Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Jazz & Poetry/Poetry & Jazz": An Appreciation

This post continues the theme of pleasure in the unexpected, in this case with music and poetry, though no animals.

The best events, in my memory, are the small and unexpected gems: “Once on This Island” and “Driving Miss Daisy” in their debuts in the tiny, rickety, up-a-steep-and-winding staircase of the first Playwrights Horizons space; “A Chorus Line” at the Public Theater before the buzz and Broadway; Susannah McCorkle at the Spencertown Academy, with Mabel Mercer in the audience!; and, on October 5th of  this year, “Jazz & Poetry/Poetry & Jazz” at the Sandisfield Arts Center, a converted church and synagogue in a little town in western Massachusetts.

Thanks to a small number of passionate and highly capable local arts lovers and citizens, the Arts Center has been evolving for over a decade, and it’s really arrived as an amazingly first-class venue for music and theater. I hadn’t been since the recent improvements – a bright, welcoming vestibule when you enter, then in the upstairs sanctuary/theater space, new, handsome and comfortable chairs replacing hard pews, and a new floor shining. The place looks like a million dollars, and even includes a handicap lift, but I’m told they did these recent renovations for $86,000, thanks to a few grants and many generous donations. Quite a feat for a town of some 900 year-round residents (up to 2500 with second-home owners. )

So the surroundings raised my expectations a little -- I’m a poet myself, and a jazz fan, but I never expect much out of “Jazz and Poetry” type events, fearing someone snapping their fingers while reading Ferlinghetti, backed by a saxophonist wandering off into an unintelligible solo. But the lighting was just right, warm and glowing, and on the stage were simply a piano, a bass, and a drum set, plus the two readers, a woman and a man, seated, looking intelligent and prepared, books in their laps.

Skimming the program raised my expectations even more – some of my favorite jazz tunes mixed in with some of my favorite poems, and others I didn’t know but that had promising titles or authors (the song “Je Ne T’Aime Pas” by Kurt Weill; poems “Some Days the Sea” by Richard Blanco (the young poet from Obama’s second inauguration) and “The Wind One Brilliant Day” by Antonio Machado), the poems spanning centuries and cultures (Rumi, Neruda, Kabir, Hafiz, along with our own Roethke, Collins, Bishop). Clearly an interesting, knowledgeable, eclectic mind was at work here.

From the first notes, the program didn’t disappoint. The piano was perfectly in tune and rich beyond its baby grand size; the bass and drums came through perfectly, whether as part of the trio or in solos. The acoustics were so good that all the sung and spoken words were crisp and the music enveloping without being harsh – a full dynamic range from soft parts soft but clearly audible to rousing climaxes that didn’t tax the eardrums. The musicians, The Sir William Trio consisting of William Stillinger, bass, James Argiro, piano, Gregory Caputo, drums, along with vocalist Stacey Grimaldi, were first-rate, more than living up to their impressive bios. Ben Luxon and Anni Crofut, the intelligent-looking readers, indeed were intelligent in their reading, doing justice to a wide and not undemanding range of poems, subjects, and styles, projecting them in the best tradition of the spoken word without being theatrical or, even worse, sing-song poet-y.  (Yes, Ben Luxon is that Benjamin Luxon, the internationally known singer, now a Sandisfield resident.)

So thanks to them, and also to the organizers, Alice Boyd, Director of the Arts Center, and Sandy and Flora Parisky, the Program Coordinators, who first heard the program in Connecticut and brought it here – people who believe that small and first-class can go together, that a little town can do big things, that art matters.
And especially thanks to William Stillinger, who I later found out was the interesting, knowledgeable, and eclectic mind that put the program together. A lovely range, a musical intelligence in the harmony and flow and counterpoint of the arrangement.

For people who were there and want to revisit the evening’s pleasures, here are links to some of the poems that are available on the web:

Some Days the Sea, Richard Blanco
Hatred, Gwendolyn Bennett (listed as Brooks in the program, but a web search indicates Bennett is a different person)
One Art, Elizabeth Bishop (one of the best villanelles ever)
The Perfect Life, John Koethe
If You Forget Me, Pablo Neruda (in my web search I actually found a YouTube video of the poem read by Madonna, which may be wonderful, but I’m just linking to the PoemHunter print version)
In a Dark Time, Theodore Roethke
I Know a Man, Robert Creeley

(Credits to the Poetry Foundation, PoemHunter, PoetSeers, Floating Wolf Quarterly, and other websites for making these poems accessible on the web, I trust with proper respect for copyright.)

Maybe the best way I can sum up my appreciation is to say -- I’ve been a Geraldine Dodge poet off and on since 1986, attending many Geraldine Dodge Festivals, and I could easily imagine this program under the big tent, with an audience of over a thousand, on the opening or closing night of Dodge. But it was even more fun to find it under the roof of our own Arts Center, in the company of neighbors!