A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa on Jazz

by Ty Sassaman

Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet, playwright, and essayist. He is the winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize (for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and numerous other poetry awards. The Poetry Foundation describes his work as “weaving together personal narrative, jazz rhythms, and vernacular language to create complex images of life in peace and in war.”

One of his early works, Copacetic, received widespread critical acclaim and was his first to offer his particular brand of poetry imbued with distinct jazz influences. This music-poetry connection played a role in many of Komunyakaa’s subsequent writings. He also co-edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology with Sascha Feinstein and produced a prose collection titled Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries.

Komunyakaa recently visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. During his interview with Booth, the concept of harmony came up many times, along with words such as listening and endurance.

Ty Sassaman: Let’s talk about jazz.

Yusef Komunyakaa: Well, I just heard Wynton Marsalis talk about the whole history of jazz [at the Pulitzer Prize centennial celebration two days prior]. He was very astute. I don’t know if I can talk about jazz like he did.

TS: What resonated for you in what he said?

YK: He talked a lot about harmony, how that is achieved. It brought to my mind thoughts about how jazz musicians are always going across borders—social, psychological, political borders—to arrive at a place of harmony. For jazz musicians, there are things that they are pushing against and others that they are beckoning. In particular, I’m thinking about a person like Duke Ellington. His work shows us a lot of that pushing and pulling, always seeking harmony.

TS: How does the non-melodic Free Jazz movement fit into your ideas about harmony?

YK: I was lucky to actually meet and talk with one of the originators of Free Jazz, Ornette Coleman. What I was really taken with about Ornette, separate from his music, was that he came from Texas. That surprised me. A small city in Texas—home of the Texas swing! But I met him in New York. I lived in an apartment up on Fortieth or Forty-First Street, probably five years ago. I had been really taken with the album Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street because I lived so close to Prince Street at that time. What he captured in that composition was something entirely different than what I had experienced. It was then I realized, yes, that place has changed. He captured a certain moment of emotional, psychological history.

TS: Did you ask him about “Prince Street”?

YK: No, we just talked. I remember that I was in awe of him.

TS: When I think of Ornette Coleman, I mainly think of the bracing, full-throttle sounds of his album Free Jazz.

YK: Yes, sure. But he was very, I want to say, delicate, tender. And I had always realized that in his music. But then, certainly, there are moments of robust presence in the music. But I couldn’t help but think about how his background was informed by growing up in a small city and learning Texas swing. He had to have heard that, so how did he invent his own sound? Maybe there was an immense silence in his life, as well. Maybe in his early life, being so alone, there was a kind of thinking out of things. I don’t know why I’ve chosen to talk about this in particular. Maybe what I’m actually talking about is myself.

TS: That Ornette Coleman’s journey is similar to your own?

YK: That is part of it, but I think this kind of thing leads to thoughts about harmony. It’s interesting that Wynton Marsalis, in his talk about jazz, brought it all back to harmony. That’s where I feel like my psyche is at the moment, this idea of harmony. I’ve been thinking about it and even wrote down the title for a new poem that I’m calling “The Soul’s Soundtrack.” Harmony started me thinking about the essence of music, its importance, this whole thing of reaching the blue note. And I started thinking about listening. I remember listening to Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Gonna Come.” I would like for the jazz musicians to blow that, you know? It’s both confrontation and celebration, my definition of poetry.

TS: How do you see work like late John Coltrane fitting into that idea of harmony—arriving at a unifying force when the music he played seemed so deconstructive, so willing to pull everything apart?

YK: Here’s what’s happening: John Coltrane is singing inside A Love Supreme, though he’s blowing a horn. It’s lyrical and tender and strident at the same time. In fact, A Love Supreme actually pulls it all together. Late Coltrane, he was confronting a lot of demons, and he was blowing them away. And that’s the nature of jazz, to come to that place.

TS: Some of the most influential albums came out at a time of great social change and political upheaval. Can these albums still be made in this day and age?

YK: I think so. Wynton Marsalis seemed to think so, too.

TS: Could somebody make A Love Supreme now?

YK: Yes, they can. It’s all still happening right now, man. But you know what is interesting? Louis Armstrong felt very strongly about all that. He was against these voices of dissent. Armstrong called the inventive, improvisational music of bebop the “modern malice.”

TS: Was that just because it was undanceable?          

YK: Partly, but it was much more than that. Jazz, for the African American, lost a great deal of its community presence when you could no longer dance to it. Suddenly you had to listen for it. It became concert music. And now it is American classical music.

TS: What do you think was Armstrong’s goal?

