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Jazz Poems for Miles Davis

by Richard Stevenson


Prologue: Bui, Nigeria, Circa 1980

A small town shebeen
in southern Borno -
the northernmost stronghold
of the Christian faith
in a mostly Muslim state:

funny place to find myself
listening to On the Corner again --
let alone hear that funk groove
from a kora-like string instrument
wired to a police bullhorn-

but - ah! -- the epiphany
of suddenly hearing the source
in all the spilled drops of blood
that don't stop in one black pool
is some kind of mutant virus too,

and I've got it, am not some
blue-eyed rube, dancing in the sand
of the Hausa sahel so far from home,
but a grinning dervish who digs
"Love Me Do," James Brown, Sly, and Jimi too,

for the album you recorded in '72
was not "relentless, chugging funk,"
but a passport with the stamps
of Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew -
my first ticket to Azania.

So, Miles, this book's for you and all the hours
of my youth spent bent bending
like the burnt-out match head
of the ying yang R.C.A. Victor dog
before the black grill of the speaker cloth.

For the music and the places
you've taken me to. For the high thin wire
of your attenuated lonely fire
and churning funk and pulse of life's
rhythm - the highs and lows.

For the model of the artist
who doesn't have to be the best techno-wizard
or play the fastest or the hottest or the loudest
or softest in key/ on or off the beat
to generate heat enough to warm a soul.

For the man in the green shirt
with clay on his feet, horn bent to heaven,
who can break bread and set table
to eat with the angels
and walk with the cloven-hoofed.

Who bends the rules to test the ties;
who plods and wanders and stumbles and falls;
who calls on the past, heeds the future;
who brawls like a bantam, crows like a rooster;
who sings like an angel with shit on his shoes.


So what was your sound? How low
and high did you go and what is
this middle register, spare, lonely
ethereal tone that so plumbs
the heart and soul of jazz?

Your family was relatively rich
and you were good lookin'.
You didn't have Billie's hookin'
and Bird's hooked-at-fifteen teens.
Didn't come by the blues workin' fields
and eatin' collard greens.

You thought "nigger" was a compliment
until you heard it on the lips
of white rich kids at school
and got played for the yowza fool
too many times, and learned your history.

Were born with a presumed chip
on account of your grandfather's
usurped power and stolen property.
Lived east, played west, bought into nothing
but the family pride and prestige.

You were a man with title and steed
before there ever was a dark horse
to ride in on. Made the grade
playing Rhumboogie Boogies and
callin' the tunes in Brooks Bros. Suits -

in your teens too, no less.
So where did you come by the blues?
Havin' a kid at sixteen by a common-law wife
in '44 wouldn't have raised eyebrows
and you could more than pay the rent.

Was it a youth spent
before romance put wind in your sails?
Was it pure osmosis: listenin'
to Lester and Lady Day? The place
you came to pray at Minton's Playhouse?

The scrapple to make it in the Big Apple?
Was it Bird's fuck 'em, let-em-eat-bean-cake
ways? Watchin' the women go down on him
while he laughed and gnawed on
chicken drumsticks next to you in the back seat

going nowhere and everywhere at once?
You managed to avoid his habit and disgust
when he lived and sponged off you
and soaked up enough of his genius to play
badass bop fifty-second street to Broadway.

And you paid and made your way
without ever being present during the hard
birth of bebop. Only took the middle register
and middle way when bop was hot
and Bird and Diz were ridin' a wave.

Yeah, you saw hard times. Saw the Onyx
Five-Spot, even Birdland come and go
the way of burlesque and stand-up.
But you weren't as hard up as some
and could swing or bop. Copped an attitude.

So where did you cop the blues
if it wasn't in your Butcher shoes
and Brooks Bros. Suits? Did you find it
in a dimebag? You didn't buy the myth
of living like Bird to fly like the Bird.

But you chipped and skag certainly chipped
away at the best part of you. Was it
Fat Girl dying, taking Webster with him?
Was it Lester's booze-soaked corpse
up there on the stand? Rollins coppin', droppin' out?

All the boppers noddin' or hoppin'
or doin' time? Or were you playin'
by the numbers until your 'Trane came -
and went? You died for four years, then six -
some say another ten before you were aground.

When Miles, when? When did the first blue note
bend your horn to a purpose not your own?
You reigned a long time on your throne -
at least four or five times as long on top
as any of the boppers - with four or five careers

careenin' round those same busy streets.
Rode the dragon, chased the 'Trane,
snorted more crystal meth and cocaine,
drank more booze and won and lost more
than most who succumbed to any of these.

So where did you cop your attitude?
Was it the cool that finally chilled you out
to the thinness of your bones? Who manned the phones
when angel-headed hipsters and acid heads
dropped their act? What brought you back?


You played bebop, founded cool,
rescued the effete analytical freeze
with hard bop, modular blues,
melded Gil's intricate, tricky arrangements
with Flamenco/ Classical/ blues.

You answered Ornette's squeak, squawk, blatt, honk
with honking slabs of pulsing jazz rock,
anticipated World Beat in sitar-horn gristle
and screaming psychedelic Afro-funk,
even had an answer to Hip Hop before you dropped.

Was it four hundred years - the fifty
to sixty million souls unaccounted for -
the unrecognized black holocaust
that made a vortex in your horn?
The shame of being born well-to-do in that maelstrom?

No matter. You caught "the cry"
Lester and Billie had, the anger and
in-your-face rage and joy the Bird
soared over the projects and tenements with,
the surgeon's cool of your Daddy's will and drill.

And "the physicians came to hear the musicians"
and you cut 'em a clean slab of blues
that bled like raw steak on the plate
and suffused the sky with sunset hues
and packed miles of aisles and continue to

in all the styles and with all the hues of blue
that catch the cry you cottoned to.
And made some of the best music this side
of Jordan, so now even angels
let you sit in to blow your Elysian horn.

Richard Stevenson is the author of twelve previous collections, including, most recently, _A Murder of Crows: New & Selected Poems_ ( Black Moss Press, 1998 ), _Nothing Definite Yeti_ ( YA verse, Ekstasis Editions, 1999 ), and _Live Evil: A Homage to Miles Davis_ Thistledown Press, 2000 ). He teaches, runs a reading series, and occasionally performs his work with the jazz-poetry troupe _Naked Ear_ and YA verse/ jazz -rock group Sasquatch in clubs and at various festivals and schools in Southern Alberta, and has called Lethbridge ( wear the fox hat!) home for the past fifteen years. No one's punched his ticket yet, but he remains hopeful that there is intelligent life "out there."

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