Ken Burns poem
“There’s no such thing as bop music, but there’s
such a thing as progress.”—Coleman Hawkins
Although jazz’s sepia, acetates, and lacquers
have dipped the black into silver nitrate,
and are faded little faders, they inflate like lungs.
The pink lung, with its tortoiseshell shellac
appears to bulge, and its inseam exhales
purity, and inhales spoonfuls of tempo.
Purity in jazz, sir, is thwarted and unutilized.
Two hundred years of minstrels, snapping
their red suspenders, corrode and oxidize the air.
Mr. Tambo: What kind of a girl was she?
Zip: She was highly polished; yes, indeed. Her fadder was a varnish-maker….
You see, that rubber pork chop became something.
Bechet’s Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble, from its mold
has been heated and mounted face-to-face with a hinge
so that the machine opens up facing you.
It is not lieder or intermezzo, frozen like trout
beneath the flux and ratamacuing of ice. It is not alpine:
Eingeschlafen auf der Lauer / Oben ist der alte Ritter….
Through the cracked photos, breaking into creosote,
superlatives douse the monoliths: “virtuoso,” “genius.”
But there is a siphoning-off of licking pink jam from the knife:
Negativities: the integrated bands, for example, of alcoholics,
benzedrine-heads, and junkies, or the deranged catastrophe
of Buddy Bolden feeding his hand to a ceiling fan,
or the wicks saturated with amphetamines,
or Buddy Rich telling the trumpet section of “fuckfaces”
that he’d plink them every seven bars like a neutered werewolf.
When Coleman Hawkins stood half-nude like a mango
in Friedlander’s photo (1956) with his curved man-breasts
sweating from It May Not Be True, he appears modern.
He is not a manqué nostalgic, an item, logistical.
He—lung of aerate, propulsive tub, urgently pumping ninths—
is the living demonifuge, ripping through a blanket of vanilla radio.
Racial animus, intractable sources, faded scriptures,
the pinstripes of the Storyville mudheads, midwives,
and the peach tintypes fitted into ladies’ brooches
are not jazz. This strategy does not puff the uvula’s
blowpipe or bring an axe to the Fat Black Pussycat.
Rather, it shufflebucks, pantomimes, and dabs slop with a hankie.
Meanwhile, as the onyx rattlesnake of the century
slid by 1960, the year the fedora went up the flue,
jazz, too, opened like a fire in a woman’s ceremony—it did not end.
Ayler had yet to drag the black river into rivulets of need.
Unkempt skinny dips, red vinyl seats of the Southern buses,
and the vinegar cloud of the trees’ harpsichords were made,
too, of a jazz. As the bus ate the road’s tape measure,
the ballrooms closed, the Hickory House sewed
52nd Street into a flytrap enmeshed with liquid static.
The green river you ignore is realized by the black river
growing wings beneath the shoulder blades of the hatchling:—
Coleman Hawkins who morphs with alular quills into a hawk.
Dark patagial marks on underwings, present on all ages and races,
conjured shadows beyond the last section of the long film.
You’re afraid of listening to this lady? He, too, with parade float head,
eyes like flashing lindyhoppers, lunging with the lumpy fabric
of the past, pushing his gauge, a deuce of blips, bloodstream
lush as a viper, is more righteous than scumpteen codification.
In closing sir, the reed was always remoistened while you were in the booth,
cutting the montage sequence. But the pink sequins of Bessie Smith,
quenched with yielding limelight, disappear into dust like eighth notes.
My button ejects and the tongue spits out the disk’s rainbow
Poem, copyright © 2005 by Sean Singer
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse