blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

Gregory Donovan: We're going to be talking about music and poetry. And one of the things I thought we might take care of right off the bat is that in your essay ["Tutelary Instruments"], you make a reference to Nietzsche, talking about: to wish to illustrate a poem by means of music is a kind of an insane thing to try to do. That brings up the topic right away of the difference between, and the relationship between, song lyrics and poetry. You have any thoughts about that?

T. R. Hummer: Nietzsche is talking about not so much an insane thing as an inversion, which is exactly what he calls it. He says it's an upside-down thing to want to do. If I understand what he means by that, it has something to do with the fact that a poem, as such, has a way of overbalancing music when it's set. He's probably writing out of the context of late nineteenth-century music in Germany, in particular, where there was a strong tradition of setting poems to music, taking a great lyric poem and turning it into some sort of chamber piece, or symphonic piece, or something like that whereby the music is supposed to be at least subordinated to the words of the poem. How that can be, in final terms, satisfactory, is a good question. I never find it very satisfying. I'm always either trying to listen to the poem and figure out what the poet is doing, or listening to the music and not paying any attention to the poem.

GD: For me, it's kind of like sprinkling sugar on top of a cotton candy cone. You know, there's no point to . . . Basically, song lyrics strike me as requiring a certain amount of openness, so that the music that's supporting the lyric can actually shine up through it and color it.

TRH: That tends to be true, so that the music and the lyrics can become one thing. Which is the problem in the other situation. They can't be one thing in the situation that Nietzsche describes because the poem already exists as a strong artifact, and it's hard, then, to bring the music to it in such a way that it becomes an organic whole. And of course songwriters do work that way too, I suppose. There are people like Elton John, who work with a lyricist, and either the lyricist brings the lyrics to the songwriter and he then, he or she, makes the music to go along with—or vice versa, the music is done first and then the lyricist writes lyrics. That would seem to be a parallel situation. But what makes it not a parallel situation is the context for which it is intended, a public performance context as opposed to a private context of sitting and reading. The poem that the symphonic composer tries to set has already been written for one kind of context, which is the context of the page and of a reader in the silence of his or her own mind creating or recreating the music of the poem. But the other thing, the song that is going to be performed in front of an audience for purposes of dancing and mating, if that's what it is, or for the purposes of being on the radio and making a whole lot of money—it's still performance. The context is such that both audience and artist assume a unity, and somehow that makes unity possible. We're having a similar friction, I think, in the culture now between performance poetry, spoken-word poetry, whatever that phrase may come to mean, on the one hand and poetry that's written for the page on the other. I have the same experience when I read on the page the work of a performance poet as I do when I read on the page without the music song lyrics, which is that something's missing. It's not a satisfactory experience on the page by itself. It may be fine if you are in the presence of the performer performing the poem. You may find that very satisfactory, but if you look at it on the page, nine times out of ten it won't hold up. And likewise most song lyrics, when you read them, isolated from the music, don't seem complete.

GD: Yes, it's a legitimate . . . performance poetry finds its legitimacy in the moment of its performance and it loses a great deal of it when it goes onto the page.

TRH: Exactly. That's why they call it performance poetry: it's for that. There are surely performance poets who are so good at what they do that it works both ways, but I think that is very rare. Just as a lot of textual poets may also be very good performers when they stand up to read their poems in front of an audience, but not all of them are. And in fact, it may even be the exception rather than the rule that somebody is really an excellent reader of his or her poems.

GD: I'm reminded of what Paul Simon . . . his reaction to being called a poet, which he took exception to that, because he wanted people to . . . He said, "If you judge my work as poetry, I would not be a very good poet. But if you judge me as a song lyricist then that's where I find my own." That's one of the things I know all of us who do play music and also teach poetry—a lot of our students right away will immediately assume that we're going to be sympathetic to the idea of them bringing in song lyrics to class and try to pass them off as poems or get advice about writing them. I always explain to them that those are really . . . maybe it's surprising to them, but those are very different parts of my brain: the part that would be writing a song lyric is not that closely related to the person who would make a poem.


TRH: You're right, very different parts of the brain, but/and also different parts of your social context, of the web of expectation and desire in which we move in company with each other. You expect something different, contextually, from a song than you do from a poem, though of course you get into deep water when you begin to reflect on the fact that originally, it's true, as Nietzsche is telling us, all poetry was, in fact, performance poetry in the beginning, and most of it was probably accompanied by music.

GD: We have that word "lyric" as the history of that, the sort of linguistic emblem of that connection.

TRH: Exactly, and so what we're doing now is something that has been transmogrified by technology, basically. At some point we were given paper, and then people started doing things with paper, and then they had a different instrument, basically. That's how I think about it. For the textual poet the page becomes the instrument. That's, as it were, the new lyre, but it's a very curious lyre because it doesn't make any noise.

GD: Well, I think of it, sometimes I find myself talking this way, that the poem on the page is a score for the speaking human voice, but maybe that's not even correct. Maybe, to take into account what you're talking about, that most of the time the poem is read in privacy on one's own, that it's a score for that speaking human voice you hear in your head while you're reading.

TRH: Precisely. It's a score for inner voice. And there is, in fact, a very long history of that. Not as long as the history of music, as far as we can tell, in terms of scoring the inner voice. As long as there has been civilization there has been a suspicion, actually, of the inner voice and a desire to discipline it and chasten it and make it be what somebody thinks it ought to be. Because as we all know what's inside your head is a can of worms. Freud teaches us how to describe that, but for eons on end people really distrusted the can of worms. And with good reason, by the way: as we well know the can of worms often gets out of control. The old idea of limiting the legitimacy of people's so-called revelations, their visions, is part of the same fabric. Whatever church you may be talking about when you say the word church—you may be talking about the Catholic Church, or Islam, or any church you like, I just use it as shorthand—religions have always wanted to figure out ways to make their whole congregations employ the inner voice in either the same way or in at least so-called legitimate ways. And so traditions of meditation, traditions of prayer in which you are given a rote prayer as opposed to one that you create on your own, all that is part of the fabric of various kinds of authorities' desire to police the inner voice. And poetry has participated in that as much as it has participated in the desire to liberate the inner voice. There's a real tension between these two things. Music enters there in curious ways because music, though it can be obviously marshaled and formed and shaped exteriorly in all kinds of ways, and has to be in order to be performed by groups of people together, when it gets loose inside somebody's head it becomes an unpredictable and, I think, anarchic force.

