What is it about jazz that makes it go so well with poetry? In the post-slam era, when poets have recited their work in front of solo acoustic guitarists, full-on rock bands, and ambient noise, it still seems like the Beat writers of the 1950s had it right: There’s really nothing like a hot jazz band pumping out an unpredictable musical canvas for a poet’s intensely passionate or carefully considered words.
That’s what’s in store at Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker’s Piccolo Spoleto performance. Amaker will front a trio consisting of soprano vocalist Jill Terhaar Lewis, saxophonist Robert Lewis and pianist Gerald Gregory, performing a series of poems alongside Jill Lewis’ vocals, to music composed by Robert Lewis, Gregory, and guest composer David Linaburg.
“It’s a true collaboration,” Amaker says of the performance, billed as “The In Between w/ Marcus Amaker.” “Robert and Jill Lewis are masters of jazz and writing music and they decided to write some music based off of some of my poems, and they’re going to perform their compositions with me doing a reading and Jill singing some lyrics.”
And unlike the typical jazz performance that’s largely improvisational, these players will have rehearsed their show to a T by the time they take the stage. It’s a refreshing change of pace for Amaker, who’s always harbored the dream of being part of a band. “We’re actually going to be practicing these pieces quite a few times, and that’s been a cool space for me to operate out of,” he says. “It’s like I can see what it’s like to be in a band. I usually love to improv and see what happens, but being in this space is magical too, because I’m learning what it’s like to read music and stick to what’s written. I’m learning a lot.”
Not that everything’s going to be all planned out, because Amaker will have some solo space as well. “We’re leaving ourselves some space to do some improvisational pieces,” Amaker says. “There will be seven or eight scripted pieces that they are performing, but I will be doing some more improvisational stuff as well, in–between the stuff that they wrote, with Gerald Gregory playing the piano. I think that will provide a nice improv break from the pieces they wrote.”
Jill and Robert Lewis came to Amaker with the initial idea for putting some of his poems to music, a series of “tiny poems” he’d written about places around Charleston like AC’s Bar & Grill and the John L. Dart library, and then Amaker contributed a few more of his own that he thought would fit. The key for all the poems the group is using lies in one word: Rhythm.
“I believe that I’m a songwriter without the skill of reading music,” Amaker says. “I’ve always written my poems in a musical style. I feel like all of my poems are musical. It’s just the natural way I write. I’m very in tune with rhythm and everything I write has a rhythm to it. I believe all these pieces are very rhythmic, so it was a natural fit.
And as for that oddly perfect fit between jazz music and poetry, Amaker says he agrees with the tradition: There’s just something about combining the two that works better than any other spoken word-music format.
“Jazz definitely seems to fit poetry very well,” he says. “I believe that there’s a family relationship between the two. We’re family; we’re cousins. If you look back at some of the stuff that the Beat poets were doing, they were combining their words with jazz as well. I can’t say why exactly, but the mindset of poets and jazz musicians are similar. We operate from the same space where it’s not necessarily in 4/4 time. Jazz takes a lot of liberties with rhythms and traditions and poetry is the same way. When I’ve collaborated with rock musicians, it’s a different space for me to be in because it’s more 4/4 time, whereas jazz takes a lot more risks.”