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5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

by Pamela Espeland
Apr 11, 2014

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cover for Finger-Songwriter cover to PoemJazz cover to Rendezvous Suite Jayne Cortez in 1996. The poet often recorded her poems to improvised music.

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Poetry and song were once the same: The first poems were recited to music played on the lyre. (It's the source of the word "lyric.") Today, poems are published in books and journals, while songs are heard but seldom read. The poet Robert Pinsky tells of a successful songwriter-singer who said, "A little poetry can really help a song, but too much poetry will sink a song."

Surprisingly, we're left with relatively few recordings of poetry sung by jazz artists. Speaking truth and emotion, sonic and rhythmic, structured and free, poetry and jazz seem like natural born partners. More often, we do hear poets read their writing to accompaniment by jazz musicians — a form of spoken-word performance. Others write poetry inspired, informed and shaped by jazz. (If you'd like to read some examples, take a look at Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young, or The Jazz Poetry Anthology by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, for starters.)

In honor of National Poetry Month, the world's largest literary celebration, and Jazz Appreciation Month, which culminates with a global concert on International Jazz Day (April 30), this week's Take Five samples the collisions between poetry and jazz.

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