GD: That dovetails with something I've thought about music and poetry with relation to the kind of composers like Joni Mitchell, or Suzanne Vega, or people like that. There probably are more contemporary examples I could use. It seems that when a song lyricist begins to approach the quality of intimacy, interiority of poetry, the closer they get to writing something that actually does feel and seem like poetry, the musical accompaniment that comes along with that ceases to be the regular sort of pop song or something like that, and begins to veer over into something more like jazz. So I think of Joni Mitchell singing her lyrics that are very much like poems, when she gets to that point—she's got Jaco Pastorius just playing wild bass riffs in the background and it's sort of drifty and the thing doesn't really even necessarily have a tune. So that as the song lyricist approaches being a poet, the musicality of it begins to recede.

TRH: Or change, become more amorphous, as if at that point it can no longer be contained in a strict shape in the way that other kinds of things can be. I mean, music tends to be, in terms of its traditions, very shape-oriented. The blues is the most obvious example of that because blues is formally, fundamentally, quote-unquote simple. I say quote-unquote because it's not really simple . . . but that's the appearance. You can describe the form of blues in about five minutes, and it becomes an immediate language whereby almost all musicians, who have ears at all in this culture, can immediately communicate. You can get almost any group of musicians who can play anything at all together and say, "Let's do a blues in G," and that's all you have to say. You can play something that makes sense. If I said, "Let's play a jazz in G," then that wouldn't mean anything and you'd have immediate chaos. But you could say, "Let's play a blues in G," and even though what you play may pretty quickly turn into jazz, because those people are performing together and listening to each other and changing what they do as they go, the blues is an immediate alphabet, a container, in a certain sense. There's something wonderful about that, and there's also something devastatingly restrictive about it. If you play blues very long you can get rather tired of the limitations of that form and you want to do something a little different. But my point is that the kind of song that you're talking about has a way of disrupting the simplicity of those formal barriers and demanding something that tends to be more kind of open ended.

GD: We've talked about these same things over the years. I remember you quoting to me one time—I think it was John Coltrane—who suggested that jazz would diminish in its quality the farther that it drifted away from the blues. Is that Coltrane who said that?

TRH: It may have been. I can't say for sure, but it seems to me it's something that I would have said if somebody else hadn't, because I think it's true. Certainly Coltrane kept close to the blues tradition all the time no matter how, in other ways, in many ways, he drifted away from it or in fact turned his back on it. He began seeking increasingly, as we know, musical models from all cultures and finding probably equivalents of the blues in other places or just things that were so different from it that he was fascinated by it. And yet you can always hear blues in Coltrane's music no matter how it drifts, no matter how far it plunges. One might say drifting is not a good term because he was never a drifter, he was a plunger. No matter how far he plunges away from that base it's always in him.

GD: Well, do you think there's a similar condition that applies to poetry in the sense that poetry, if it gets too far away from music, somehow diminishes in its quality? It seems like we're actually in something like the same struggle that Coltrane was, that at one point poetry was four square, it was a building with rules and it had . . . it was very tightly engineered. And then there was . . . over the years there's been a series of revolutions leading towards making them more like natural speech. I often find myself saying to students these days the rhythms of poetry are much more like the complex and free rhythms of jazz music. Is there some kind of way that poetry nevertheless, if it gets too far away from music, it's not going to be . . . ?

TRH: That's a very complicated question, and I'm not sure I know how to answer it. Partly because you'd have to say, "What music do you mean?" And then you have to ask, "Do you mean music, or do you mean music?" By which I mean, do you mean instrumental music or do you mean the music of words, which is a different thing. And in that sense you can't ever get away from musicality because language does, in fact, have its own musicality that has nothing to do with lyres and electric guitars, as we know, though there's probably some deep relationship there. But to answer that way is to fudge because I know what you mean. And I guess I'd have to say that from my point of view, poetry has got to stay somehow attached to music, but I can't answer that question for everybody.

I read poems that seem to me distinctly unmusical, or even anti-musical, which is maybe a different thing. To be anti-musical is to retain a connection to music. There are poets, in fact, who seem very unmusical to me, which is not to say that there's anything wrong with that in their case. There are some excellent poets who seem to me unmusical. I think, for example, that a lot of John Ashbery's poetry is distinctly unmusical, because it is the poetry of a species of mumble. And that's what he wants, that's what he's trying to do. He wants a poetry that's living right at the edge of where some vague train of thought might become the thing that somebody walking down the sidewalk begins to say out loud to themselves as they walk along. You know, that's the place where Ashbery's . . . the sound of Ashbery's poetry lives. It doesn't have anything to do with music, it seems to me.

GD: Well, you know, I'm almost willing to float an idea here that the reason why that is is because Ashbery's poetry is a poetry of wit and humor. And the more that poetry approaches that condition the less musicality it might need, unless you're talking about overt parody or outright doggerel or something like that, but I'm talking about contemporary poetry ordinarily doesn't go to that place. And in Ashbery's case I think that that quality of it that is cerebral, although I don't mean to say it's hyper-intellectual, it's not rooted in a kind of emotional wash, that's not where it's going to live.

TRH: That's right, and there are other poets who operate in other unmusical ways—without naming any names, I think I don't have to because there are so many. There's so much contemporary poetry that is so based in conversational tones that music is, in a certain sense, irrelevant to it, just as music is often irrelevant to people when they're sitting around drinking coffee and talking about what happened on the news that morning. There's a lot of poetry now that seems to live there. And there was, of course, a time when that kind of thing would not have been legitimate as poetry.

GD: That was a revolutionary idea.

TRH: Yeah, it was a revolutionary idea.

GD: Plain speech.

TRH: And one that was paradoxically made possible by the page, curiously enough. We could have never gotten to a point with performance poetry, with music, where it would've had a real conversational element. It's hard to imagine Homer with his lyre talking about what we're having for breakfast while he's writing. There's a certain heightening, a certain lift that happens there, and it was only when we began to have—not only when we began to have the page available, but after enough time had passed with poets writing on the page that the older tradition began to fade and something new began to kick in with poets like Whitman, for example. You know Whitman, oddly enough, is almost always operatic. You feel that his voice is always heightened, but what he did made possible poets like Richard Hugo. The paradox there is that the page, which is silent, made available to poets a multitude of new kinds of voices for poetry.

And I think the reason is the thing that you were talking about before: that the page becomes a score for inner voice. And therefore you can score for inner voice—or script for inner voice—whatever you want, really. If my poetry were tied to my physical voice and my ability to project it in a room, I would write always a certain way. I would always be writing for that voice. I don't usually think when I am writing poems what they're going to sound like in the air that way, though I think very much what they sound like in my head. The sound of it in my inner ear is extremely important. Some poets say that they always read out loud what they do while they're doing it. I never do that. It's always a silent process for me. In fact just now, when I was reading those poems for the first time—I'd never read that work before because it is very new work. I haven't done a reading since I've composed those poems, and therefore it was a new thing. I found myself surprised, in some sense, and I had to stop and go back and say, "I can't read it that way"—because I hadn't ever externalized that voice. I knew exactly what the inner voice was like and the kind of experience I was preparing for the reader. In terms of the reader's inner voice, I knew just what I wanted, but in terms of an exterior voice, no, I hadn't thought about it.


