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Bart Schneider[T]he miraculous revival of jazz in the last decade ù after its near-death experience in the '70s and early '80s ù has given fresh life to jazz writing. Two very different new anthologies demonstrate, with mixed results, the range of writing about this music.
Robert Gottlieb's 1,000-plus page anthology, Reading Jazz, is a predictable mix of tribute essays, criticism and autobiographical excerpts by writers ranging from Jelly Roll Morton to Stanley Crouch. It's a bedside reader, basically, for older jazz fans who are unfazed by the steep sticker price and want a hit of atmosphere along with their oxygen. Although Gottlieb's miscellany purports to cover jazz "from 1919 to Now," its emphasis is weighted disproportionately toward way back when. The result, particularly in the autobiography section, with its preponderance of as-told-to-memoirs, is a gallery of musicians from the golden age, awash in nostalgia.
The Second Set is by far the more interesting anthology. The 110 poets collected here range from early 20th century masters (Hart Crane, e.e. cummings) to such essential contemporary poets as June Jordan, Derek Walcott and Mark Doty. Thomas McGrath's exquisitely surreal "Guiffre's Nightmusic" describes the clarinetist's harmonic landscape: "A scale-model city, unlighted, in a shelf/In the knee of the Madonna; a barbed wire fence/Strummed by the wind: dream-singing emblems." And Michael S. Harper leads readers along John Coltrane's voice, directly into his mouth. "I don't remember train whistles/or the corroding trestles of ice/seeping through the hangband,/vaulting northward in shining triplets,/but the feel of the reed on my tongue/haunts me even now, my incisors/pulled so the pain wouldn't lurk."
Nearly all writing about jazz is a testimony to magic, an attempt to honor and make palpable a musical epiphany. Poetry, because it is patterned on sound and driven by the improvisational leap, has a natural affinity with jazz, and the many fine poems in this collection demonstrate how the two can walk hand in hand. Editors Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa have brought care and vision to this volume. At the end of the book, a section of statements on jazz and poetics, by contributors, underscores the passionate link. "I cannot imagine a world without jazz," says poet Anselm Hollo, "be it hot or cool; it is one of the relatively few good reasons one has for enduring this century." --Salon Feb. 7, 1997