Jazz Vocalists, Other Vocalists, Poetry, and the Technologies of Voice

by David Blair

“Home-made, home-made” —Elizabeth Bishop

Used and Discount Records

Which do I like better, books or music? Glad I don’t have to choose. Short form. My first weird album—as in, not actively pursued by another person in the house—was a late thirties Louis Armstrong compilation on the Joker label. My mother had it for “The Flat Foot Floogie,” the Slim Gaillard song that Armstrong dropped with the Mills Brothers. Her 1940 rag doll on Decatur Avenue in the Bronx was named Flat Foot Floogie. I discovered this album, pressed by West Germans, in maybe 1983. It made me even weirder in seventh grade, liking that archaic stuff, “Jeepers Creepers,” “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “West End Blues,” and also “Strutting with Some Barbecue.” There was a used bookstore where I bought the novels and stories that were the basis of the movies I liked—From Here to Eternity by the great James Jones, for instance, and The Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories by Ernest Lehman, or Rear Window and Other Storiesby Cornell Woolrich, old potboilers like Anatomy of a Murder, their soundtracks in my head. It had been my brother’s favorite head shop and waterbed emporium before this lady Toba Levinson bought it and turned it into a bookstore. I often wondered if this happened because her son, like my own brother, was a head, and she wanted for her boy to stop buying bongs. I don’t think this was the case. There were still a few racy touches. She sold postcards like the one with the black and white photo of an ancient topless woman and a banner that read, “Strutting with Some Barbecue.” I can’t remember if the photo showed her working a big open grill and wearing a chef’s hat or if she were merely displaying a wide platter of ribs.

Introducing one shredding exchange between himself and the rhythm section, Armstrong says, “Boys, get your chops together. I’m coming over there after you.” Then he sings,

What is this thing
called Swing?

More openly transgressing. More sweet. Popcorn. Butter. Pizza. Candy bars. Turkish Nibs. Coca Cola. Pain. Mountain Dew. Love. Dough.

First off, I want to say that when you clear away the scholarship of one and the drunken monkey mannerism of the other, a lot about the relationship between American music and poetry can be derived from Blues People and Black Music by Amiri Baraka and scattered comments by Jack Kerouac, who gets too little respect for all that people sincerely love him, about his method of composition, particularly when he dwells on phrases and clauses as breath units, working in the spirit of Pound’s ideas about really musical writing in “A Retrospect.” It is better to get this from the music itself or their non-discursive work, like Dutchman or the beautiful Visions of Gerard. When I moved to Massachusetts twenty years ago, I remember hearing Robert Pinsky and thinking, “That guy is a saxophone when he gets going.” His ideas about poetry as a technology in itself certainly felt demonstrated by his own musicality. Then I would hear David Rivard read poems like “The Debt” from Wise Poison, and think, “That guy is a saxophone, too. So different.” I remember seeing Boston poet named Bill Corbett’s face turn into an upturned, golden bell as he read a poem with a lot of names in it to about ten people at the New England Institute of Art. This didn’t require much explaining to myself or recourse to much of my vocabulary.

I was always suspect of the way that I loved vocalists, all of them. Dumb thing to be suspect about. Even if there were something off about words and other vocals, they would still lead to the instrumentals, and those are vocals too. A cursory listening to Thelonious Monk play “Bemsha Swing” or Coltrane’s Lush Life should be enough to prepare anybody for the sentence structures of the first pages of Moby-Dick. Somehow, without ever hearing anybody say anything about her, I managed to find a Billie Holiday album. Some funky cheap label—early seventies or late sixties sort of classy but sketchy cartoon. The same summer I also bought the brand new Standing on the Beach album by the Cure. Made cassette tapes of both of them, walked endlessly on the beach. Bought the Holiday album for two dollars—I still have it and enjoy it—from a used record shop that was located, incongruously in the basement of an office building where there was also a middle eastern restaurant and a dress shop that seemed to be full of pink tulle, an old lady standing in a ten by ten glass box surrounded by mirrors and dresses, her mouth full of pins.

Horrible influence on me, that album. The one that really freaked me out—though none of the songs were within my frame of reference except a swingy “Them There Eyes”—was “I Cover the Waterfront.” What was that supposed to mean? She was some sort of cop or heartbroken person looking for somebody who had committed the crime of breaking her heart. Maybe she meant like fog, some sort of big feeling of herself turned to fog.