GD: That's interesting that you say that because as you were reading, I found myself wondering, or noting the places where, well, I didn't hear that that way. But to be honest with you that almost never happened. I mean, frankly, I'll say the reason why is because you are an experienced poet and you are in control of that. That is a controlled effect that you are producing in your poems. It's studied, and it's intentional, it's willful. And so the experience I had reading the poems on my own, quietly in my room, was very closely echoed by your ultimate out loud performance of the poem.

You know, I wonder about this. There is a kind of poem I don't even want to hear, but then, you know, when I come to that, I guess that's a poem I really don't like that much. They're not among my favorite poems. I guess what I am talking about is the extreme cult of plain speech. It seems almost puritanical at times in American poetry these days. You have people who are so eager to remove any florid nature to what they are saying that it's an American speech which is rather dried out.

TRH: That can happen. Of course, there are also poets, as we know, who have done that so brilliantly, and so beautifully, that it’s amazing. Frost, of course, is a past master at it, and his great skill is to apply the old traditions of poetry to the newer American voice and to make it all really fit together—it's a great gift. Not too many have been able to do that. Another poet: I mentioned Richard Hugo a while ago, who's a good example of a poet who writes a very—well, "conversational poet" is not quite right for Hugo, he's a meditative poet, and the conversation is usually with himself, the speaker of the poem having a conversation with himself—"You might come here Sunday on a whim/ Say your life broke down . . ."—and so on. The other interesting thing about Hugo is that he almost always writes against a roughened-up iambic pentameter base, which most readers don't notice because it's made so conversational, you know, so that with Hugo there is a certain kind of "music" that is pretty highly controlled. There are poets in that mode who are what I, at least, think of as lesser practitioners who don't do that.

GD: You know, I think that's related to something Hugo says in The Triggering Town and which I was quoting to a group of students just the other night. He says, "Don't communicate." He also says all language that is caught up exclusively, just almost totally, in the intent to communicate is language that is dying. And he is, of course, talking about the language of journalism, or the news story. We have even worse sorts of language now, the news story itself at the time that Hugo was talking about it, now the news story has become even more of a truncated and shrunken-down thing. It's just a sound bite.

TRH: The Triggering Town is really about teaching poetry, a lot of it is, anyway. So a lot of what Hugo says there comes out of his experience of teaching, years and years of teaching undergraduate students how to write poems. With beginning poets in this culture you struggle with the fact that so many have been taught to write so badly. And I don't mean write poetry, I mean write at all. People who teach composition struggle with this. Students have been taught to write something that is called the five-paragraph essay, whose pure purpose is to do what Hugo would call "communicate." That's what it's for, right? But, of course, it's not even for that, really, what it's for is to get a grade in a class. And students are so ingrained in a certain kind of "logic" that to get them to write poems that are interesting sometimes is a real struggle. You have to throw dynamite in their brains, and in fact that's what Hugo is doing when he says "don't communicate." He means it, and he doesn't mean it. But for those students, what he means is "scramble up your brains a little bit. Let me throw you out a paradox that will so discombobulate you that you will begin to write differently than you write now." That's what he means when he talks about writing off the subject. When he says write a sentence and then write another sentence that has nothing to do with the sentence before it. Because that is the opposite of what most people are taught in high school English classes.

GD: The proof of his wisdom is his warning about taking the title "Autumn Rain" and writing that at the top of the page, and then just see what you can do with that, just stay on topic and write about autumn rain. And with every line you will write a more diminishing, increasingly clichéd bunch of junk that finally you'll be horrified by yourself and you'll recede into silence.

TRH: Exactly. There is an analogy in musical practice, here and there. One of the sections in the book I have just finished, which this Jimmie Lunceford section is from, comes out of my imaginative involvement with the musician Sun Ra, who as a practitioner of music was very strange in many ways. I mean, he's strange in obvious ways—if you know anything about Sun Ra, you know how bizarrely theatrical his whole shtick was—but there was a more profoundly strange thing going on with him and with his band called the Arkestra, which he kept together for decades, though not always the same musicians. In fact, he had enormous numbers of musicians drifting in and out of the Arkestra. But there were a few, actually, who stuck with Sun Ra, oh, for a very long time. And it's strange to consider why they did because he was so very hard on them all. He wanted his musicians not to play things they already knew. He wanted them to play things they didn't know, and if you start thinking about it, that's a difficult proposition. Because what you tend to do is to reproduce in hopefully infinitely various ways, as a player, stuff you have learned. Just as as a writer you tend to do that. And the difficulty is to get yourself into a place where you can use what you know at the same time that you forget what you know.

GD: That would be genuinely, in the full sense of the word, terrifying. It would be a form of terror . . . or awe.

TRH: A form of terror and a spiritual discipline, as Sun Ra practiced it, at least. He made his people meditate. He made them practice very rigorous disciplines. He would not let them drink alcohol or use any drugs, he would fire people for that. He wanted them all to eat vegetarian diets, although they wouldn't. He didn't ultimately fire people for not, but he would chastise them for it. He wanted them to be very disciplined. There is a story I read about him where a musician who had not ever played with him before was invited to come in and sit in on a session of the Arkestra, a rehearsal session. And he arrived at the house—Sun Ra always got a big house somewhere and everybody lived there; the whole band would all live there. They lived together and ate together and slept together—just in the sense of sleeping—and everything else.

Anyway, he got there and there was a man sitting in a closet off the room where the band was practicing. There was a closet and the door was open, and there was somebody sitting in the closet. The musician looked back there and thought, What's that guy doing in the closet? And he sat in the closet for about two hours while the band rehearsed, and then Sun Ra said to him, "Now come out of the closet and play." This guy came out and sat down at a drum set and the next tune they played he then joined in. And the visitor thought, "This guy was a brilliant drummer and I'm thinking What is he doing in the closet?" After the one tune was over Sun Ra said, "Now get back in the closet." He was being punished for having been late. He came late to a rehearsal session, and he was being punished. It was a rather serious punishment; he sat for like three hours in the closet. Furthermore, it was not only uncomfortable, but also humiliating, that was the point of it. Ra was being tough on him. And he was tough on all his musicians that way. He was tough on himself. Because he was trying to displace people's minds, you know, to say: "Now. I'm giving you a chart of a tune you have never seen before, and it is strange. It is not like anything you have ever heard before. Play it." He has stories about this kind of thing. He would establish a rhythm that he wanted, let's say, a drummer to play; he had one drummer who just could not get a certain figure, a really good drummer who couldn't get this weird rhythm. And at some point Ra just stopped and said, "Okay, just wait a minute." He went out to his front door and there was a little girl walking by, about a ten-year-old girl, and he said, "You come in here." And the little girl comes inside, and he tapped out the rhythm and he said, "Now you play that." And the little girl just did it. And the drummer says, "How did you do that?" And Sun Ra says, "She did it because she didn't know she couldn't do it. Now do it." He was constantly, constantly trying to teach people that way.

