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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 5-7

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Brent Hayes Edwards

This special issue conducts an interdisciplinary sampling of recent takes on jazz poetics: work that attends from a variety of angles to the convergences of music and poetics in black expressive culture. Our aim in compiling the collection is not simply documentary. The issue attempts more broadly to constellate what the editors view as an emerging field of jazz studies through its approaches to literature.

In recent years, there has been an extraordinary wealth of innovative work on black music. On the one hand, one might note the many key anthologies of creative and critical work on jazz and culture edited by Sascha Feinstein, Yusef Komunyakaa, Krin Gabbard, Robert O'Meally, Robert Walser, David Meltzer, Nathaniel Mackey, and Art Lange. At the same time, there is an unprecedented energy in interdisciplinary scholarship on black musical expression, including works by David Ake, Paul Allen Anderson, Kimberly Benston, Feinstein, Gabbard, John Gennari, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Charles Hartman, Robin Kelley, George Lipsitz, Graham Lock, Mackey, Ingrid Monson, Fred Moten, Aldon Nielsen, O'Meally, Eric Porter, Ronald Radano, John Szwed, Lorenzo Thomas, Mark Tucker, Scott De Veaux, Walser, and Penny Von Eschen, among many others. For us, this loose grouping marks a number of shifts in focus from preceding models: the recent work is often transnational or diasporic in perspective; it is undaunted by the insights of poststructuralist theory into issues of voice and text; it not only arises from scholars in many disciplines, but more pointedly seeks new interdisciplinary approaches to the music; it matches a commitment to revisionary historicization (striving to tell the story of the music beyond anecdotal mystification, without wallowing in the cults of personality and pathology) with a concern for the intricacies of cultural politics--the ways the music reflects dynamics of race, class, sexuality and gender.

When they turn to literature, these critics seek ways to take into account the complexities of the music itself as much as the intricacies of the literature it inspires. If we can define a black poetics, it may be elaborated most consistently in what Albert Murray terms practices of "reciprocal 'voicing'"--the relations between the words and the music, sound and sense, in black expressive practice. A black poetics works that interface, in other words, mining the fertile edge between "orality" and "literacy." In the "Editors' Note" to their 1993 anthology Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose, for example, Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey begin to reconceptualize the poetics of black music through precisely this kind of expressive interface between music and speech: "It is particularly unsurprising that a music which so frequently and characteristically aspires to the condition of speech, reflecting critically, it seems, upon the limits of the sayable, should have provoked and proved of enormous interest to [End Page 5] practitioners of the art of the word--writers. . . . Mack Thomas once wrote, in liner notes, of Eric Dolphy confronting 'the barrier that begins with what the horn will not do.' Writers, tracking what John Clellon Holmes calls 'the unnameable truth of music,' have had to deal with a similar confrontation. Charles Lloyd, asked to comment on a piece of his music by a radio interviewer, answered, 'Words don't go there.' Writers influenced by jazz have been variously rising to the challenge of proving him wrong."

If recent criticism is equally attentive to the "articulate" edge of black musics as to the "singing" impulses in black literature, it represents an important revision of previous critical models. In particular, it moves beyond the tensions inherent in 1960s Black Arts criticism, which so often swung between (in the terms of Stephen Henderson's seminal introduction to the anthology Understanding the New Black Poetry) notions of "black music as poetic reference," played out in the infinite variety of particular discursive instances, and notions of "saturation" that fixed a poem's horizon of signification in an immutable "meteorology" of what black people "simply know." Simultaneously, while drawing at times on the influential work that responded to and critiqued Henderson in the 1980s, the recent...


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