I am happy that at that point, I did not discover Dave Brubeck or something. I might have ended up the Vice Principal who decides how long kids get suspended for at the tech high school, or maybe this time you just turn them over to the cops. That’s what happened to Paul Ryan. It wasn’t just Ayn Rand. It was bad music. Who cares what he listens to while he lifts weights with his lackeys? It seems high school music teachers are always saying, “I teach them jazz.” Maybe that’s not true. I am pretty sure that even Bob Jones University has a college jazz band. Writers should know better.

The next one I loved was Ella Fitzgerald. She was the bells.

Say, I don’t mean to interrupt myself and all these fond memories of the archaic technologies of voice, but there was a time in my early twenties when my friend Ken Selig and I would get together every Sunday night and go out to hear live music. Saturday was not enough for us. We needed to get nice and ready for the week. Often, like some Jerry Lewis character, I would wait tables on Sundays. Had this gig at Kiku, the Japanese restaurant. Got to wear a short maroon Japanese coat, vaguely inappropriate for serving sushi, and a tie, but it looked sharp. I had a navy blue one with a big abstract looking kanji character or something on the back. I didn’t trouble myself figuring that out. The bartender Larry—fortunate name for a guy like that who was grouchy and both liked and disliked things to be pronounced the right way, living as he had among mainly shitheads and drunks his whole life, but being desperately intelligent, knowing exactly which last bus would drop him off at the best after hours bar—he called it “The snowflake jacket.” Ken hadn’t gone back to school yet and become the worldwide head of all IT helpdesks for an insurance company or whatever it is the French pay him to do in that skyscraper in Manhattan. He was selling cameras and lenses at the camera store on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill—the ancient shop with a neon camera blinking in its sign over the sidewalk, the kind where the bulb falls out of the metal dish on it.

Why was he doing this?

“Well, I know I feel kind of grouchy once in awhile, but really I think of myself as a people person. What? Why are you laughing? I am.”

So every Sunday night, we would go to a jazz club. There were at most five or six places in the entire city of Pittsburgh where you could hear jazz, always at irregular hours such as at brunch, but this was the best, a bar so beautiful everything tasted and sounded even better. The headliners were a singer and a trombone player. I liked to watch the singer demolish a few plates of appetizers before going on. She went on hard. Pre-game meal. On Green Dolphin Street, but first, the beef tartar, pre-Atkins Diet.

Around this time, my brother was a big Deadhead, and some of my roommates in college were junior grade Deadheads. They liked to listen to the endless versions of “Dancing in the Street” recorded with a disco beat in various corners of America on cassette tape, occasionally emerging from a cloud of pot smoke to announce, in all seriousness, “This is just like jazz.” Something about the late middle-aged scene on a Sunday night in Pittsburgh, hearing the musicians eat their wings, made me think that there was something indefinite about that statement. Even today, when I describe a long boring poem or poetic sequence as a jam band poem, I am not sending them the full compliments of Garcia. It’s more of a West Coast thing to me, all that time driving around, too much time on the bus, not enough on their feet.

The first Ella Fitzgerald album I came across was a remaindered bin, Italian import of her late 30s and early 40s singles, stuff like “Paper Moon” and “Mr. Paganini” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and the song with the Ink Spots, “Cow Cow Boogie.” I snagged this at the University of Pittsburgh Book Store along with an Italian Lou Reed. I perhaps played this for my brother, and hearing the lyrics about “he was raised on loco weed,” my brother may have said, “See. See.” And then it was off to rummage in his cigar box of bootleg cassettes to get the best “Fire on the Mountain,” you know the one from the truck stop roller derby in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1979, when Jerry was back from rehab but not through tripping. That album did me okay for about two years. The next Ella album I stumbled upon was one of her Verve Songbook albums, The Cole Porter Songbook. On the cover, Ella wears a matronly dress. She looks like she owns several strands of expensive pearls and croons in pink and blue panels of color, a beautifully heavy double album held together by a plastic sleeve. I bought this in a walk-up used record store down by the colleges after doing worse than all of my practice tests would have projected on the SATs, which I took at the last possible moment surrounded by Central Catholic football players who were stomping their work boots with anger all around the room. I had cut so much school that I wasn’t even kidding myself. One of the best things about music is that it suspends time as it works with it. I knew all about suspensions.

