Thursday, May 2, 2019

Essay: First Annual UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival


The UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival Takes Midtown

by John Pietaro
Photos by Sherry Rubel

The tendency of poets to break out of the page’s boundary is often seen as a post-War phenomenon, yet poetry was oral long before written language emerged; this lineage extends back to the oldest of folk forms.
Upsurge!NYC
And within the African American jazz tradition, itself begotten from a brutal melding of divergent cultures, a certain boundlessness was cast, easily lending itself to the contours of spoken word art. The music’s central swing and bop allows the poet to emote and embellish with shifts in meter, stress, dynamic, repetition and, surely through improvisation. And it was that very boundlessness which was feted at on April 27, 2019 at the First Annual UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival.

Held, most appropriately, in the conference space of the National Writers Union’s midtown Manhattan office, the Festival opened with words by Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, organizers of the event and the leaders of UpSurge!NYC. Even here where jazz clubs are plentiful, its rare to find an afternoon dedicated to JazzPoetry, though the practice of formally fusing the two has existed at least as far back as Langston Hughes’ earliest publication. Raymond closed off his introductory statement with the performance of a poem liberally incorporating a vocalized bassline and scat singing that absolutely lifted the room.
David Henderson

The performers offered a wide range of sounds and styles, but each had significant connections to the jazz tradition. David Henderson, a veritable hero of the artform, read from some of his many published works, particularly, De Mayor of Harlem. Henderson’s career extends back to the late ‘60s and he’s performed and/or recorded with the like of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. An original cultural warrior of the Black Arts Movement, the poet’s sense of history is invaluable and vast. Henderson’s recollections of some of the great musicians performing in the clubs added rich background to the poetry, and it left the audience with vivid imagery of magical moments in Slugs, the 5-Spot and the Village Gate, among other venues lost to time.
Ngoma

Another survivor of the Black Arts Movement is poet/multi-instrumentalist Ngoma. A one-time collaborator of Amiri Baraka, he presented a lengthy set of powerful works propelled by his performance on guitars, wood flute, violin and percussion. Uniquely, Ngoma supplemented his soundscape with a phalanx of pedals to capture loops of his own instrumental playing, the end result of which added layers of accompaniment.

Stephanie JT Lewis
Stephanie JT Russell
a poet living in Poughkeepsie NY, performed original pieces which made great use of her own jazz and torch-song vocals, though Stephanie ironically opened by telling the audience that she was far out of practice. She interspersed original compositions into spoken sections of a compelling suite performed with equal portions humor and urgency.
UpSurge!NYC

Turner and Lowenberg’s band UpSurge!NYC exemplifies the artform in a manner that blurs the distinction between the spoken word and the music. At the Festival, the band included drummer Lou Grassi and bassist Hilliard Green, celebrated veterans of the music, and a young lion of the saxophone who’s been getting a lot of attention, Lee Odom.  Burning through a series of compelling arrangements incorporating both original and standard melodies and solo segments for each musician, the poets filled the house with pride, irony, history and fearless fight-back and transformed the room into a working-class battle zone, a series of newspaper editorials and a cabaret for the end of time.

Flames of Discontent
Flames of Discontent
It’s not often that I can both perform in an event and write about it, but this was far from the standard gig. My duo, Flames of Discontent, featuring the electric bass of Laurie Towers and my own poetry and percussion, offered a set of new pieces directly inspired by jazz: “Blue”, “the Lonely”, “Burroughs Inferno”, “Impressions” and “Langston”, among others, as well as some social justice works. Reading and playing in this atmosphere was quite electric.

Festival poster, designed by Pietaro

So, how is it possible that there hasn’t been a showcase for JazzPoetry in New York prior to this? For every reason, this inaugural event must be assured an ongoing lifespan. The artform is too important to be neglected, especially right now when outspoken artists are as vital to our democracy as is the vote.

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