Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Review of Bryn Fortey's Crossing the Race Line: Jazz and Blues Poetry



Crossing the Race Line: Jazz and Blues Poetry by Bryn Fortey.  Alien Buddha Press, 2021.  ISBN: 9798749238259.  36pp, $10.44.


For a musical genre that is  something of a specialized taste, jazz is a popular element in the work of contemporary poets.  Yusef Komunyakaa’s Testimony is essentially a biography of the legendary Charlie Parker.  Sonia Sanchez, a musician’s d­­aughter, has wed poetry and music in her recent reading at Detroit’s Carr Center, collaborating with pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Teri Lyne Carrington.  The late Felino A. Soriano frequently wrote poems in response to music by a wide variety of artists, especially more contemporary figures such as Robert Glasper, Jason Moran, and Takuya Kuroda.  Other poets use jazz to evoke an atmosphere or provoke personal memories.  British poet and elder Bryn Fortey is an archivist-poet, drawing attention to the lives of both famous and lesser-known musicians through short poetic biographies.  We are fortunate that he has gathered a number of these poems that reveal eccentric sides of the musicians  in his recent book, Crossing the Race Line: Jazz and Blues Poetry.

As a good biographer, Fortey not only captures his subject but also places him/her and the music in context.  Although the collection’s first poem, “Crossing the Race Line,” does not focus on an individual, it still depicts jazz’s complex racial history arising out of a segregated American society.  “Italian/American Eddie Lang” was a particularly interesting figure as he had to masquerade as “Blind Willie Dunn” during his 1929 sessions with the African-American guitarist Lonnie Johnson.  Eddie Lang, moreover, was the stage name of Salvatore Massaro, another masquerade.  Segregation and racism had more noxious impacts. The  poem “Mercy Blues” portrays the death of Bessie Smith, who, despite her enormous popularity, died because local law forbid her from being treated at a “white” hospital.  A later poem, “Sins of the Father,” shows how the pianist Romano Mussolini carved out a career in jazz while distancing himself from his notorious father, the dictator Benito Mussolini.  Fortey conveys his discomfort with the father’s actions and alliances despite his appreciation of the son’s “entertaining electric piano.”  Regarding a Romano Mussolini CD, the poet notes that he “would not have bought [it] new” and that it was a “charity shop purchase,” implying what the father’s war and its aftereffects meant to him, a British man born in the late 1930s.

In some ways, “Sins of the Father” is a characteristic poem, highlighting a lesser known figure in music.  Other figures rediscovered in this book include Lil Hardin, “The Second Mrs. Armstrong,” a college-educated musician and bandleader;  Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup; and Sonny Stitt, whose  “strong arm tactics/ When trying to raise funds” for his heroin addiction led to the death of a young musician and friend of Miles Davis.  Some, like the Ganelin Trio and pianist Joanne Brackeen, are simply discovered.  Even more well-known figures such as Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker are presented from an unusual  perspective.  The poem “Ellas McDaniel,” for example, reveals his “[roots] in the blues/ With a nod to the field hollers / That preceded it all” and his past as a “boy violinist” before giving his more famous name—Bo Diddley.  “Trimmings” depicts the young, fastidious Miles Davis being disgusted by Charlie Parker’s almost rock and roll excesses as they ride together in a cab.

Fortey also presents his personal response to this music.  In “Learning the Blues,” he discloses the song that began his interest in this musical genre: Frankie Laine’s “West End Blues,” from 1947.  Although he acknowledges that Laine’s “slice of the blues/ Might not be the best ever recorded,” the song continues to satisfy him, if only through nostalgia.  Fortey’s tribute to John Lee Hooker, “Hey There Blues,” is a fan letter to the bluesman rather than a brief biography. 

I encourage you to purchase this book, to learn about these important figures in our culture, to be inspired to listen to more jazz and blues, and to learn unusual aspects of their lives and music that reveal different dimensions of their character.  In particular, Lil Hardin is an extremely intriguing person, perhaps ready to be rediscovered in our times for her efforts to guide Louis Armstrong to stardom and then to build her own career after the end of their marriage.  It is a shame that, according to her Wikipedia page, the incomplete draft of her autobiography disappeared after her death.  However, in Bryn Fortey’s book, musicians like her step out into the spotlight.