GD: It was a radio show about one of Sun Ra's players, saxophonist, who had just gotten his saxophone back from being repaired that was the genesis of that poem I wrote about John Coltrane, in which you helped me crucially to understand the anatomy of a saxophone because I was . . . What was it I was saying, they had keys or something?

TRH: You gave them valves . . .

GD: Not something that they have. Well, speaking of that, in your poems that you've, the suite of poems you've given us dedicated to Jimmie Lunceford, talk a little bit about the concept of what you are trying to achieve with those poems—you're trying to do in words something that musicians would do in music.


TRH: That's the attempt. How well it works in overarching kind of ideal terms is hard to say. But it occurred to me one day—the genesis of it was this Jimmie Lunceford thing, that was the first part of it that I wrote. Actually that's not quite true. I had written another part first, but I had been thinking about this in terms of the Lunceford record. One day I was listening to a Jimmie Lunceford album and I had the CD case in front of me and as I was looking at the list of song titles on the back I thought, "Huh—of course, it's obviously like a table of contents in a book of poems"—and I thought, "What if I had a book of poems that had those titles in the table of contents? Would that be cool? Would that work?"

GD: You wouldn't be bored.

TRH: No. And I began to look at them and I thought "Those are good titles."  I have this little homunculus who lives inside my head who says perverse things sometimes, and they always come true. The little homunculus said, "You will write poems with those titles," and I said back to him, "No, I won't. That's just ridiculous. It's silly." So I set it aside, and you know, sure enough, then, about six months later, I thought, "He was right. I gotta try that at least to see what happens." And then I had to think about it further. What motivated me to want to do that? Well what motivated me really to want to do that was that I wanted to play with that band. You know, I'm listening to that band and I'm thinking that band just really kicks, you know, wouldn't it be fun to play with them? Because the Lunceford band, it was an entertaining band. The kind of jazz he played was not like chamber jazz, you know, it was not art jazz. It was dance music, and it's actually closely related to jump blues and ultimately, therefore, to rock and roll. He was there to entertain. He was there to provide a context in which people would dance and drink and make babies . . .

GD: Those were the superstars of their time, too.

TRH: Oh yes they were, I mean the people that were in those bands, by which I mean—when I say those bands I mean bands like Lunceford's and bands like Chick Webb's and bands like Fletcher Henderson's, and ultimately, then, bands like Ellington's and Basie's—those are the ones, of course, that became the exemplary ones. But in the day . . .

GD: And earlier on, Armstrong, too.

TRH: And Armstrong, yeah, that was a little different. Because those New Orleans bands were doing a different thing. The music that Armstrong's bands were playing were not as regimented. It's all looser, that group improvisation thing. Which is something, actually, that Basie's band did, too, and brought that into the main stream of dance music.

GD: I remember Armstrong talking about how the first time that he and Oliver had the idea of playing a solo in harmony together. Actually that he would see other players just finger on their instruments what they were getting ready to do, and he'd just see their hands do that and he'd say, oh, and nod his head, and then they'd sail off into it, playing in harmony.

TRH: Yes, Oliver and Armstrong apparently had mental telepathy. There's not much of this recorded, but a lot of it was done in performance. And there are people's accounts of it, who say it was astonishing, that Oliver was always—because Armstrong was younger, Oliver would always begin and Armstrong would immediately pick it up, and it was improvised, and yet they were playing together. Astonishing. Basie's band had that kind of telepathy, too. Which is what people found so astonishing when that band came on the scene as opposed to Ellington's band in which everything is scored, even the solos are scored. Although they might have initially been created in a performance, they might have been made up on the spot and written out later. But then, Ellington’s kind of telepathy was to know his musicians in particular so well that he would know what he could write for that particular person, and often when he lost a key musician his music suffered a good deal, his composing process lost something until he found the right musician to replace that one. That's how his telepathy worked. But in the Basie band, as in the Armstrong/Oliver ensembles, it was all happening right off the cuff. Basie would make a riff, and then one of the sax players would pick it up and then the whole sax section would pick it up and then the whole band would pick it up. Which is how tunes like "One O'Clock Jump" got written.

GD: See, I find myself as a writer—I think early on in my history as a writer and just really generally in my own conception of art, I was an Ellington. And I loved that idea of complete control, absolute mastery, working out all the details, nothing left to chance. And as time's passed I've become far more appreciative of the jumping off a cliff-type thing. I one time interviewed Bobby McFerrin about scat singing. And I asked him, "You're a scat singer who's really masterful at this, and you sometimes sound like Ella Fitzgerald mixed with Cab Calloway, I mean, you're just . . . What are you thinking about when you scat? Are you paying attention to the melody? Are you trying to do some particular rhythmic thing?" He said, "Scat singing is like jumping off a cliff all the time."

TRH: That's excellent . . . and so is any kind of improvisation, actually. Of course, though, a musician like McFerrin or any other really excellent jazz musician has a lot of safety equipment when they make that jump. Because the discipline of it, of course, is not in the having thought out every note and having it all preplanned—the discipline, is in having all your skills marshaled and ready to go. So in that sense you're more like an athlete. You're like a great tennis player who's ready for whatever comes at you. You have all your skills marshaled, you have all your techniques, you know what they are, and when it comes, no matter what it is—within limits, of course—you're ready. Now, that phrase "within limits" is what Sun Ra was reacting against. He wanted actually people to jump off the cliff without any safety equipment. This, then, gets very difficult because the safety equipment is all mental. So that means you have to really mess around with people's minds in order to get them to be able to leave that stuff behind.

GD: Well, in your poems in the suite for Lunceford, that's sort of what you're doing to yourself, aren't you? You threw down to yourself the challenge of writing something that would handle these titles, but what I find interesting is that you're not trying to develop an overarching narrative in those poems, but in fact they're at a deeper level of meditation.

TRH: On the surface level think of it this way. If you listen to an album by a band or by a musician, whatever, what do you come away with from the experience? You don't come away with a story, usually—you might if someone makes a special effort to assemble a special album that's a narrative album, something like The Ballad of Sally Rose. But that's a special case. That's not usually the way it works. Usually you've just got a bunch of songs, although with really good albums you come away from it with a sense of a unified experience. And what is that that you're experiencing? Partly it's the architecture of the album, we know that, but partly it is the style of the musician or the band that you are experiencing. And what is that? Now that's where things really get kind of hairy, it seems to me.

