Lines of Jazz

Jazz Poetry of Hughes and Eliot

It’s tempting to focus on the avant-garde elite when discussing 1920s Paris as a place of intense artistic innovation.  But we must not forget that early 20th-century Paris also was full of other sounds —street musicians, cabarets, popular tunes, classics, etc.—some of which were producing just as much originality and energy. The most obvious example of a more “organically arising” art form—from outside the conservatories, musical halls, and salons—that was just as innovative as the music of Stravinsky and Milhaud, is of course jazz. And jazz, pioneered by African American street musicians and then brought to France, was influential in all circles, drawing its own inspiration from traditional, popular, and classical music, and inspiring all of these genres as well. Jazz redefined the rhythm and meter of music, bringing interpretation, improvisation, and melding of styles into a popular art form as it never had been before. During the 1920s, art forms and artists across the spectrum intermingled and collaborated, and jazz also worked its way into painting, dance, theater, and other art forms. Jazz especially permeated and enriched literature throughout the decade. The term “jazz poetry” first referred simply to poems that mentioned jazz but soon came to refer more broadly to the works of poets who experimented with meter and rhythm in a manner similar to the way musicians perform jazz (“Jazz Poetry”).

Let’s look at two poems that may initially seem quite different in order to trace jazz influences in both and show the far-reaching and widely-differing influence of jazz on literature.  Langston Hughes “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret,” is quite obviously influenced by jazz in theme and content, but it also contains more subtle jazz influences in its style, rhythm and meter.  T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” at first seems in no way similar. However, many have noted the jazz influences in Eliot’s poetry. One scholar, David Chinitz, for example, writes: “The conviction that Eliot’s work was, somehow, fundamentally connected with jazz in particular has been held with assurance, even taken for granted, by critics since the earliest years of Eliot’s career” (3). And in fact, Eliot spent time in Paris immediately before writing “The Waste Land” and had it edited by Paris’ most influential English-speaking expat, Ezra Pound. The poem, known for its experimental meter and disparate voices, lends itself well to a discussion of musical jazz-like fluidity, and knowledge of jazz poetry can enrich readings of certain sections.

Langston Hughes, only 22 at the time, spent part of 1924 in Paris working primarily as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where he gained unique inspiration for his poetry. Hughes was already an avid fan of the American jazz, but the following poem gives his take on a scene in Paris:

Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret

Play that thing,

Jazz band!

Play it for the lords and ladies,

For the dukes and counts,

For the whores and gigolos,

For the American millionaires,

And the school teachers

Out for a spree.

Play it,

Jazz band!

You know that tune

That laughs and cries at the same time.

You know it.


May I?

Mais oui.

Mein Gott!

Parece una rumba.

Play it, jazz band!

You’ve got seven languages to speak in

And then some,

Even if you do come from Georgia.

Can I go home wid yuh, sweetie?

A simple, playful, and image-filled depiction of a Parisian jazz club, Hughes’ poem, on a deeper level, presents a musical, jazz-like feel through its language and structure, and it explores the social upheavals promoted by jazz and represented in jazz. The poem contains no consistent meter, opening like a drum beat with two lines of three and two stressed syllables, and then moving into a more melodious string of five lines that each ring out like a melody from five different instruments of a jazz band. This stanza, despite it having no traditional verse-form, holds together with a very consistent, un-jarring rhythm. Indeed, it is very songlike. Lines 1-10 are bookended by the similar lines “Play that thing, / Jazz band!” (ll. 1-2) and “Play it, / Jazz band” (ll. 9-10). Within this structure, there are improvisations. Each line beginning with “play it for…” (l. 3) and “for…” (l. 4-6) is like a slightly different improvisation on a different instrument before returning to the basic tune. The lords and ladies, dukes and counts, whores and gigolos, American millionaires, and school teachers all play in different tones but are part of the same tune. Thematically, Hughes draws our attention to the inclusive but diverse jazz community in Paris.  In the next stanza, different languages also imitate different instruments—all with unique tones and timbres but all combining together in one jazz tune. Why do jazz bands speak seven languages and then some? Jazz music both brings different sounds and styles together in one song, and also quite literally (through the different languages) Hughes references the multicultural and international population of Paris. Note, too, that the foreign language words are not simply a repetition of the same thing but rather a conversation—four languages communicating with each other. These diverse cultures are brought together and able to communicate with one another through music. Indeed, Hughes, although working as a dishwasher during his time in Paris, most likely still enjoyed more freedom and inclusion than he would have in the segregated jazz clubs of New York.  He embraces this cross-class, cross-cultural, cross-racial mixing with a poem that represents jazz and its form as embracing and embodying the improvisations of Paris.

T.S. Eliot is less optimistic—to say the least—about his world but seems to find creative solace in expressions of improvisation and rejection of traditional metrical modes. “The Waste Land,” about the desolation, isolation, and infertility of the modern post-war world, does not present much in terms of hope nor does it bear any initial similarities in tone or style to Hughes’ poem. However, let’s look at the following passage, about a street violinist:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight

And fiddled whisper music on those strings

And bats with baby faces in the violet light

Whistled, and beat their wings

And crawled head downward down a blackened wall

And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells. (ll. 375-84)

Eliot’s stanza, too, has a definitive musical, jazz-like feel. This scene, taking place in a dry mountain-land but also having undertones of a city street, captures the spirit and mood of this eerie street violinist. With her “long black hair” (l. 375) and “wisper[ing]” (l. 376) strings, she too seems like one who could play a song that “laughs and cries at the same time” (Hughes l. 12). Her music enchants bats to “beat their wings” (l. 378) while bells toll to “keep the hours” (383). The beat of the wings, the steady time-keeping of the bells, and the whispering melody of the violin together seem to comprise a musical ensemble. What makes this passage distinctly jazz-like, besides simply musical, is its smooth yet free and unmetered feel. The one-syllable rhymes that come every other line (except in the case of “towers” and “hours”) fall at the end of long breaths and create a smooth feel. The alliteration such as of “w,” “d,” and “b” sounds (“woman,” “whispered,” “baby,” “beat,” “downward,” and “down” (l. 375-79)) cause pauses and breaths within each phrase, almost making you want to snap your fingers if reading aloud. The phrases, like Hughes’, also start with a repeated word (“and”), and although the rhymes give the impression of a consistent form, the meter within each line is inconsistent. Ones with slightly more syllables tend to drag while others quicken to the ending rhyme.

Jazz music is joyous, but it, like any other music, can be sad and poignant. More so than any music up to the 1920s, it strives to arise from and dramatically express the specific emotion or creative feeling of its musician and audience, not just the composer. Erza Pound directly compared poetry and music: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (“Ezra Pound”). Indeed this sounds much like what jazz strives to do and what both Hughes and Eliot do as they play with meter and rhythm while also allowing the actual musical sounds of cities to find their way into their poetry.

Works Cited

Chinitz, David. “A Jazz-Banjorine, Not a Lute: Eliot and Popular Music before The Waste Land.” T.S. Eliot’s Orchestra: Critical Essays on Poetry and Music. By John Xiros Cooper. New York: Garland Pub., 2000. 3-24. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Poetry Foundation. Ed. Sara Ivry. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 July 2015.

Hughes, Langston. “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret.” Poetry Nook., n.d. Web. 25 July 2015.

“Jazz Poetry: A Genre Emerges.” American Jazz Culture in the 1920S. University of Minnesota, n.d. Web. 25 July 2015.

“Ezra Pound.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 July 2015.