Across Disciplines: When Poetry Inspires Jazz

By Rebecca Gross
Silhouette of trumpet player
Cos'è il jazz [archivio] by flickr user Valentina Cinelli

Since April is not only Jazz Appreciation Month but National Poetry Month, we decided to merge the two. Below are five jazz songs and albums inspired by poetry, two of which tap the genius of Big Read poets.

Gentian by Tomoko Ozawa

Although pianist and composer Tomoko Ozawa isn’t the first musician to find inspiration in Emily Dickinson—Aaron Copland wrote a 12-song cycle around her poems—Ozawa seems to best capture the poet’s mystery and distinctive, unconventional rhythms. Gentian, Ozawa’s ten-track 2015 album, features recitations of Dickinson’s poems over unusual, meditative compositions that beautifully convey the poet’s voice. 

Listen to "Angels in the Early Morning."

Poe for Moderns by Buddy Morrow and His Orchestra 

This 1960 album reinterprets 12 of Edgar Allan Poe’s best-known poems and stories into a swinging score. Although Poe is notoriously macabre, most of Morrow’s renditions are decidedly more upbeat, although certain tracks have a slightly sinister edge. It’s certainly a fun way to lighten the mood when diving into the darkest of Big Read authors.

Listen to "The Raven."

Weary Blues by Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather

Perhaps no poet is more closely associated with jazz than Langston Hughes. As we noted on the blog last year, Hughes frequently collaborated with jazz musicians and was an outspoken proponent of the art form as a way to express African-American pride and culture. One of his best-known jazz projects was the 1959 album Weary Blues, inspired by Hughes’s 1925 poem “The Weary Blues.” The album features Hughes reciting his poetry over compositions by Charles Mingus and Leonard Feather. Soulful, sultry, and filled with swing, this is the quintessential merging of jazz and poetry.

Leaves of Grass by Fred Hersch

Walt Whitman’s magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, is condensed by pianist Fred Hersch from an epic 600 pages of poetry into a cohesive, 20-track album. Released in 2005, Hersch’s elegant compositions are by turns reflective and inspirational, nicely capturing the mood of what has probably become Whitman’s best-known work.

Listen to "After the Dazzle of Day."

“Africa” by Fallou Diop

After poet Maya Angelou passed away last year, Brooklyn-based producer Fallou Diop set her poem “Africa” over a rhythmic jazz composition. Recited by Angelou, who lived in Egypt and Ghana for several years, the poem describes the rise of the continent after centuries of abuse at the hands of colonization and slavery. Diop keeps the pensive soundtrack simple with steady repetition and closing, haunting vocals.

Incidentally, Angelou had a career in music herself prior to gaining acclaim through her poetry, though her focus was calypso rather than jazz. She sang and danced calypso at clubs and off-Broadway, and released the 1957 album Miss Calypso, which featured five of her own compositions. That same year, she starred in the film Calypso Heat Wave, whose score she wrote and performed.