mention the big muddy river rolling down from the north, or the irrepressible blues & jazz current that would sweep upstream from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. He couldn't know that there would be cross-country trains carrying  car after car of popping bi-coastal swing musicians, cats overnighting in what amounted to a free-for-all laboratory at 18th and Vine; a place to stretch their wings in time and space, to experiment with their music, to transform it into something new.

Whitman didn't know it would be bop. But Whitman got it right. All those elements thrown into the hot crucible of America’s midsection added dimension and gave moment to an emergent American voice Whitman predicted would come.

Okay, a lot of it came to a head here in the Big Apple -- jazz clubs, juke joints, painters studios and writers' pads. And further on out, to Jackson Pollock's bucolic retreat in Springs, a shingled house beside the sheltered salt marshes of Gardiner's Bay.

But the roots go way deeper than that, deep into midwestern soil.

(Thanks to Tim Sullivan, Ros Brenner and Helen Harrison for organizing the poetry reading at Pollock-Krasner House, and to fellow poets Lucas Hunt, Michelle Whittaker, Max Wheat and Claire Schulman for adding their voices in)

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