Even earlier, even more of a kid, when I listened to Frank Sinatra in escapist reverie like an overweight and sluggishly seventh grade bobby soxer, I would write the lyrics out as he sang them on one of those pads pharmaceutical reps were always giving my mother at the clinic. I think this is because there were so many senior citizens—good company for a loner—on my paper route. I would figure out where the breaks would go, try to make it like the Beatles albums with the lyrics printed on the sleeve. I think this is my earliest experience with the line. What the hell was I doing? Coming upon the pad, my brother was impressed. He thought I had written the maudlin lyrics to “Young at Heart.” Or maybe it was “All the Way,” which Bob Dylan discovers with his whispery torch like some sort of cave painting of an antelope hunt on his new album, Fallen Angels. So the first feedback I received as a writer was utterly spurious. Get used to it, kid. You can go work in the poetry fields.

Cassette Tapes

In college, my Ella album was Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie, a great and bluesy album of torch songs with spare arrangements she recorded in the early sixties. I bought the cassette cheap at the National Record Mart in Pittsburgh as the chain went out of business to listen to on my Walkman on the AmTrack back to New York. I had a very strange experience with this album, listening to it a few times a week in my apartment on Hoffman Street in the Bronx, a walk-up above a social club where a gangster of some standing used to hang out in his silvery suits, happy to talk about Plato because he had studied philosophy at Lehman College. I spent a bit too much time with this gentleman than I would have liked, as I had bounced my rent check and had to make nightly repayments out of my waiter money to the bartender, a huge and somber man with a big guy pony tail. When I would fork over my forty or eighty or one hundred dollars, he would give me a beer on the house, and several times I saw him put Michael Bolton on the juke box, and behind the bar, he would stride back and forth, mouthing the lyrics to “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.” This sounded funny if I described it—Michael Bolton, instant punch line— but it was a powerful display of hard heads’ secret sensitivity, and it moved me as a terrible confession. Then the gangster would buy me another beer, and he would ask me questions about how I had bounced the check, which he found grim and bemusing. “But you are paying it back, kid. You are doing things right for now. What do you think of this guy, Euthyphro?” Or he would say, “Pittsburgh. Hmmmm. That’s out west. That’s further west.” At the end of the summer, he offered to help me pay for law school.

Shaken by these happenings and nursing my own moody heartbreak, I would return to my foldable IKEA desk and listen to Ella sing about how “spring can really hang you up the most” on my boom box. Late July, the fire hydrants were often open to cool the kids off, fat boy dragged through the white water rush by his foot so he would not swallow all that soft water from upstate you drink in the apartments.

All that bartender needed was a microphone. He was a vocalist too. He had an air microphone. That fall, my whole family came back to New York for Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving, we went for drinks in a place in SoHo—a neighborhood name my father and his brothers rejected like the legitimacy of the Mets compared to their vanished Giants and Dodgers, and Vince Scully moved to California—where the tables seemed to each have a heavy red velvet curtain around them, like a sort of hospital of pleasure. There was a singer, impressively slinky, a red head in a black dress, and she entranced me and perturbed me by singing several of the songs from Clap Hands, Here Comes Charley note for note, a compelling payer of tributes. Though I had not read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the gap created was perhaps lesson number one. The gap is when you decide for a moment the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is worth hearing or not, when you think maybe institutions can swing a bit, or maybe you better get out of the gap.

The Technologies of Voice

“Tune in this time to another episode of the jazz in my head.” Doesn’t everybody think that? Or hasn’t everybody thought that? Apparently, no. Most of the language I’m hearing these days seems to come with no demand at all except the Elvis demand: “Love me.” Actually, something that clearly wanting is rare in itself. My favorite moment in a Louise Gl端ck poem is a non-dramatic moment in a lyric. She is riding the subway with an Otis Redding album in her lap, valuable, kind of bulky, off to listen to it by herself for love, which she remembers.

It’s okay, you know, that people go to school for jazz. They would anyway, one way or another. You can hear all sorts of music school musicians at Wally’s Cafe in Boston, and they sound good making music that is always changing. Nobody gets on visual artists for getting art training, unlike writers and musicians. A drunken Vietnam vet turned novelist once turned to me and several other graduate student types at a writer’s conference bar-side ATM and snorted happily at us and his own big, one-off publishing contract. “You all go to graduate school for writing, like going to college to learn to fuck.” It was true. He could have been Billy Eckstine to me there in Pittsburgh, hometown of Ahmad Jamal and Gerald Stern, but I was partially annoyed anyway.

