Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BLUES, BACH & LEE McBEE Affect Poets

April 3 was Jonathan Holden's final Kansas Poets Shop Talk Series, moderated by Jerry Reeke and Greg German. As I listened to Jonathan read the poem "Shoptalk," I felt music--and a very specific music--informed the lines. I asked his wife Ana, also in the audience, if he had taken music lessons, but she said no. His memoir Guns and Boyhood in America (U. of Michigan Press) does not mention a musical background (it is a wonderful read in its own right).

Nonetheless, I asked the poet about this, and he brightened up. His father loved Bach, and so as a child, Jonathan heard recursive rhythms of Bach regularly. He noted the Bach Cantata 106 influenced him most. The turns (versa) of this great poet's lines follow the same hypnotic regularity of Bach phrasing, in my opinion. The accretion of details twined around one theme seems very musical. Jonathan also talked about how every poem is, in a way, a catalogue-poem (listing)--so this theme-and-variation is an easy parallel to musical structure, but termed in an alphabet of letters, not notes.

My older sister was a serious piano student, so I heard her practicing hours, every day. This indirect influence--and also my own mediocre career as a high school band and stage band musician--shapes my approach to poetry. Diane Wakoski has a wonderful poem "Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons": about her single, working-class mother paying for piano lessons, at great sacrifice, and Wakoski's guilt about not using this training--until she realized she uses it extensively as a poet.

And also I listened to blues and jazz as a youngster. Kansas (west of KC) has an unrecognized history of jazz tradition. My great-uncle John Dotson owned the Blue Moon nightclub in Wichita, and I remember my father's stories of all the great jazz legends who appeared there: King Oliver, Sydney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker and others. Wichita was on the train line from KC to LA, so it was a natural stop for musicians. Charlie Parker first recorded in Wichita, at a radio station (this is in his new biography).


April 2 was the last Mon. evening appearance for awhile of Lee McBee and Pat Nichols, blues musicians, at the Jackpot saloon in Lawrence. What a show. McBee has played in the Lawrence area since the 70s, and I've seen him in Topeka, Lawrence, and KC. His performances are history lessons, as he reels out tunes from earliest decades to the present. This is a living oral history, and since recordings, more documentation sorts out the lineages. His career is a testament of commitment. I thank him and all the musicians who work ragged hours and travel to preserve and celebrate musical heritage.

Sonny Kenner is another KC area blue musician who loved the tradition so much he became a walking museum. Sonny played with Jay McShann and Charlie Parker and others. I glimpsed him as a side musician, uncredited, on the McShann segment of Ken Burns' jazz documentary. He greatly impressed on me the importance of passing on the best of our traditions to the next generation.

Jack Micheline was one of the first poets I read who opened my eyes to American, real-language, present-time poetry, especially "Streetcall New Orleans," set in a walking cadence rhythm. Because of musicians, I am a poet.

Photo by Anne Tageman