In the early eighties, when we were both teaching in the English department of Tufts University, Detroit-born poet Philip Levine and I became friends. We shared some things: basic literacy, a Michigan background (I had lived in Ann Arbor for four years and he was raised in Detroit), and a love of jazz. I would make tapes for him. (He particularly appreciated the ninety minutes of Clifford Brown I assembled for him.) He would give me signed copies of his books. Here is the inscription on the volume of his Selected Poems he gave me: "For Michael, with hope for our music, Phil Levine." After Levine moved to California State University in Fresno he met the jazz composer Benjamin Boone, won a Pulitzer Prize, and became our nation's poet laureate. In 2015, after making the recordings on The Poetry of Jazz, Levine died at the age of 87.
I therefore have personal reasons for my warm reaction to this new disc, in which Levine reads, in his flat, Michigan accent, some of his wryly humorous and guardedly tragic poems in settings (and accompanied by improvisations) by composer and saxophonist Benjamin Boone. The experience must have been a joy for Levine. He was proud of "our music." He was also proud of his working class background, of having been brought up facing and facing down anti-Semitism, of having survived years fixing cars and working for General Motors. He fought his way out of that trap with clear-eyed, vividly descriptive poems that were as "easy as prose," to quote Robert Lowell's comments on his own Life Studies.
Levine loved jazz musicians because of their clear, passionate voices, for how they transcended their limitations as well as the limitations of their worlds. To him, they "made light of it" — in every sense of the phrase. When writing about music, the poet concentrates on solo efforts, admiring a musician's piercingly individual voice and also his loneliness. His Sonny Rollins is the one that practiced, in all humility, on a bridge. His John Coltrane is the young musician that the poet's mother dreamed of!! And it's Clifford Brown's lyrical trumpet sound, penetrating the wall of a Detroit night club, drawing Levine in, that he remembers.
Levine's ability to face what is grim is miraculous, from the the grease monkey job his friend Yakov walks away from to the pitiless destruction caused by gin and blue collar work itself. He describes the dead ends of life vividly and simply: "What a world," he proclaims, the phrase registering Miranda-like wonder along with the more common admission of disillusion. (I can see my grandmother shaking her head while she says it: What a world!) That line is in the poem when he is writing about his mother's dream of a young John Coltrane, whom she describes to him as they drive together in traffic. "What a world...a mother and son finding solace in California, just where we were told it would be." When he first arrived in California, he found himself on a smog-ridden road. He might have turned back, he tells us, "I could have turned back and lost the music." For Levine, music is not only a good thing in life: the good things in life are music.
On The Poetry of Jazz, Boone has added stellar guest musicians to his rhythm section of pianist David Aus, bassist Spee Kosloff, and drummer Brian Hamada. Chris Potter solos on Levine's "The Unknowable," the poet's tribute to Sonny Rollins. Alto Greg Osby plays alto on "Call It Music," which is dedicated to Charlie Parker, and Branford Marsalis offers a meditative solo tribute to John Coltrane on Levine's "Soloing." Tom Harrell pays tribute to Clifford Brown. The band introduces Levine's readings and then plays along in what were mostly first takes. There are musical highlights, such as Potter's typically articulate blues playing on "The Unknowable." And it is Boone's wit — as well as Levine's — that lights up "Gin," whose bebop melody is shared by saxophone and voice. Some of the lines here make me laugh. Trying to explain the appeal of gin, which tastes so bad yet is so addictive to their elders, a youngster posits that it must be the result of self-flagellation. Levine ironically comments: "He was very well read for a kid of 14 in public schools." Lurking in the poem's humor — an acute sense of the tragedy of wasted lives.
Meditating on the trials of his brother, who worked a night shift at a Chevy plant and studied German during the day, Levine remarks "And at my back I always hear..." The line that follows is not the expected "Time's winged chariot," but "Chevy gear and axle grinding the night shift workers into antiquity." The working class faces a harsh path to extinction.
There's beauty here too. To my ears, trumpeter Harrell has never sounded more ravishing — or more romantic — than on the "I Remember Clifford." The poem describes a time that Levine heard Clifford Brown perform live. Marsalis sounds appropriately majestic in his tribute to Coltrane, while Boone also paints vivid sonic pictures. "A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One" begins disturbingly, with a screech and a sustained bass chord on piano before bassist Kosloff enters with a line of rapid fire. This poem, which is about the nightmare of a night shift in an auto plant, gets a nifty assist by Boone, who creates a series of mechanical sounds and then follows them with a frenzied, boppish line of attack. Throughout the record, he has fashioned an appropriate musical setting for Levine's words and sentiments.
It's wonderful that this unexpected session happened and that it worked out so well. Perhaps the poet knew he didn't have all that much time left. Levine looked towards his own "crossing" when he wrote about Charlie Parker's short life. "Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need/ as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds/ blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean, the calm and endless one I've still to cross." The words Levine applied to Parker might also describe himself: despite everything he saw and lived, "He never lost the music."