The third artist I would like to celebrate is Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award (twice!) winner and Poet Laureate of the United States (2011-1012) Philip Levine—and by "extension," saxophonist Benjamin Boone. I was fortunate to become friends with Phil, under unusual circumstance. We discovered we had attended the same Art Tatum/Erroll Garner concert in Detroit the mid-1950s, and we discovered we shared the same disease (vestibular: vertigo)—but the collaboration between Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone came about in a more "natural" manner. Both teaching at Fresno State University (Phil Creative Writing, Benjamin Music), they paired off for a recording, The Poetry of Jazz, which featured Levine reading his own poems (many related to music), Boone providing musical backing (as composer, arranger, performer). The first CD includes further musical assistance on the part of "super star" instrumentalists Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, and Greg Osby—whereas for a second CD, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (recorded between August 2012 and October 2018), Boone assembled a first-rate ensemble of local talent. Philip Levine reads poems that are favorites of mine, because they focus on the lives (the sort of existence Levine shared) of working-class Detroiters-and the readings resonate with my own experience of that city.
The first piece, "Let Me Begin Again," opens (musically) with a cymbal wash, piano flourish, subtle alto saxophone, and Philip Levine steps in: " ... begin again as a speck / of dust caught in the night winds ... Let /me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere."; and it ends "Tonight I shall enter my life / after being at sea for ages, quietly, / in a hospital named for an automobile [Henry Ford Hospital, where Levine was born, and at which my own grandmother was once Head of Nurses!] ... A tiny wise child who this time will love / his life because it is like no other." Benjamin Boone matches or complements each shift in mood, tone, and time passing handsomely.
The second piece, "An Ordinary Morning," is introduced by a soft acoustic bass pattern, then Philip Levine: "A man is singing on the bus / coming in from Toledo," his "hoarse, quiet voice" ... "tells / of love that is true, of love /that endures a whole weekend." [Music: melodic sax in background]: The entire bus joins in song, even the driver: "One by one my new neighbors ... accept / this bright sung conversation ... We are / the living newly arrived / in Detroit, city of dreams ... each on his own black throne." Once again, Benjamin Boone "comps" each shift in mood or to another character adroitly (an apt sax fade at the end)—and assists in establishing the irony as well ("Detroit, city of dreams").
I met Philip Levine when a teaching colleague of mine at Monterey Peninsula College, George Lober (who had Levine as a teacher at Fresno State University), invited him to give a reading at MPC. George told me that Phil was having vertigo "issues," and would like to talk with me about the condition, which we did—at some length at a party after the reading, and thereafter in letters. We would correspond from April 2003 through August 2005, and not only discussed our mutual vestibular "affliction," but jazz, the poetry scene in general, and living in New York City (where Phil was also teaching at the time).
I've had a vertigo condition for twenty-seven years now (brought on by a viral infection that did permanent damage to my inner ear), and when I met Phil in 2003, I had collected a stack of articles on the condition as thick as the Bible (both Testaments), much of which I passed on to him. Here's a portion of a letter I would receive not long after his reading in Monterey: "Thanks for all the advice re the vertigo. I went off to Nashville last week prepared for trouble & got almost none ... I'll try most anything. I have had several episodes of loss of balance but no vertigo since I saw you. During my last reading I caught myself about to make a rather large gesture which would have evolved looking up-which is what I did in Monterey-, & I did not make said gesture. I'll see how things go, & and if NYC is OK I'll stick with what I have. If not I'll try to locate someone as good as your Dr. Schindler [a San Francisco otolaryngologist who realized I had an inner ear problem, not Meniere's Disease, with which I had been mistakenly diagnosed elsewhere for three years!]. I've been going to a gym most days; I use an exercise bike."
I'm pleased to report that by the time of our final correspondence in 2005, Phil had done something I've never been able to do: he beat the vertigo "rap," telling me, "We made a trip to Pragu, & I managed to get a low-salt menu anywhere I went ... It's now more than a year since I've had any loss of balance & almost two years since I had vertigo. I stick to the diet & try to avoid stress, which isn't always possible."
Phil Levine was the same candid, upfront, open, forthright presence in person (or in his letters) that he is in his poems (and that, unfortunately, has not always been the case with poets I've known). I treasure each of the letters he wrote to me, and what he had to say about poetry has proven invaluable. "I can't stand people who think they are owed an audience of thousands & untold wealth because they write poetry. I went into this shit with my eyes open; I knew the chances of any success, commercial or otherwise, were about zero; I did it because I loved writing, I simply wanted to do this & nothing else. Well, life has given me the opportunity to write. And on top of that I lucked in & got a good publisher, a great editor, & some prizes, all more than I expected. If I'd never won a prize would I still be writing? Yes, If I'd never published would I still be writing? I don't know. Thank God my character never had to face that test ... The poetry thing is so intense here [NYC] you have to get away. Too many people on the make ... It reminds me of Nathanial West on Hollywood. He's got a character who can only think of everything in terms of: Will it film? Here it's, would this make an anthology & who would publish it? Horseshit."
