Collision of jazz and Chinese poetry

The train was late. Or rather, I was late for the train. Work ran later than expected. Missed the 5:45. The street car was running. No mechanical problems like Monday. But a few minutes behind schedule due to a presidential rally.

I decided to skip the street car and walk to the station in order to catch the last train home. There is almost two hours between one train and the other. Walking gave me a chance to find a coffee shop and some time to catch up on reading. The Public Market was on the way, but it tends be loud. And crowded.

Stone Creek Coffee is nice and near the train station. And open until 7 p.m. It displays a nice interior design. But sometimes the atmosphere feels a bit too mod. The baristas are often impertinent. And I feel inelegant when I visit. Maybe I am getting too old to haunt swanky coffee shops. Stone Creek coffee is luxurious. In spite of pretentious barista I bought a cup and then walked to the train station to wait and read a book. It is an autobiography of the Chinese poet Tu Fu. The fact that a book published in the 1930s is still in circulation at a public library is impressive. Also interesting are the translator notes. A few weeks ago I finished reading a recent translation of Li Po poetry. The translator, Seaton, made observations similar to those made nearly 100 years ago by Ayscough and Lowell.

I struggled with one passage in the book as the train station grew loud with passengers arriving from one train and departing on a Greyhound bus. Pulling a mobile device out of my pocket I placed in ear buds and cued up episode 88 of the Discovering Jazz podcast. As I listened I read that one Chinese ideogram may require more than one word to transliterate. Sometimes an entire phrase is used to convey the idea of a single Chinese character. The last train arrived. I boarded. Found a seat. Continued reading. And listening.

The jazz podcast explored absolute pitch. The show host mentioned that Asian languages are tonal. Pronouncing a vowel with one pitch may mean one thing while pronouncing the same vowel with a different pitch provides a different meaning. I experienced that when I visited Japan. But I did not have the knowledge to appreciate it then as I do now.

Reading a dozen pages was all I managed to accomplish before the train stopped at the home station. Thankful to be homeward. Grateful for the travel disruption that mingled American jazz and Chinese poetry into one commute.

Gathering flowers, my mountain flowers


What are the names of the flowers and blossoms that edge the late August roadsides of rural Wisconsin? Cornflower? Goldenrod? Queen Anne’s lace? Or wild carrot? Maybe this is botanical contrafact.[1] Same road progression along corn and soybean fields, but new melodies and arrangements of purple, white and yellow. Weeds and wild flowers remixed along country roads.

The expression “gathering the flowers” originated from a Latin phrase, florilegium.[2] The idea and practice of gathering flowers was to record quotations, excerpts and selections of literature, sketches and observations. Often religious and/or philosophical. These thoughts and ideas collected in a common place[3] provided a field of potential cross pollination. Hence the term commonplace books from the Latin “loci communes.”[4]

But tonight the poetry of Li Po, commonplace books and conversation at the dinner table collided. It is a practice in my home to share dinner together with the entire family. Good food and lively conversation abound. Tonight the topics included rhetoric definitions, friendship, loyalty, virtue, astronomy, Taoism, Christianity, providence of God, Li Po, coffee, heavy metal music, hairless rabbits and so on. Weeds and wild flowers distinguished throughout the animated discussion.

After the conversation subsided, the table cleared and dished washed, I reflected on a poem by Li Po. In the poem he referred to himself and a hermit friend as “mountain flowers.” Remixing gathering flowers and mountain flowers intrigued me. One of the children placed John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Art Tatum records on the stereo.

John Coltrane’s “26 2.” Charlie Parker’s chord progression from “Confirmation” reimagined with Coltrane’s melody and arrangement. Later, I borrowed Li Po’s four-line structure and motif and added my own melody, images and theme. Gathering flowers and blossoms. Poetic contrafact.

NOTES:
[1] Discovering Jazz, Episode 46, Stolen Chord Sequences (Jazz Contrafacts), accessed September 7, 2019. https://player.fm/series/discovering-jazz-2150622/archives-episode-46-stolen-chord-sequences-jazz-contrafacts
[2] “Florilegium – gathering literary flowers,” August 27, 2019. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2019/08/27/florilegium-gathering-literary-flowers/
[3] Loci communes: Not an easy Google search, but an example of its usage is here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loci-communes-rerum-theologicarum. Additionally, here are some Latin root words that make up Loci communes.


[4] Commonplace books is a subject explored here. “Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook),” December 31, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/12/31/best-reads-of-2014-or-what-i-found-in-my-notebook/

[Podcast] The Vanishing Art of Letter Writing

06 June 2014 Podcast Cover

Listen now:

 

When was the last time your wrote a letter? Not an email, but a handwritten letter with pen, paper, envelope and postage. Learn about a legacy of letters from a WWII soldier discovered by his son. Also, a short story about poetry, jazz and a rainy afternoon.

This show is unofficially sponsored by Circa Celeste — a cafe located in historic downtown Racine, Wisconsin. Check them out at CircaCeleste.net.

Special thanks to John Hayes. He enjoys several musical incarnations from honky-tonk country to jazz to silent music scenes. His current incarnation involves old blues. Enjoy some of his music on his Bandpage.

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Afternoon poetry and jazz

Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon Audio CD

Sometimes a few notes of music follow you for days are weeks or years. Sometimes a line of poetry haunts you like a memory you can’t quite recall. It’s like rain, it permeates the air, wets the ground, even makes tea taste more pronounced.

Here’s part of a story I can share with you. After I was at university studying art and design, I found an audio CD in a music store titled Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon. What attracted me to the album, a compilation, was the fact that the cover art reminded me of a sexier version of Gustave Caillebotte’s famous painting. I purchased the audio CD. It was background music initially. Something to edge off lonely days as a poor graduate beginning a career in graphic design. About the same time I discovered, and purchased, a copy of William Kistler’s poetry book America February.

I have always enjoyed poetry and music, but reading Kistler’s work was rigorous for me. Light verse and traditional poems, the variety that fill American and English school book anthologies, were what I was familiar with. But Kistler’s poetry was a new dish for my inexperienced palate. Equally, understanding the musical selections of Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon as more than a background soundtrack was challenging.

A line from one of Susan L Daniels’s poems has captured my attention this past week—the way jazz and poetry sometimes do. The speaker in the poem answers a question, so you like jazz, by saying: “…the answer is no/I live it sometimes…” That’s what I have come to enjoy about the complicated progression in a song or a poem that avoids a clean resolution.

Jazz and poetry work into you. It takes you down that familiar path of a rainy day afternoon, a common enough subject, but it is a variation of that theme. Never the same way twice. Like reading a poem as a school boy and reading it later as a graduate and later as a professional. Same poem printed on the page, but different. Always different. But familiar, because you “live it.” There’s more to this story. Maybe I’ll share it with you on another rainy day afternoon.