Part II

TRH: As I was writing this I was reflecting on the fact that if there's a particular musician whose work you love, you have a strong sense of that person's character. I said a minute ago that the Lunceford thing was a starting point, and I backed up and said no, I had done one other thing first, because I did, in fact, write a different kind of suite of poems out of my engagement with the saxophonist Lester Young, who is a saxophonist I love enormously and who has huge depth of character.

GD: What a spirit.

TRH: Yeah, in his music, and as it comes through in his music. As we know, as a man, actually, in his life, Lester had a lot of problems. Well, okay, who doesn't? And if you'd been Lester Young, so would you, and so would I. His situation was not an easy one in a lot of ways. But when you listen to him play, a great many things are imparted to you. One is just beauty; he's such a beautiful player. But beyond that you have a sense of a very incisive character. You know there's somebody there and when you hear him play you always know it's him and you feel that you're in his hands. And that's part of what you want when you go to Lester Young, you want to be in the presence of that character. Now, where does that sense of character come from? It does not come from information, because instrumental music cannot convey information, at least not in the way we usually think of the word "information." The sense of character that we have of a confessional poet, quote-unquote, somebody like Robert Lowell, let's say, comes in large part out of the stuff he tells us about, quote-unquote, his life. Although a lot of that stuff is actually made up. The overriding perception that people have of Lowell is that all the stuff in his poetry is actually true and it all happened to him just that way. And the poetry is engineered to make you think that.

GD: Yes.

TRH: It's not your fault if you think that, though if you think about it twice you will realize that there's more there than meets the eye.

GD: Almost like the appearance of honesty.

TRH: Exactly. And that kind of art . . . It's interesting, as a matter of fact, that personal information in poetry came to be transgressive. That I can say these personal things in a poem, even though many of them are not very shocking in and of themselves—some of them are but many of them are not—it’s just shocking that that kind of information is in a poem, at that time. It's not shocking anymore, by the way. It's been done so much that you can't shock people by telling them what's in your laundry basket in a poem. But there was a time when you could. Well, my point here is that poetry has become, I think from, say, that time [the late 1950s] to the present, increasingly information-based. Either personal information-based like that, or information-based in the way that a practitioner like, let's say, Albert Goldbarth, handles information, or Norman Dubie, for that matter. His poetry's full of information, which is delightful; you learn stuff about—reading a lot of Dubie is like reading the encyclopedia, because he reads the encyclopedia, so it comes out.

GD: Well, I think he does that, and he perhaps gains his information through opening the doors of imagination so that he comes up with things that you feel absolutely must be true of Elizabethan England, but in fact, when you go and try to find out about them you can't find them anywhere in anything.

TRH: Which again is the appearance of information. It's false facts, you know, but it is the form of factuality that gives that kind of thing its power. Music cannot trade in that. There is no way that instrumental music can trade in that kind of information. So if I read Robert Lowell and I have at least the illusion that I'm learning a lot about Robert Lowell's life, that's one kind of thing. If I listen to Lester Young, and I feel somehow or other that I'm learning about Lester Young, how am I learning it? Where is it coming from? I don't know. That is a very mysterious thing. But I also know that if you play in a band, the same people, for a while, even though you may or may not have very substantive conversations with those people—you may, it just all depends, but I've known a lot of musicians who are not especially articulate people. Some are, some aren't, just like anybody else. But if you spend time in a practice room or on a stage with those same people playing music, you begin to know things about them. You learn things about them.

GD: It's almost like a marriage.

TRH: Yeah, it is like that. It's a kind of "telepathy," because you don't really know how you learn these things. But you do in fact learn certain things about them. And you even know that you love them more than you ever thought you would, because this person seemed this way, but then you discover through what they play on their instrument that they're not that way—they're different. Or you discover that you really don't like them very much.

GD: Or they're unreliable.

TRH: Well, that's often the case, and sometimes you even love the unreliable ones, but that's another . . . again, it's like a marriage. But yeah, you learn these things somehow through what comes out of the instrument. And you can say on the one hand it has to do with your understanding of that person's attention to craft. I admire this musician because he plays so very well and he therefore must have spent an incredible amount of disciplined time with that instrument to be able to do that. Now that's one kind of respect. Or you can learn something about the quality of their imagination. You can say that you learned something about the quality of their imagination by virtue of the unexpectedness of the things that they play, and yet they're fitting into the context. But that's not all. There's something beneath it that goes way beyond that, and I don't think that we can put into words what it is.

GD: I was thinking about that the other day, though, that, when we were getting ready to talk about this, that when you play music with other people there is a place where you are contributing what you have, and they're contributing what they have available. When those two things come together, it's not just that you're involved in the mysteries of synchronicity and harmony, but that actually, one of the things that's revealed about the character of that person is the way they approach that challenge; to work with someone else or to work with the challenge of a new song. And that's terribly revealing about what they're like and what they're going to be. You almost feel that you do have a secret knowledge about that person that maybe even their intimates, other kinds of intimates, don't know about them.

TRH: I think that's right, and furthermore you realize that when you play in a band like that, if you're learning that kind of stuff about them, they're learning that kind of stuff about you. And there's something in that that's also unsettling, when you begin to think about it that way. You're giving things away about yourself that you don't even know that you're giving away, and they're taking it in. The audience also, of course, gets some of this, but it's different for the audience. That's one of the things I was thinking about, actually, as I approached the Lunceford band, because those bands are so much about audience, they were so much about the context of the dance hall because that's really where these bands lived. They of course went into the recording studio from time to time, but that was not their natural habitat. It was a special occasion when they went into a recording studio. Otherwise they were just on the road, in a bus, all the time, living terrible lives. And yet then they would come into the dance hall. We assume that what went down in the dance hall was even more fun than what they actually got on tape in the studio because the audience was there, and the interaction with the audience was there, and the excitement was there.

GD: They were part of making the music.

TRH: Exactly right. Well, then I began to think, well, how did this dynamic work for them? Within that context, within that setting? And I also began to think, what were they doing as musicians? They were playing popular tunes. Lunceford's band was not really a band that generated new material; they played cover tunes, for the most part, though Lunceford was a genius arranger, and this is what those bands like that were really known for—not so much what kind of new stuff do you do, but how do you arrange that old tune? This is a Fletcher Henderson arrangement and it's very different from a Chick Webb arrangement and it's very different from a Lunceford arrangement, and so on. And this is partly the level on which those bands competed with each other: Who had the best arranger? Who did the coolest arrangement of that tune? Or the most radical arrangement of it that still would work for a dance audience? You know, it had to work on that level.

GD: That's something that Lunceford's band was known for.