I was thrilled when I sent him a book of my own poems, he responded favorably: "Thanks also for Some Grand Dust [We had talked about this book the night I met him]. Several of the Moker poems are special. He's not Kees' Robinson or Berryman's Henry. He's really your own Moker with a fuller inner life from either of those two. He's also much more accepting of life as it is than they are. It's a collection that deserves much more attention than it's probably had, but the poetry world is like the rest of the American worlds: a mess ... Good luck, & thanks again for your help & your gifts ... ps. I'm still astonished that we were both at that Tatum night. I saw him two days later talking baseball & got a poem out of it about 30 years later."
His Tatum poem is a gem (I was surprised it was not on either of the The Poetry of Jazz CDs. It's called "On the Corner," and the great blind pianist is presented as passing by "blind as the sea, /heavy, tottering /on the arm of the young / bass player, and they /both talking / Jackie Robinson." The bass player say, "Wait'll / you see Mays," how fast he is too first, like Jackie Robinson—and the last line has Tatum speaking, "I can't hardly wait." In another letter, I mentioned Tatum and blind vocalist Al Hibbler having "driving" [an automobile!] contests, and Phil replied, "Art Tatum & Hibbler driving! My mother was almost as bad. When she was in her eighties her sight began to go-macular degeneration-but she didn't let that stop her from driving, though she did stay off the freeways-by this time she lived in LA. Finally she couldn't get a renewal on her license, couldn't pass the vision test, couldn't get insurance, & sold her car. She never seemed to take into account the fact she might kill a dozen kids-she lived only two blocks from a big high school."
We talked lots of jazz in our correspondence, and I'll give one more sample here—and then provide a couple more examples of tracks from the The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two CD. I'd mentioned serving on a panel at the Monterey Jazz Festival with Charles Mingus's wife, Sue—and Phil wrote: "Have you read the book by Sue Mingus about Charles the maniac? It has a name like 'Today at Midnight'? [Tonight at Noon: A Love Story].The parts that are good are so good that everyone who cares about jazz or human behavior ought to read it. How she stuck with Mingus is beyond me, except he was fascinating as well as monstrous ... You mentioned combining music & poetry. I did several concerts with a great percussionist named Steve Schick; I once rehearsed with two of the cats from the Paul Winter consort, the cellist & the pianist, but their playing was far too soft for what I was reading-Garcia Lorca's toughest stuff from POET IN NEW YORK, "Offices & Denunciations." And the cellist said flat out, You need a percussionist, & within a day we had this guy Schick, & he was superb. This was for a Christmas thing in a cathedral, & working with these guys was fun. They were real pros."
And now we have recordings of Phillip Levine reading his poems within a totally compatible musical setting created by Benjamin Boone. Two more of my favorite tracks on The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two are "Belle Isle, 1949" and "The Conductor of Nothing." The first, after a synthesized "spring" atmosphere is established musically, describes a adolescent "swim" in the Detroit River (the "voice" of the poem and "a Polish highschool girl / I'd never seen before" run down, "in this first warm spring night" to "baptize ourselves in the brine / of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow." The ending is classic: " Back panting / to the gray coarse beach we didn't dare / fall on, the damp piles of clothes, / and dressing side by side in silence / to go back where we came from." Alternating piano notes and soft melodic alto sax refrain close out the piece, and I couldn't help but think (or feel), O Yes, memories of those Michigan "first warm spring nights"!
The second poem, "The Conductor of Nothing," opens with delicate wire brush drum work and soft saxophone trills, a wavering mood; then Phil with a complaint in the voice of the narrator himself: "If you were to stop and ask me / how long I have been as I am, / a man who hates nothing / and rides old trains for the sake / of riding. I could only answer / with that soft moan I've come / to love. It seems a lifetime I've / been silently crossing and recrossing / this huge land of broken rivers / and fouled lakes, and no one has cared enough even to ask for a ticket / or question this dingy parody of a uniform." We get a considerable portion of the conductor's existence, and the poem ends: "Thus / I come back to life each day /miraculously among the dead, / a sort of moving monument / to what a man can never be- / someone who can say 'yes' or 'no' / kindly and with a real meaning, and bending to hear you out, place / a hand upon your shoulder, open / my eyes fully to your eyes, lift / your burden down, and point the way." The musical close out consists of gentle piano accents, and a wavering saxophone, to point that way.
If you feel the need (and in our present era, that's a very legitimate need, I feel) for poetry with real meaning-poetry filled with genuine care, insight, and compassion-accompanied by a musical setting that contains the same, The Poetry of Jazz: Volume Two (and the first volume!) awaits you.