Now to play some of music by some of the people Bryn celebrates.

I don't mention him in this review, but "The Death of Blind Lemon Jefferson" is a chilling poem.  Here is the blues man singing "See That My Grave is Kept Clean": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pX3mxjtpyBc


This is Frankie Laine's "West End Blues": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTAC6jcoI3s 


Lil Hardin & Her Swing Band play "Oriental Swing" in 1938: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIMhJjEl90A 


This February Joanne Brackeen played at NYC's Zinc Bar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcxTHXNh01Y 


Freddie Webster plays trumpet on "I Can Make You Love Me, If You'll Let Me" by Sarah Vaughn and the Thad Dameron Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkjCDmnd5W4


I'll finish with the Gamelin Trio's "Opus 3 (Cantus)" from 1989: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRZ5ziUnk1s 

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Poems from Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob by Sharon Waller Knutson


                                        Photo of Uptown Butte by Jasperdo


Tonight, as I bring back The Song Is... for Summer 2021, I'd like to post some new poems by Sharon Waller Knutson.  These poems are part of her tribute to her friend and former co-worker Bob Brown.  The two of them worked together on the Montana Standard, a newspaper based in Butte.  Until recently, they had lost touch with each other, but thanks to the internet, they reconnected, and these poems are the fruit of their renewed friendship.


Poems from Sharon Waller Knutson’s new poetry book, Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob, the true story of Bob Brown, retired award winning sports writer and photographer for 43 years to be published by Kelsay Books in 2022.



Photo of Bob Brown from his photo album


Photo of Baby Bob


Although he has the face

grandmas and mamas

pinch and pray

their daughters will marry,

in his black jumper

and gray sweater, his body

fattened up by his German

grandma and mama

who dote on this first born

of a farmer and a housewife,

shows he is no prima donna.


His eyes are used to the dark

and his nose tells him

something stinks, but he

doesn’t know it’s him.

He thinks it is normal

to live without electricity

or running water

and to get hosed off

at the car wash next door

when his father thinks

he smells too bad.


He pays no attention

to the stuffed bear plopped

beside him because he

is fascinated by the flashing

light that bursts out

of the big box on a stick

that makes him blink.

He doesn’t know that

at only a few months old

when he gazes into the lens

he is looking into his future.


First published in Verse-Virtual



Photo by Oconto County Reporter


Sports Bob


He is seventeen,

a six foot senior,

forward for Oconto High.

No. 44 on his back.

The score is tied

and Buddy Yeager


roars across the court

like a freight train

and he steps out

and his nemesis

slams into him, pinning

him to the floor. Foul.


The ref blows the whistle

and holds up two fingers

and he shoots the ball,

it soars and sinks the basket

as the crowd cheers

and his team carries him


on their shoulders to celebrate

beating rival Oconto Falls

for the first time in six years

in their cracker box gym.

Snags the trophy for captain

of the 1959-60 season.


Uniforms soaking wet

right down to the jock strap,

as snow and slush pile up

four inches deep on the football

field, they trail the other team.

Shiver and you are toast,


the coach shouts. He grits

his teeth and his father

tells him to quit belly aching

and start scoring. So he does.

He makes the touchdown

to win the game in Algoma.


He never misses a Milwaukee-

Braves game on the radio.

Freshman year, he hits a double

to win the game. His heart

breaks when his school

drops baseball.


A high jumper in track,

his muscular legs leap

over the high bar

to land in a sawdust pit

soft as feathers when fresh.

Hard as concrete after rain.


His golf coach would rather

play golf than teach it.

He is no Tiger Woods

as he hits and slices

and the ball slides right

past the hole, but he earns


nine sports letters despite

working in the lumberyard

and two factories and editing

the yearbook and his mother

harping on him daily,

Sports stink. Get a fourth job.



