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Thulani Davis’s poetry conjures a lost era of jazz

InThe Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois described the sorrow songs, commonly known as spirituals, as “the articulate message of the slave to the world.” His argument was that Black music, even when sung by an individual, expressed something profound about the collective experience of enslavement. As the century went on, authors extended the claim to instrumental music. In the 1942 essay “Memories of My Grandmother,” Richard Wright wrote that improvisation in jazz was “guided not by musical theory, but by the urge to express something deeply felt.” Listening to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man discovers “unrecognized compulsions of my being,” which “demanded action, the kind of which I was uncapable.” What form this action might take remains unexplained, but the underlying idea remains the same. All three authors accept that Black music speaks for Black people, even when Black people do not know it.

In time, this expressive theory of Black music migrated to literature. In his 1926 essay “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes argued that Black poetry ought to be like jazz, “one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul.” Like the jazz musician, Hughes continues, “we younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.” In the late 1960s and 1970s, writers associated with the Black Arts movement—Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal in particular—once again turned to jazz, whose improvisation around a theme came to symbolize the relationship between Black individuals and Black people.

Perhaps no writer has engaged more richly with this idea than Thulani Davis. Working at the intersection of the Black Arts Movement and the 1970s boom in Black feminist writing, Davis saw firsthand the relationship between Black music, poetry, and life. Like the poet and essayist June Jordan, for whom she wrote an obituary in the Village Voice, she worked across media but remained guided by a concern for Black women and poor people. Like Sonia Sanchez, she adapted lessons of jazz experiment to literature, expanding the horizons of Black sensibility. And like Ntozake Shange, her one-time collaborator, she brought her mixed-media proficiency to range of genres. Since the late 1960s, Davis has published journalism, novels, and historical studies; composed librettos and directed documentaries; and cowritten the screenplay for the cult classic film Paid in Full. Yet at heart she is a poet, even if her poetry is known primarily to specialists.

Many of Davis’s early poems recount jazz performances.

Nothing but the Music, which collects verse written between 1974 and 1992, reasserts Davis’s centrality to the Black Arts and Black Feminist movements. Though the book covers a wide range of topics, all the poems engage with music: listening to it, composing it, being transformed by it. There are accounts of driving through a rainstorm to see the Commodores, descriptions of Senegalese seamstresses listening to jazz as they work, and visions of enslaved people singing during the Middle Passage. Davis employs a variety of stanza forms, though most of the poems are on the shorter side. “Many of these poems here were performed with a number of musicians in different improvising configurations,” she writes in the acknowledgments. Her collaborators include her late husband and composer Joseph Jarman, free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor, and saxophonist Arthur Blythe.

Sound is key to Davis’s poetics. As Anthony Reed argues in his book on avant-garde Black poetry, Freedom Time, many late-twentieth-century poets wrote about abstract sound to escape the over-simple equation of expression and identity. When Davis transcribes the screech of a train into notes or writes about people seeing the shapes of music, she subverts the expectation that Black literature only bear witness to injustice or protest oppression. What might seem at first like an apolitical approach in fact expands the notion of what politics might be. Nothing but the Music sketches the contours of a world in which Black people are free from violence and able to dance, to sing, and to make music.

Thulani Davis. | Blank Forms

Born in Virginia in 1949 to two Black educators, Davis showed poetic promise early in life. While attending Barnard College in New York, she gave her first spoken word performance. In attendance were Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano, founding members of The Last Poets, a group that pioneered the recorded recitation of poetry over music. They encouraged her to continue with poetry after graduation, when she left New York for San Francisco in the 1970s. As a reporter for the San Francisco Sun-Reporter, Davis covered the trials of the Soledad Brothers and Angela Davis, while writing poems in her off-hours, sometimes penning lyrics to jazz.

Many of Davis’s early poems recount jazz performances. “On 5 Compositions of Roscoe Mitchell” is about composer Roscoe Mitchell’s 1976 performance at Studio Rivbea, one of New York’s best-known loft jazz venues, run by musician Sam Rivers and his wife Beatrice. (“Loft jazz” was an avant-garde genre of the era, so named because if was often performed in converted lofts.) “[T]hey always play it different in new york/fast city,” that poem begins. “[T]he music/splattered with spit and sweat” gives voice to regionally specific “moanful cries,” capturing New York’s “knife-fendered traffic,” “lowceiling five fights blues,” and “lost gone gangster tones.”

“C.T. at the Five Spot” was written on the occasion of Cecil Taylor playing at the Five Spot Cafe; once a leading jazz venue, patronized by Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara, the cafe was where the Thelonious Monk Quartet and John Coltrane recorded Live at the Five Spot: Discovery! in 1957. Shuttered in the mid-1960s, it reopened for two years in the mid-1970s, during which time Cecil Taylor played on the night that inspired this poem. After describing a song as a text “screamin’ out of saxophones,” Davis writes,

I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music
facing the dinge of spots & twofers
in the night/music/in the night/music have I lived

The speaker has heard literal jazz from a young age and metaphorical jazz in the dingy spots after dusk and two-for-one sales of her memories. Because the conditions of Black life in America gave birth to jazz and because the sound evokes the atmosphere of the musician-first jazz venues Davis attended, she has “lived” the music itself.

Yet at other times Davis resists an easy equivalence between music and identity. This defiance arises most clearly in the 1982 poem “For Ishmael Houston-Jones,” about the choreographer and cofounder of the gay men’s performance collective Two Men Dancing. Davis describes a dancer inhaling “chords, tones,” and “the world.” Then the dancer exhales and begins moving:

The sound becomes
a shape, a dance, a
configuration of what
we know that we have
not seen or heard that

Note the ambiguity of the final phrase: at the same time that Black culture offers something new to Black people, it also gives voice to something they have always known.