YK: Well, the state department used jazz as a symbol of freedom in Eastern Europe. I was visiting Poland and was shown all these photographs of jazz musicians—Ray Charles, Miles Davis, all of them. They were considered ambassadors of cultural freedom. Jazz was used as a weapon to break apart the Eastern Bloc, to show, “this is what freedom looks like.” And Louis Armstrong led that charge. They called him the ambassador of jazz. Another time I visited Saint Petersburg, in November of 1994, and I was taken to hear jazz at a place called the Jazz Philharmonic Hall. I couldn’t believe it—the place was filled with all these twenty year olds! Nothing like a jazz club you’d see in the US. All the musicians were Russian, and they played everything. There was even a woman imitating Ella Fitzgerald. I don’t remember the names of any of these groups, but the experience really stuck in my mind because I was aware of how closely these twenty year olds were listening to the music. There was no talk, no nothing. You could hear a pin drop.

TS: How do clubs in the US differ?

YK: When I go to the Village Vanguard there are a lot of tourists, a lot of people who are not Americans. They really appreciate what is happening on stage.

TS: How so?

YK: I think it has something to do with that listening. And the musicians, they are very much listening to each other. They have that capacity to listen.

TS: Is listening something that is bred out of us by commercial music?

YK: I think so. We are no longer asked to enter that place of meditation and listening, where the music is allowed to do its thing.

TS: What other elements do you think are essential in jazz?

YK: On Sundays I used to go see Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor in New Orleans. His boys have grown up and left, but Ellis is still holding it down there in New Orleans. Every Sunday afternoon, a trio. He called his son Jason up, he was maybe nine years old, and they played a few tunes. That was great to watch. But what stuck with me most about this family was the communication.

TS: Between the father, Ellis, and his son Jason?

YK: Between Ellis and the whole band. But now I’ve seen them again, years later. Jason has gone out into the world and established himself. So I’m there at Snug Harbor many years later, and again I’m watching the communication between father and son. It was amazing. They just knew each other’s moves, and it was so natural. And that was a moment of harmony for me. It comes out of a place of unspeakable respect. These musicians are reading each other.

TS: Do you experience this in your poetry?

YK: In moments, it happens.

TS: What’s new in jazz now?

YK: I go to a place in Trenton, New Jersey, called, of all things (it sounds sort of sentimental), the Candlelight Lounge. Saturdays there’s a gig there between 3:30 and 7:30. It’s curated by an amazing individual, Larry Hilton. He brings in musicians from Philly, New York, Trenton, and all the surrounding areas. It’s one of those places where you can sit back and say, “Okay, now this is jazz.” The music there is acoustic. I’m drawn to the acoustic keyboard. I think it has to do with tonality, listening to the metal against wood. There’s something truer to the human happening there. I don’t want to be didactic about it, but there’s something more honest to the human ear. It resonates, and the human becomes an extension of the music.

TS: Electronics in music are very prevalent. They seem to have replaced real acoustic keyboards.

YK: And those musicians, they’re living their whole lives playing through and listening to their electronic devices. But they’re not really growing completely. There are certain rituals that we go through that humanize us. By only playing on electronics, they’re not going through those.

TS: Okay, I’d like to hear your thoughts on some general jazz questions.

YK: Sure. Fire away.

TS: Favorite era?

YK: The 1940s—start with, say, Birth of the Cool—all the way up to the early 1960s beckoned to me, challenged me as a listener. That era is what I feel, that’s what I understand, that’s what my body and my mind want to relate to. Those two decades.

TS: Favorite trio or combo?

YK: Cannonball Adderley always excites me when I listen to him. Just last year I started listening to him again, and it just seemed so fresh and so alive.

TS: Favorite album?

YK: Again, Birth of the Cool is definitely there. A Love Supreme—how could I get away from that, you know? Anything by Sonny Rollins excites me, especially that he’s still there, still doing his thing. He has endurance, which is an aspect of this music, too.

TS: What poem would you like to give a soundtrack to?

YK: Now that is a good question. I’ve always loved “American Journal” by Robert Hayden, a rumination on what observations an alien might make of Earth and Earthlings. But who would score that? I imagine it would have to be something very sophisticated. It would have to be something that could combine both the earthly and the ethereal.

Ty Sassaman is a student of Creative Nonfiction, working towards his MFA at Butler University. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Sun Magazine, and the Dudley Review. His book Just One Question: A Road Trip Memoir was a finalist for The Loft Literary Center Mentor Series and is due out in fall 2017. He lives in Minneapolis.