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Jazz is a genre of music characterized by a rhythm that has a feel of improvisation. It is music that was born around 1895 in New Orleans and is a mixture of blues, ragtime and marching band music. The song is what forms the basis for the frame of reference for the composers or musicians to improvise rhythm around. This sense of improvisation is what led many poets in the 20th century to come up with a simultaneous composition of poetry based on the jazz rhythm. This is what gave rise to jazz poetry in 1920 by poets such as those of the Beat Generation and consequently became adapted into the hip-hop music. Today, live poetry events are mainly in the genre of jazz poetry and are commonly known as poetry slams. Jazz music, to say the least, has its own culture of passing a message- in a subtle, yet convincing manner and with finality. Fats Waller, a critic of poetry, conquers that each piece of jazz poetry tells a story. Jazz poems may not offer lyrics or even a translation to their sound, but they with no doubt respond to the music language. This genre of poetry also has a way of expressing deep feelings that would otherwise be hard to express in other genre of poetry. Yet, it does bring out all this in a manner that requires a reader to read more keenly between the lines (Sascha and Yusef p.23).
Langston Hughes is a poet whose works are marked by a number of jazz poetry, among them being 'The weary blues,' 'Ask Your Mama' and 'Jazzonia.' The poems are marked with the repetitive phrases of jazz music, which is characteristic of the African -American culture. Jazz music was also seen as a very powerful tool against the status quo that promoted racial pride and individuality. However, when some poets adapted the jazz style in their poetry, they sought to bring some sense of pride and cohesion in terms of nationality, race and culture. Langston Hughes in his poetry adopts a 'blue tradition' meaning that he employs a musical and stanzaic structure in his work of poetry. Most of his poems are categorized into the eight and twelve bar musical stanzas, which are characteristic of jazz music. This style of poetry extended to Hughes's religious and folk poetry as well. His argument is that jazz is everywhere and here to say for that matter. He continues to say that whether musicians use jazz in their music to communicate for money or for a genuine love for the rhythm, 'jazz is like a big sea that washes up all kinds of sea materials, old beat or of-beat' (Langston, p16).
In Langston's poem titled 'The Weary Blues,' the use of jazz as a tool of repetitive emphasis is evident. For example, '…he did a lazy sway…he did a lazy sway…' this is a phrase that has been repeated and in relation to the rest of the poem, this was done with an aim of bringing out the relationship between the sad song and the singer of the song. In the poem, it is evident that the persona in the poem is seated in a pale, dull pallor of an old gas light…' on a rickety stool. The lazy sway, in relation to a line in the persona's line in the song '…and put my troubles on the shelf…' is good enough to bring out a picture of someone relay burdened with life and is left with no energy to do anything about them but to wish them away (Langston, p4).
It has been mentioned earlier in the paper that jazz is also an avenue through which poets seek to promote cultural, racial or national cohesion. Hughes' poems use a language that is characteristic of the black American natives. Just to quote a stanza, '…ain't nobody but ma self…' Note the use of ain't instead of isn't, and ma instead of my. He also refers to a Negro, a term that is common among the black Americans and is used as a reference name to persons of black ancestry. In days gone, the word Negro was seen to be a unifying factor among the black people, but today, it is considered obsolete and is not commonly used as it is seen to promote racism. In the context that the word was used though, it is evident that it was used in good faith, as it as used to bring out the tribulations that this particular black man was going through at the moment. The emphasis is brought out, one again, by a repetition of the word Negro in stanza three and eighteen, where the poet says, 'I heard the Negro play…that old piano moan…'(Langston, p.4).
Jazz, as we have earlier outlined brings out deeper meaning than can be seen on the surface. Looking keenly through the words and trying to get a deeper meaning through them, it goes without saying the persona in the poem is going through some emotional pain brought about by life circumstances. How is this brought out? The repetition of '…make that old piano moan…' can almost paint a clear picture of the persona's agony, an agony that is projected in the manner in which he pinches the piano, making it 'moan.' A moaning of the piano is probably a moaning that is in the persona's heart, but only which can be expresses through such personification (Langston, p4).
In Jazzonia, the persona includes a team of six long-headed jazzers, who bring out the theme of the poem, which is deeply ingrained in the poem, in a way that is not easy to pick not though. The repetition of the stanza 'In a whirling…long-headed jazzers play…' helps bring out the happy feeling in the poem, concerned with the shining tree, bold eyes and gorgeous Cleopatra. The play of the jazzers can almost be felt in the dancing girl whose eyes are bold. She lifts the silken, golden dress high, bringing out the playfulness of the persona. 'The shining rivers of the soul' in the second, eighth and fifteenth stanza, have also been used in jazz style to emphasize on the theme of the poem. The rivers have been personified to posses a soul, in which there are shining rivers that denote happiness and sort of care-free lifestyle. However, in this poem, there is no much use of the African-American native language characterized by a shortening of words and a language full of slang (Harold and Cindy p.77).
Langston Hughes has in a great way managed to incorporate jazz rhythm into his poetry and this he has done giving thought to other genres of music like blues. His success to do so can be attributed to the fact that his poems date back to the time when the Black Arts Movement was making a significant mark in the world, and jazz poetry as a genre of poetry was gaining ground in this field, and in a fast manner.
Harold Bloom and Cindy Dyson., Langston Hughes, Bloom's biocritiques, Atlanta, InfoBase Publishing, 2002
Langston Hughes. and Susan Duffy., The political plays of Langston Hughes, New York, SIU Press, 2000
Sascha Feinsein and Yusef Komunyakaa, The second set: the jazz poetry anthology, Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1996
Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994, Retrieved on 5th November 2010 from: http://www.poets.org