TRH: Oh, yes, he was a giant arranger, he was a genius, he was great at it. He was a sax player too, and a good one, he was a very serviceable alto sax player, but mainly he was an arranger. And also he was the daddy of his band. I mean, he, too—not in the same way that Sun Ra was, but all the people who run bands like that, especially at that time when, you know, musicians were—you get that many musicians on a bus, going around from city to city, drinking and doing drugs, and eating bad food, and screwing around and all the rest of it, you know, you have to stay on top of it. And Lunceford was a monster disciplinarian, too, he was tough. He wouldn't let people get away with anything. Although I don't think he made people sit in closets, as far as I know.

Anyway, what's the experience like? What does the musician do in that kind of a band when he or she stands up now to play his ride? It was never he or she in that day, it was always he; they were all men. It was kind of like ships, they would never think about taking a woman on the road with them, I don't think. I don't think Lunceford's band ever had even a woman singer. Well, as that epigraph tells you, the musicians had to do all the singing because he wouldn't put out money to hire dancers or singers, all the musicians had to learn how to do it.

So, okay, now it's my turn to stand up and play. What do I do? Well, in the first place, I have to honor the fact that I'm in the context of a dance hall, so I've got to play something that people who are dancing are happy about hearing. Which means that it has to work, you know, with the whole rhythm of the band, so I have to know about that. Even though I might not be a good dancer, I have to understand, you know, how that works. Also, I have to honor the tune, because this is not a situation in which I can stand up and really mess with the tune. The way jazz later started to do, really overtly—become dissonant or atonal or arrhythmic or anything like that, you know. Of course, that kind of music hadn't even been invented yet. It was not in their heads. So, I've got to play something that honors the tune in some way. At the same time I have to make a statement that's personal in a sense—that is to say, I have to play what I play now in such a way that my style—as a saxophonist or as a trumpet player or whatever it might be—is distinct. So that the dancers will recognize me. Because that was very important in those bands, too; they all had stars in them. When Lester Young was in a band, he was always the star; people always loved him. Even though the musicians might not, as a matter of fact. When he played with Fletcher Henderson's band, they hated the way he played because he didn't sound like Coleman Hawkins, who had been immediately before the tenor saxophonist. They tried to make him play like Coleman Hawkins and he wouldn't do it. He was just this young cat, you know, he wasn't yet . . . Coleman Hawkins was the star of the tenor sax. He was the only one, really. And so they all said, "You got to sound like Hawk, man, you can't sound like that." And he said, "I'm Lester Young and I sound like this." And people hearing it loved it, and Fletcher Henderson actually thought, hmm, this guy's got something. But the musicians so disliked him that they drummed him out of the band. They basically fired him because he didn't sound like Coleman Hawkins.

GD: I'm glad to hear that because I've been kicked out of some bands, too.

TRH: Well, there are all kinds of reasons for being kicked out of a band. Not to say that you were kicked out for reasons other than being you. But, you know, the fact is, therefore, you stand forward so that, and you play the distinct thing, so that the people in the audience will go, "Oh yeah, I like this band because it's got him in it, and he plays that way." And then underneath that, too, of course, you have your personal pride. You play not only for the dancers, but you play for the other people in the band. Now here's where things really start to get interesting because you play on a bunch of different levels if you're playing that music in that context. You play the thing that pleases the dancers, but you also play the thing that is cool, whatever that might mean in that particular context. So that all the musicians go, yeah, that was—that, what he just did there—the dancers never even noticed it, but that was really cool, you know. I get it.

GD: Did you find yourself, when you were creating the suite for Jimmie Lunceford, did you find yourself taking some of the imagery out of the road life of those musicians? Did you feel like that was coming in? Or was it like inhabiting some part of your psyche and your experiences and that kind of thing, because I know you've had some road experience yourself.

TRH: Yeah, but I did, in fact, do the thing you're talking about. Partly, road experience, but also partly, another thing that I didn't say just now when I was talking about what that musician does when he stands forth and plays, another thing that gets reflected in the music—this is probably never conscious—something about the social and historical moment in which you are living is reflected in what you play. Because it's in the song, because it's in the dancers and the dance, because it's in the musicians. It's in the whole context. And as I was listening to Lunceford's band I was thinking, I'm learning some things here about the 30's and 40's. I'm not quite sure that I know what they are, but I know that I'm absorbing something of that milieu. And I tried to give that back in the poems that I wrote, too. Now, of course, it's all made up out of my—out of the very unreliable substance of stuff that I already know about that time period, and things that I imagine about it, you know, so that in terms of "truth," forget it. But in terms of what I was up to, I wanted to have that flavor, the way music has the flavor of its moment. Good music of course has more than that. Good music becomes, in some sense, timeless. But it also—and I think this is part of its timelessness—it is bound to its historical moment and it reflects it. So I'm thinking, well, if one should write a history of America in the twentieth century based only on jazz, and not about the history of jazz, but only on the music itself and what you learn about that time and that place through what you hear: what would that look like? And that was part of what I was trying to convey in these poems. The little narratives that are in a lot of the poems— you say there's no overarching narrative, but many of the poems have narratives embedded in them, and those things are all little fictions spun out of this idea. Because it does seem to me that if you had a history of America based on what you got out of jazz, it wouldn't involve presidents and armies. It wouldn't involve wars and elections, it wouldn't involve . . . what it would involve is the joys and the pains of very ordinary people's lives.

GD: Well, it feels very much like you're—for anyone who's seen the movie Wings of Desire—you're like one of those Rilkean angels that come and tap into the stream that is flowing off the people of that time: the emotions and the images and the background experiences, and the fears that they have. And what's fascinating about that for me, in reading your work, is that that becomes a vehicle for meditation about things that those people themselves might not have ever articulated in the way that you are in your poems. I mean, you're approaching certain philosophical and religious concepts that were theirs, in a sense, in a manner of speaking, they certainly were things those people were facing, but they would never have been able to articulate them.

TRH: Or rarely. Some of them might have some of the time, but . . .

GD: But they would do it in music or something.

TRH: Well, and there it is. I mean, that's—music I think is precisely at least partly the articulation of that kind of thing. It's part of the genius of the great practitioner that he or she can do that. It's an act of translation, in fact. One translates everything about one's life through one's instrument in the moment of standing up to take a ride in a band. You know, it's different when you're sitting down in a section, because then you're not really articulating anything other than what the composer or arranger wants you to articulate. But when you stand up to ride, that's different. Now, you know, the thing expands, and it expands in the hands of that particular practitioner. And this is what we appreciate often, I think, in the work of the best of these musicians, is how they did that. Lester Young, certainly, in him you hear ecstasy and despair all at once.

GD: One of the questions that I know you and I have both been asked is how does being a musician affect your being a poet? Is there something you get out of it? And one of the things I've thought about in relation to that and during the course of this conversation I've thought about, your primary chosen field of music is jazz and blues, and I've done a lot of bluegrass, which many people might not realize is almost exactly the same thing. Especially Bluegrass Breakdown [Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound, published 1984 by the University of Illinois Press], that book points out that just as with jazz music and bluegrass music, the roots that change the way that particular soloing is done are very African. That's an interesting thing, too, for both you and I. We have come into contact with very powerful African-American voices in this music, and that has changed the person that I am. Coltrane has changed who I am.

