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-Americanguitarist 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