Scroll down for more poems and photos


Bob and Carole Brown Photo by Morgan Lee


Sept. 5, 1964 Wisconsin


Everything is white except

the croissants on the plate.

Perfume of white mums

turns St. Joseph’s Catholic

Church into a garden.


He even wears a white tuxedo

to match his bride’s organza

gown and both families

toast to the bride and groom.

Knowing this day would come.


But she is just his sister’s

best friend and he the bossy

big brother until his senior year

when he notices she’s all grown up.

But by then there is no time


for romance with college

and a job in Montana. Letters

fly. The phone rings.

He is smitten and buys.

a diamond ring and sends


it in the mail with a note,

Will you marry me?

And she calls and shrieks,

Of course, you idiot.

Soon they are on the road


to Montana, frigid

as Alaska and the Antarctic.

But she’s along for the ride

so she snuggles up to him

and turns up the radio.


Carole Brown and kitten Photo by Bob Brown


The Innocents

for Carole


Barely a bride,

she braces herself

against the wind

and frigid air

of this copper mining

town and snatches

up the stray off

the street. Barely

born, this silver

and black tabby

digs its claws

into the shoulder

of its new mama

and hangs on

as both of them

have no clue

that they have both

found their destiny.



Carole Brown with Axle and Boo Boo photo by Bob Brown


Watch Cats

for Carole


For almost six decades

she has been rescuing

and watching stray cats.

However, Gold Nugget,

long gone, Axle and Boo Boo,

now the resident tabbies,

will tell you they have

been watching her

since they rescued her.

They watch her as she sleeps,

reads her mystery novels,

stirs the fondue in the pot,

views ball games and Dateline,

leaves for mass and the Mayo Clinic.

They’re pretty sure they will

watch her until they die and then

she will acquire more watch cats.




Bob Brown Photo by Carole Brown


Hermit Bob


Fileted from stem to stem

by surgeon’s scalpels,

fingers and feet swelling

like yeasted bread dough,

he spends most of his time

on the second floor

of the house he has lived

in for five decades, mostly

in his office surrounded

by mementos of the sports

and music life he loves.

As the breeze blows the curtains,

letting in the sunshine, he is startled

by her footsteps, the flash bulbs

so bright even the striped tabby tries

to jump out of his arms,

but he holds on tight

because he knows the road is

going to get even bumpier,

and having lived almost eight decades,

he is prepared for whatever

life throws his way as long as

he has his computer and cats,

and, of course, her for company.


Falling For Her


He falls for her in high school

and falls all over her for almost

six decades of marriage.

But he doesn’t fall head

over heels until sprinting

towards his eighth decade

he loses his balance

and their nurse neighbor

hears screams and slips

out of her sickbed

and finds them sprawled

on the sidewalk, her femur

splayed and splintered

and his ribs rioting

and protesting

like the hawk and thrasher

in the oak tree in their yard.




 Photo of Butte by Bob Brown


Sharon Waller Knutson is a retired journalist who lives in a wildlife habitat in Arizona. She has published several poetry books including My Grandmother Smokes Chesterfields by Flutter Press and What the Clairvoyant Doesn’t Say and Trials & Tribulations of Sports Bob forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her work has also appeared in various journals most recently in Spillwords,Trouvaille Review, Muddy River Review, Gleam, a journal for the Cadralor, Verse-Virtual, Your Daily Poem, Red Eft Review and The Song Is…

 I hope that you enjoyed this preview of Sharon's new book.  Kelsay Books will publish it in 2022, which is not that long from now!

Let's add a little music.

During the pandemic I've been listening to a number of younger or new to me jazz musicians who perform at Smalls in NYC.  Here is the vibraphonist Sasha Bernstein's "Between the World and Me": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7LUU0sm6HQ

With the other members of her quintet, she plays Warren Wolf's "Grand Central" and her own "Spliced Heart": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1zPHTEN3b4

The Peter Bernstein Quartet plays Monk's "Pannonica": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUZq4Iij2yQ 

Here Bernstein plays "Stella by Starlight" with his fellow guitarist Joachim Schoenecker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z53PnDciyMQ