TRH: Yeah, furthermore, I postulate—I realized this some years ago, when I was, I began to research the music and the poetry of the 1920's, at one point, for various reasons, and when I started resurrecting for myself a lot of the white music of that time, I realized some interesting things. In fact, one of the sections of this book is—its subtitle is, "Suite for Adrian Rollini." It’s in fact the first section in the book, and it's going to puzzle people because nobody will know who the hell I'm talking about, which is by design, by the way. All the musicians I chose for this are relatively obscure now. I mean, Lunceford is not exactly a household word now. Big Maybelle, nobody knows who that is except R & B musicians. She was a junk blues singer. She's one of the ones who gets focused on. Sun Ra is more visible, I suppose, in a way, though I find that people know about him as character but not really his music, they don't really know his music very well. The one exception is Lester Young, though I've sort of backed away from making him be the full character in that poem for various reasons, but that's a different topic.

But Rollini—all of these musicians are African-American musicians except Rollini, Rollini was a white player. And furthermore he was the greatest ever practitioner of the bass saxophone. And one of the reasons why he's the greatest ever is because about mid-career, for Rollini, the bass saxophone just disappeared from sight. And, in fact, Rollini himself turned into, for about the last half of his career, a rather mediocre vibes player. He was this great bass saxophone player and then the culture just fell away from that, nobody wanted a bass sax. And so he had to fall back on his knowledge of keyboard, which is what he started off on. In any case Rollini of this group is the only white musician. And the kind of music he played is interesting to listen to now because it seems so—at first sight it seems rather square, as we would say. He played mostly with Bix Beiderbecke.

GD: Oh yeah.

TRH: And that music sounds a little funny to us now, you know, that sort of "white jazz." Especially when it becomes the music of somebody like Paul Whiteman, which is utterly awful as far as I'm concerned. Whiteman he tried to make an orchestra out of jazz bands, he had huge bands, really elaborate arrangements. Beiderbecke was often playing with him and so was the C-melody sax player, Frankie Trumbauer, who was one of the greatest practitioners also of the saxophone of that time. But he's relatively unknown, partly because his instrument too disappeared, the C-melody saxophone. Nobody plays that anymore. He was a primary influence on Lester Young, and one of the reasons why Lester sounds the way he does is that he was, as a young man, emulating a saxophone voice that was higher than the tenor. A C-melody saxophone is in between a tenor and the alto, and Lester gets this kind of floaty, light sound that's very much like Frank Trumbauer. But Adrian Rollini was also in that sphere. He did, in fact, front bands of his own. He was highly respected by all of his peers, and he's just gone now, you know. But listening to that music is interesting because there is a quality about it that we don't associate with jazz anymore, a rhythmic quality. It's that ricky-tick music that makes people think of those black-and-white Disney cartoons with little mice dancing in the . . .

GD: Yes

TRH: Rhythmically it's not what jazz later became, nor is it like what, let's say Armstrong was doing rhythmically. And one of the reasons that that kind of music is what it is, is because it was being played largely for white audiences, for them to dance to, and they danced a certain way. And furthermore the rhythm that was being conveyed through bands like Whiteman's band and through Rollini's bands and Beiderbecke, too, was the rhythm of their lives. African-American musicians were projecting different kinds of rhythms, and that rhythm later became more and more mainstream.  I postulate that that music has not only changed the way we think about music . . . So it's hard for us to go back to that old music and listen to it straight, and really give it its due, because it's actually wonderful music. I mean, Beiderbecke is a wonderful player. Trumbauer is a wonderful player, Rollini is a wonderful, but it's hard to listen to that music now without laughing. You know, your first reaction is to laugh.

There's another musician that I researched, and found fascinating once I got into him, who is almost completely unknown now, though in the day he was a superstar. He was the first saxophone superstar, and I'm not quite sure how to pronounce his name, it's a German name, Rudy Weidoeft, I suppose you'd say Weideoft if you're an American. You know, I don't know how he pronounced it, whether he gave it a German pronunciation. But he was a vaudeville musician, and he didn't play anything remotely resembling jazz. It was so-called light classic or it was novelty tunes, and he was a monster technician. You listen to him now and once you get past the stupidness of the music, and the squareness of it, you know, you think, "Jesus Christ, this guy could play!" Man, he was just a monster, but nobody knows about him now because that music sounds so ricky ticky ticky ticky tick. It's the rhythm. It's the rhythm. And, you know, the rhythms that came basically out of Africa, and out of the Caribbean and out of Latin America, too, were so much more interesting and so much more compelling and so much more passionate and so much more overwhelming that pretty soon, that ricky tick music was gone.

I began to reflect on the fact that the Jazz Age, so called, was named after that music. Just as a side bar on this whole thing, it occurred to me that when they talk about the writing of the so-called Jazz Age, it's about that music. Eliot, I dare say, never went down to a bar and heard a black band playing. He was exposed some to vaudeville, I know that. And he was exposed to dance hall, white dance hall music and likewise Fitzgerald, and all those white writers to whom you owe the Jazz Age. They were listening to Adrian Rollini. They were listening to Beiderbecke, if they were lucky. They were listening to worse bands, you know, they were listening to Paul Whiteman. That's what they mean, when they say jazz, they don't mean the kind of jazz we think about now.

GD: Although The Waste Land was vastly improved by his being able to go and taste some other voices—He Do the Police in Different Voices was the original title to it. He's picking some streams up from that.

TRH: Yes, he is. I mean, it's more complicated than I'm making it out. But it was a revelation to me to think this is really what most folks meant by jazz at the time. It wasn't Oliver and Armstrong. It wasn't the stuff like Basie, which came later. It was this stuff, you know. But my point is, then, that along comes the other thing, which is so much more potent. Of course, it starts off in the dance halls, works its way onto the airwaves and through recordings. And I postulate that it changed not only the way we think about music, and the way we think about dancing, of course, but also the way we walk and talk. The rhythms of our speech, the rhythms of our movements are different. No matter how we think about ourselves, in fact, we are all products of a Creole society. And that's good. I mean, that's a strength because, of course, African-American music would not be what it is without the American part. Let's say without what came in from Europe through that particular threshold, that's part of it, too. You would not have jazz had you not had French marching bands, as well as the blues, you know. Those things have come all together, and gospel music would not be what it is without, on the one hand, the African rhythm colliding with the old Anglo hymn, it's just all part of, becomes part of a national fabric. There's a lot of argument, of course, about race and the history of music, and it's a healthy argument as long as it's approached reasonably. But as soon as somebody says they own this music and it doesn't belong to anybody else, I think they're wrong.

