When Gwendolyn Brooks read her poem We Real Cool, she did something that words alone could never have accomplished. From her register, to her imposed meter, to her subtle tonal inflections, she endeavored to exemplify both the body and the spirit of jazz. Not only did this effectively transform her poem from written word into performance piece, but it also constituted an involved criticism of and participation in a unified black community. This is most obviously demonstrated by her repetition of and emphasis on the word “we”; although she is writing from the point of view of “the pool players,” she is also writing as a member of the black community. Her poem, then, is a commentary on the community as a whole – namely, about how the black community needs to change the way they think about themselves before they can change anyone else’s opinions. This is an argument seen not only in Brooks’s work but also throughout much of her contemporaries’ literature that employs the style of jazz.
Most noticeably, the word “jazz” appears in Brooks’s poem. It is obvious that Brooks wants her readers to know that she intends for the poem to convey a sense of stylistic emotion that is unique to the black community, and she uses jazz to embody this spirit. Brooks knew that “jazz” carried both positive and negative connotations, and she embraced this capacity of the word. In one recorded reading of her poem, Brooks notes that she was “referring to music” when she included the word, although she didn’t mind if it was also interpreted sexually or otherwise (We Real Cool). At that time, many embraced the idea that jazz truly belonged to the black community; it seems Brooks may have been reflecting the notion that both jazz and literature should be constructively applied by and for that community.
Like Gwendolyn Brooks, many other writers before and after her fame decided to employ both the style and the imagery of jazz in order to create an experience that could be recognized as “uniquely black.” For example, Langston Hughes wanted to be known as “the original jazz poet” for the way he blurred the line between music and performance poetry (Yaffe 103). Even before him, Hart Crane “announced his ambition to ‘forge an idiom of jazz into words!'” (Yaffe 103). And, more contemporarily, Amiri Baraka (still known as LeRoi Jones) made clear his desire to use jazz in poetry in “Jazz and the White Critic”; Yaffe summarizes: “To understand jazz, [he argued that] one needed to address the ‘socio-cultural philosophy of the Negro in America,’ but also, most crucially, one needed to look beyond notation to understand the nuance and cadence of the music,” (135). This “nuance and cadence” was the essence of jazz, and there is perhaps no better argument for the unique “blackness” of jazz than this widely reported effect.
Not only did writers emulate the style of jazz, but they often also dealt directly with the phenomenon of jazz. Many of the resulting works illustrated the unifying nature of jazz, either pointing to its inherent need of cooperation to function or to its effect on the world at large. One particularly potent manifestation of this practice was the memorialization of jazz iconoclasts in poetry, which not only served as a sentimental tribute to important members and promoters of the black community but also called attention to the need to unite and stand for the ideals embodied by these figures, in a manner emulating theirs. One of the many examples is Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” which simultaneously criticizes and exalts the recently deceased Billie Holiday (Yaffe 139). Later, Jack Kerouac, a white champion of the Beat movement, wrote “Charlie Parker” in memory of that legendary jazz figure (Yaffe 143). Gerald Early, in his essay “Jazz and American Literature,” cites the significance of Dorothy Baker’s Young Man With a Horn, which arguably could have served the same purpose in a non-specific fashion:
“It certainly established or intensified a number of conventions about jazz musicians as they have come to be portrayed in popular and literary culture, two most especially. First, the novel gives us the highly romantic image of the jazz musician as brooding, self-destructive, antidomestic genius, without formal training, dedicated only to the sound that he hears in his head. Second, [it] gives us the charismatic white jazz musician as a kind of political and moral innocent… drawn to blacks, the authentic source of jazz, in a quest for artistic purity as only blacks can embody as against the white world’s superficiality, bourgeois respectability, and commercialism,” (Early 734).
Just as this description relates elements of both criticism and praise, so does most literature about jazz seem to attempt. When taken as a whole, this idea embodies what the seeming majority of jazz musicians and literary figures were trying to do with their art, consciously or unconsciously: to provide a running commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the black community at large while simultaneously employing elements inherent and unique to it and providing a roadmap for its future progress.
In his comprehensive The Culture of Jazz: Jazz as Critical Culture, Frank Salamone muses, “Jazz is about freedom… A good part of the sacred nature of the music is found in its inextricable relationship to freedom,” (174). From the sharing of technical know-how, to the tremendous level of cooperation between musicians required to create jazz, to the way jazz appeals to the hearts and souls of millions, the freedom provided by jazz came only through the unifying force of community it called for. Not only, then, is it easy to understand how literature and jazz become enmeshed toward a common purpose, but it is also clear that the black community had an absolutely essential influence on both.
Early, Gerald. “Jazz and American Literature.” The Oxford Companion to Jazz. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000. Print.
Salamone, Frank A. The Culture of Jazz. 1st ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 2009. Print.
“‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, 26 Jul 2010. Web.
Yaffe, David. “Stomping the Muse: Jazz, Poetry, and the Problematic Muse.” Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing. 1st ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 99-149. Print.