Speaking that way, one thing I decided early on was I don’t like when even very good poets sing or even warble at readings, not even when they are quoting song lyrics. You know, in the middle of poems, all of a sudden, it’s a question. “Is this supposed to sound like Tony Bennett? It doesn’t.” The greatest and most expressive poet to do this embarrassing thing would have to be Allen Ginsberg, who even went around with a little keyboard. Perhaps because I have a streak of lousy in me, I don’t like being reminded of the poet in the middle of a poem, his or her neediness for admiration, even sympathy, all poking through and getting in the way of the poem, not unless that is what the poems do, too. Then it’s impolite not to feel moved, to wonder if this was a part of the poem where the poet started writing badly in the church of mediocre and so really selling it.

Maybe the reason I like New England is people walk around looking down at the ground, and this gives them a certain gravity, always looking at their feet. Then they get startled by some happy eye contact, and it is more meaningful. “Hey, it’s a beautiful night.”

“Yes, you have a beautiful night, too.”

Then the man smiles, and he didn’t when people thanked him for hitting their driveway with his snow-blower. That level of uncomprehending loneliness is the hallmark of the natural person each one of us actually is. One of the best teachers I ever had is this great poet from around Boston, Alan. He told me the worst poetry reading of his entire life was this famous poet, and she read for two hours. Then she took out a guitar and sang with an Irish accent, and she was neither Irish nor a singer. Then she read some translations. Then she read her students’ poems. And then some more of her poems, and one by a prisoner. I’m probably making some of this up. Then she sang some more. He about died. The truck from the funny farm is going to get Alan, if you make him hear you think you can sing again. Put down that guitar. I hope he wasn’t in the front row. Poetry is not so intellectual after all. It is more of a series of physical responses. I don’t want to typecast him as an impatient fellow, which would be far from the truth.

Somebody like Alan is the audience inside the audience with a better stereo system, and so with different needs, as my friend likes to say. I think most poets feel the same way though, no matter what they cop to feeling for social reasons. The real testy ones do not even like a poet to say anything between poems perhaps because they believe that art after jazz should involve some suffering on the part of the audience. You start singing to some of these somber avant garde characters, and you will get a note from their doctor cautioning you about excessive displays of the wrong kind of humanness. They give you permission to read with your back to the audience and emulate a pissed off Miles Davis. And people all over New England, no matter what their background or even if they are immigrants here, say, five years if not sooner, if not right away, they will give you the moon so long as you don’t seem needy. Most of us treasure those moments of being in it and out of it at the same time. I don’t know if that’s my surroundings or poetry. If you unpack this bag, you wind up thinking the singer is more important than the song, and that, for me, is lead in the water, but please be a human being, too, and if you must go wrong, go wrong in that direction.

Vanities of poets, some of them are sweet. I don’t think any of mine are, involved as they are more in my dislikes than in my likings. One of them has to do with ideas about music, and of thinking of ourselves as inspired singers, some of us with that weird humming going for something entirely vatic instead of trusting voice. I believe we are influenced by singers. According to Gary Giddins, when Bing Crosby was a jazz singer early on working with a guitar player named Eddie Lang and listening to Louis Armstrong as Louis Armstrong was listening to him, Crosby was really inventing singing with the microphone with startling suave intimacy and lightning quick invention. The vocalists followed the instrumentalists who were already playing expressive syntax and sentence structure, but they all got even better after that. And really poets of the voice come after the microphone being discovered as such an intimate tool, and not just obviously Frank O’Hara and “Personism” but the subtle and plain-spoken lot of American poetry which begins not with oratorical Whitman but Williams in his small poems’ rapid fire, more tonal moves—not only precipitous shifts of collaged diction—than had happened in any compact lyric poems written in at least English.

Without the record albums of jazz and pop, would Williams have been such a strong influence? This kinship does not make us singers or fully musicians. Maybe it makes us vocalists. Though I am not about to convert my anthologies into doorstops, most everything before, say, Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin sounds positively blown into a megaphone in terms of tonal expressiveness and play by comparison. Bishop was listening to Billie Holiday use the microphone live and on records. What does Basho say? Don’t emulate the old poets, but go for what they wanted. People around here walk around like hard ass judges when they are not bumbling around like shy characters between the graves of Henry and William James. I do, too. This is partially comical, partially insane, but it has its wintry charm, and there are a lot of good times. Record stores live.


DAVID BLAIR is the author of three books of poetry, Ascension Days, Friends with Dogs, and Arsonville. He is also the author of Walk Around: Essays on Poetry and Place and a forthcoming poetry collection, Barbarian Seasons, both from MadHat Press.