GD: That's one of the great ironies of bluegrass music is that it actually has two roots, just like jazz does, and one of them is European—Uncle Pen's Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes—and then Arnold Schultz's—an unlikely name for a black man, but a blues guitarist who Bill Monroe was devoted to and who taught Bill Monroe much of what he came to think of as the essential element that put the drive into bluegrass music, and, of course, also encouraged that whole nature of outrageous soloing that goes on—although it's tempered in bluegrass in a way that maybe it's not in jazz music.

TRH: Well, it is, but it depends on what jazz you're talking about. I think that bluegrass music oddly resembles bebop in that way. Because what you have in bebop is blues sped up. The bebop musicians were mostly not geniuses at composing new tunes, though they did compose lots of new tunes, but mostly you immediately recognize them as reworkings of older tunes, and what they did with them was they often made the harmonic structures a little more complicated than they had been and different in certain ways. But mostly they sped them up. So Charlie Parker on the alto saxophone is not that different from Earl Scruggs on the banjo. It's a sped-up thing, it's sped-up blues. With a different kind of rhythmic drive certainly, too, that's another thing, the rhythms of bebop are different from the rhythms of blues, just as the rhythms of bluegrass are different from the rhythms of blues or gospel. No doubt about it. But, yeah, it's a lot about speed at that point. And not all jazz is that way, you know. There was a reaction against that in the modal music of Miles Davis and later of Coltrane, they didn't want so many fast chord changes and so much fast running. There's plenty of speed in those musicians—well, in Coltrane, not so much in Davis; he got more and more minimal as he went, as a reaction against that kind of music. I'm not sure that reaction has set into bluegrass.

GD: He was a ceaseless changer and inventor.

TRH: Well, I have a feeling that he did, in fact, cease, once he got into that kind of bad fusion phase.

GD: He was trying to make money.

TRH: Well, yeah. He had money. I don't know. I don't really understand. He was trying to just piss people off sometimes, but that's okay. I mean that's part of what it's about, too.

GD: Well, that certainly was part of his nature.

TRH: That's part of what it's about, too. I mean, that is to say, there's always an uneasy relationship between the individual's creative drive and traditions in jazz music just as there is in bluegrass music. One difference, I think, between jazz and bluegrass is that the traditions that drive bluegrass music per se are tighter than those that drive jazz.

GD: Well, the thing that frustrates me with bluegrass music is that very thing. In fact, I don't just live there. I'm interested in the musicians in bluegrass who are themselves—when you listen to them—they come very close to being jazz musicians, and, in fact, I've heard some sessions with players like Tim O'Brien and Béla Fleck and Sam Bush . . .

TRH: I keep coming back to this notion of form and its power on the one hand and its limitations in the other. I mean, that's what form does: it empowers by limiting. But it also can stifle by limiting. And that's always the struggle, I think, in any art. One of the commonalities between poetry and practice of whatever kind of music you're talking about, I think, is that the individual practitioner is positioned in the middle of so many different vectors of force: the history of art, whether it be music or poetry; the history of the culture that embraces or doesn't embrace that art; the history of the culture that embraces or doesn't embrace that individual. The story of the art of African-American musicians, like Lester Young, is in part that story. You can't do Lester's biography and not notice that he's an African-American and that he suffers certain things on account of that. You just can't, you couldn't do the biography without doing that, anymore than you could do a biography of somebody like Bix Beiderbecke without noticing that he was an oddly obscure white musician, who had within the realm of white audiences almost no following. He was not like a superstar, that guy, partly because there was not yet an audience in white America, a very big one, equipped to make somebody like him into a superstar. I mean, in another context he had all the equipment as a musician . . .

GD: Great player.

TRH: . . . to be a superstar. But he was not known in his time, or very little known, to anybody other than musicians, who all—the ones who knew him all respected him, but he was not known. His name was not a draw. You wouldn't see it up on a marquee: Bix Beiderbecke Playing Tonight. It would always be whatever orchestra he was with.

GD: Well, it took such a long time—and of course this process is not yet complete—for white America to be able to not foreground the matter of race in understanding anyone. You know, it's like with John Coltrane: it certainly is not in any way possible to ignore that he was African-American and had all that history, but of all the things that you want to pay attention to about him, that's not the most important thing.

TRH: No. I agree. And things were different by the time he came along, partly because the cultural context was changing, but the artistic context was changing, too, because by the time Coltrane was there doing what he did, jazz was art, and for a player like Beiderbecke, nah, jazz was not art. It wasn't even jazz. But it wasn't art, it was dance music, you know, and so from that point of view if you found that you were somebody who was married to a trumpet, then you were also married to that world. And you didn't have a whole lot of choice about it. He lived a kind of miserable life and died a hideous death. Way too young. Which I think partly had to do with—I don't know how it felt to him, who the hell knows—but I mean, I don't think it's romantic to say that in a certain sense he died of a broken heart, by virtue of being a great artist who really had almost nobody there to appreciate him, except the other artists.

GD: It's funny that I, on the one hand, I feel like I really envy him, the experiences he had, you know, playing hooky from high school and then going off and joining both, he played in Chicago for a while and then later in New York, and in both places being able to sit in on sessions with some of the most amazing players on earth. I know that that in and of itself must have been absolutely spectacular and marvelous. On the other hand, the world had no place for him.

TRH: Right. The world had no place.  Well, the musical world had a little place for him, but the world of listeners— the only place for Beiderbecke was to be an anonymous trumpet player in a section in a dance hall who once in a while got to step forward and do something cool. You know, and people go, "Oh that was cool, but I'm dancing,"  and there's nothing wrong with that, by the way in, just in those terms. But for him the problem becomes what as compared, let's say, to an equivalent African-American musician of that time—in the dance hall, people really were heroes, in that context, in a way I think in the white world they weren't quite yet. That is to say the African-American community embraced that music right away, because it was theirs. It was right away theirs. For white audiences it had to be translated into other terms at first, and that's why the rhythm is different, say. It has to have a different kind of feel, partly because it was—it would have been for many listeners, who just didn't have a context for it, it would have been just weird. And also it would have been for many listeners who didn't have the context for it, alas, scary. And so it had to be toned down and whitened up. And black musicians suffered terribly in that society, but in another way so did many white musicians for different reasons and different kinds of suffering. But nevertheless, there it was. There were artists who knew there was something out there, that in another place and time, they could really be part of. But the world would not let the black musicians and the white musicians really be together.

GD: Well, that brings us to maybe a kind of parallel between jazz music and poetry today. Both of them art forms which attract large numbers of people to them, both as practitioners and enjoyers, and yet the culture at large insists on calling them both marginal arts.

TRH: That's quite true. I think there is a real similarity.

GD: Probably because they don't communicate enough.

TRH: That's probably true.  

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