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Words, Music and Magic at the Jazz Standard

Robert Pinsky at the Jazz Standard last Tuesday at the Words and Music night.
Robert Pinsky at the Jazz Standard last Tuesday at the Words and Music night.

Charles Simic
Charles Simic at the Jazz Standard

Robert Pinsky
Pinsky reading while the band plays behind him.

Maybe artists should do like jazz musicians — take a standard and improvise on it. That was Steve’s idea last week after we had been to the Jazz Standard Tuesday night for what was billed as Words and Music night. Poets Robert Pinsky (Poet Laureate 1997-2000) and Charles Simic ( current Poet Laureate) read their poems and a band of three—vibraphonist Mike Mainieri, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Andrew Cyrille played. The show — which was totally wonderful and achieved a kind of effortless artiness — was organized by Simic’s brother Milan, a jazz producer. As far as I know this is a one-off event and hadn’t been done before ever by these poets and these musicians. In that respect it was risky and might have fallen into the category of kitsch. But the caliber of the poems — Simic’s dark and moody and sexy and Pinsky’s bright and funny and beautifully cadenced — and the great ensemble work of the band made it something captivating. Also, these poets have a connection with jazz — Charles Simic is known for his jazz-related poems and Pinsky admitted to the crowd that he was an amateur saxophonist who dreamed once of being a jazz musician.

Sometimes the music came together with the words, sometimes they came on separately in serial succession but either way the night was magical — a packed house in the dark (non-smoky) cellar club and great passages of music (emotion) and words (emotion and thought). The New York Times review by Nate Chinen picked a few nits about it and talked about a missed opportunity here or there, but Steve and I and Cate — as indeed the entire room of listeners — sat rapt and appreciative, understanding that something very cool and wonderful was happening.

Thelonious Monk playing Round Midnight.

My favorite was Pinsky and drummer Cyrille doing the equivalent of a skat duet where the poet read a couplet of rhyme and the drummer beat a rhythm in answer. It was great! Both poets read music-themed works and the music was lovely (the vibraphone is a most melodic and lyrical instrument). The only song I recognized was Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk, and that followed a poem by Simic in which Monk appears as a character. (Simic apparently frequented the Five Spot in Monk’s day and felt a connection with the musician.)

I can’t find the Simic poem in its entirety but here, courtesy of the LA Times, which ran a nice backgrounder about the event, is the beginning of it.

“Monk at the Five Spot / late one night / . . . / One beautiful black transvestite / alone up front / Sipping his drink demurely / The music Pythagorean / one note at a time /

As for Steve’s idea that artists should do like jazz musicians, well, of course, the best of them do just that, embroider on something good and make it their own. Not everybody is Monk and not everybody can play Monk and make it their own but it’s in the trying where the serious separate themselves from the also-rans.

Coming soon, a photo post on my ramble through Chelsea with Steve and Cate.