In making the sad moment joyous, music helps Black people survive their mourning.

Some of Davis’s poems deeply engage Black history, a subject which she has explored in other genres. She has worked on documentaries on W. E. B. Du Bois, the 1952 trial of Ruby McCollum, and the rebellion on the Amistad; and in her remarkable book, My Confederate Kinfolk, she addressed the ways her family history intertwined with the history of Reconstruction and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In a 1987 poem composed in Dakar, “Leaving Gorée,” Davis imagines the experience of enslaved people being forced aboard ships in Gorée, Senegal, which was one of the largest centers for the African slave trade. The speaker does not share a language with many of the other enslaved people, so she communicates via gesture until noticing a Bambara woman, who begins singing “a song of her village.” Then an old man pats “a bit of wood like a guitar” and an instrument-less “balafon player watches . . . hearing the music.” The music helps the speaker see the beauty in other African people, but this relief itself is complicated:

I later told one
how beautiful it [the song] was
was it truly?
was all she said.

By ending with this question, Davis decries the conditions under which this song was produced at the same time that she celebrates music, which does more than simply express what Black people feel: it keeps them alive.

The sustaining power of music is a theme that runs through Davis’s post-slavery poems. “C.T.’s Variation,” another poem about Cecil Taylor, begins:

some springs the Mississippi rose up so high
it drowned the sound of singing and escape
that sound of jazz from back
boarded shanties by railroad tracks

The gurgling, whooshing sound of a flooding river so central to the slave trade literally renders the music inaudible. Yet this only makes the music more precious: “some springs song was sweeter,” Davis concludes, because it was harder to hear amidst climate catastrophe.

Black music has a complicated relationship to the traditional objects of politics in Davis’s verse, which becomes most obvious in the poems about rebellions. “It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue,” named for a radio music program, is set amidst the Rodney King riots. Turning on the radio, the speaker wonders whether they will:

find out if it’s a riot in LA
or if we can still dance
to Teddy Pendergrass
. . . 
did they acquit somebody in LA?
will we burn it down on Saturday
or dance to the Rhythm Revue

Dancing to the Rhythm Revue and rioting are at odds because the same radio station that plays the program has been covering the unrest, but should the Rhythm Revue air, then there is no riot and no need to riot. In other words, the speaker wants to dance to Teddy Pendegrass not only because they enjoy dancing but also because they want to live in a world in which injustice does not come in the way of dancing.

Davis revisits this theme in a poem for Henry Threadgill, the Pulitzer Prize winning jazz composer. After describing the passage of time for Black people living “behind god’s back,” Davis writes,

caught between this rock & a known hard place/
sometimes in an utter solitude
a chorale/a sweetness/makes us whole & never lost

This healing music recalls an old “sorrow song” that “old folks knew sighs like a violin” and that helps Black people mourn:

[the song] gathers the moment into joyousness
even as Mingus leaves us
grappling the thick rhythms
of how we insist on life
even as he leaves us in those moans

The music does not simply express perseverance in the face of death; in making the sad moment joyous, it helps Black people survive their mourning, by bringing the happiness of the hereafter into the present.

Still from “W.E.B. Dubois: A Biography in Four Voices” (2002). | Museum of African Diaspora

Nothing but the Music is a Black Arts text as we have come to know it through the work of recent scholarship. As GerShun Avilez and Carter Mathes have argued, the Black Arts Movement sought at once to reassert the value of Black culture and to expands its boundaries. In her 2017 study Black Post-Blackness, Margo Natalie Crawford writes that the Black Arts Movement rejected the term “Negro,” claiming “Black” in the hopes of reenchanting “black humanity as much more than an identity category.” They hoped, Crawford continues, to define Black as “the un-known dimensions of freedom and self-determination.” For Davis, that yet to be defined liberation and autonomy is most powerfully prophesized toward in Black music. The freedom to dance to Teddy Pendergrass instead of rioting about the acquittal of uniformed criminals hints at possibilities for Black life that are not defined by state violence.

The question is not only whether or not Black people express themselves in music but also whether or not others listen.

Davis’s poetry is part of a tradition that has made contemporary approaches to Black music and Black studies possible. In a passage I am perhaps too fond of quoting, from Fred Moten’s Black and Blur, he valorizes a model of Black studies that “subordinate[s], by a measure so small it constitutes measure’s eclipse, the critical analysis of anti-blackness to the celebratory analysis of blackness.” For Moten, celebrating the proliferation of meanings for Blackness, privileges life over oppression. “This is done not to avoid or ameliorate the hard truths of anti-blackness,” he continues, “but in the service of its violent eradication.” By writing poems about music, or at least about the lost nights in loft jazz venues that no longer exist, Davis similarly remind us that Black life, now and tomorrow, is far more varied than its caricature.

Now that live performance remains inaccessible to many and now that many of the musicians about whom she writes have passed, Nothing But the Music also offers a record of a special moment in Black cultural production. “I have heard this music in a lot of clubs that no longer exist,” Davis writes in the acknowledgments, “opera houses in Italy that will stand another hundred years” and so on. This tension—between the loss of venues and the music’s endurance—structures the collection, which preserves the vibrancy of past performances while keeping alive their spirit of experimentation. In the end, for Davis, as for Du Bois before her, the question is not only whether or not Black people express themselves in music but also whether or not others listen.