Tyehimba Jess won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his highly creative poetry book, "Olio" (Wave Books, 2016). His subject matter is compelling. "Olio" is about African-American slaves who co-opted the minstrel music they were forced to perform and used it to gain and benefit their freedom.
Jess presents the poetry almost as a mathematical equation. These two poetry components -- music and math -- make his literary work a perfect pairing with jazz.
SOMOS (The Society of the Muse of the Southwest), the Taos Jazz Bebop Society, and the Harwood Museum of Art present the fourth annual "Poetry & Jazz" concert Friday (April 20), 7:30 p.m., in the Arthur Bell Auditorium at the Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux Street.
The press announcement states that Jess will read from "Olio," and throughout the program, jazz pianist and composer John Rangel will weave modern and period jazz interpretations to illuminate the emotional truths of the stories being told in the poetry.
Judy Katzman, president of Taos Jazz Bebop Society, explained how this special presentation came to fruition. "I had found Tyehimba's book last year. I found it incredibly fascinating and compelling. I'm in a book club with SOMOS executive director Jan Smith. She asked if anyone could think of great poets we need to have in Taos. I suggested Tyehimba," Katzman said.
Katzman notes that bringing Jess to Taos was a group effort. Smith contacted Jess' manager and that got the ball rolling.
Then Eric Gladstone, a board member with Taos Jazz Bebop Society, contacted Jess. Anecdotally, Katzman explained that Gladstone told Jess about Quincy Troupe, who had been here last year as the featured poet of the Poetry & Jazz concert and had been a friend of jazz great Miles Davis.
"When Eric mentioned Quincy, Tyehimba had replied: 'Wow, he was my teacher. I studied with him.' So Quincy was the one who convinced Jess it was worth his while to come out and experience Taos. Quincy had also been here many, many years ago in the [Taos] Poetry Circus. He had a very positive experience," Katzman said.
When Tempo interviewed the poet by phone, he had just hung up from an interview with The New York Times.
"This is my first time coming to Taos," he said. "I've heard beautiful things about it."
Jess will read primarily from "Olio" and afterward will hold a question and answer session. "I'm interested in seeing how this slice of African-American history is received. I'm talking about a cultural phenomenon called minstrelsy in the 19th century. It shaped all of the entertainment industry, particularly the theatrical industry, throughout the 20th century."
Jess knows that, demographically, Taos has a larger population of Native Americans than African Americans.
"I am more interested in the prevailing thing, which is the resilience of the people who are highlighted in the book," he said. "They were dealing with tremendous difficulties and tremendous odds in order to express themselves at the nadir of American race relations. To me, it's inspiring how certain people were able to craft a life for themselves outside of slavery. That's the backdrop, but the real connecting point is how they were able to persevere."
His biography states that he is the author of two books of poetry, "Leadbelly" and "Olio." In addition to the Pulitzer, "Olio" was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has received numerous other awards and citations.
Jazz pianist and composer John Rangel, who lives in Santa Fe, is no stranger to Taos audiences. He appeared at the Harwood last year in a collaboration of poetry, jazz and visual art. Rangel plans on performing musical interludes within Jess' readings.
"His book is really inspiring and challenging to me. I have decided to compose musical impressions of his characters in the books as well as perform some musical pieces referenced in the book. All of my new compositions are dedicated to this incredible book and author," Rangel said.
Performing with Rangel are Andy Zadrozny on bass and David Post on drums.
When asked about his interest in these poetry collaborations, Rangel said, "Words quantify our musical abstractions. Music can bring emotional landscape to provocative text. The hope is to break down barriers of resistance many folks feel when examining race in America by looking through the lens of history, perspective and music. I am blessed to participate in this very high-level project."
April is both National Poetry Month and National Jazz Appreciation Month. "We've done these Poetry & Jazz concerts for the past few years and audience members love it," Katzman said.
Tickets are $25, $20 for Harwood Museum Alliance members. For more information, call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org.