Langston Hughes has been widely acclaimed as the first true jazz poet, and there is little argument among critics that this is true. Hughes, a black poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote poetry unrivaled in its proliferation and depiction of jazz in the early 1900s.
Hughes came upon the heels of Sandburg, encouraged by the publication of ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ to extend the form of jazz poetry. His first publication appeared in 1926, five years after the publication of ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ and he drew inspiration from it as the poem that first celebrated the true spirit of jazz.
Sandburg has been classed with poets such as Vachel Lindsay and Edgar Lee Masters, who were considered the voices of Chicago but not poets of jazz. Neither of these writers, nor any before them, wrote anything that referred to jazz as poetry or music, or the power jazz has to conjure deep emotion and express the soul. ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ does exactly that. Jazz was not a standard, recognized term until 1920, the same year that the poem was published. No one had had the courage to present a work with that word in it to any publisher. It was considered vulgar, base, and inappropriate. In fact, ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ might never have been published had it not been hidden away in the collection Smoke and Steel. This collection followed Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, which also dealt with Chicago in the Industrial Age. Becoming a published writer was a privilege afforded Sandburg after he abandoned his days as a hobo and became a newspaper reporter, covering the Chicago race riots and writing essays about Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, at that time this opportunity would not have been given to Langston Hughes, as a poor black man.
Percy H. Boynton, in Some Contemporary Americans, writes, ‘‘I remember vividly the mixture of disgust and contempt with which an official in an old eastern public library handed me a copy of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems just after the publication in 1916. He resented having to include it in the American poetry section.’’
This sentiment was shared by many, and Sandburg’s insistence on using what was considered crude, ‘‘brutal’’ language that connected him with the poor and common people was not readily embraced. Sandburg was poor, and his boxcar travels as a hobo throughout the Midwest were literally hand-to-mouth, throwing him in the company of the poorest of the poor, including many blacks. He was the friend to the downtrodden, and he keenly felt the injustice toward the poor. In his book Midwest Portraits, he tells of working alongside blacks and the friendships he had with them, recalling their names and those in the rail yards that he worked alongside. Here he first heard songs such as ‘‘Boll Weevil’’ and was so enraptured that he tried to imitate the voice of the black man in his poetry. He sat with blacks in the highest segregated balconies and soaked in every word and tune in the minstrel shows. ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ is a bold attempt to legitimize this musical genre.
Sandburg defined poetry as being about moods, noises, jumbles, and images of the city. This is the essence of ‘‘Jazz Fantasia.’’ Jazz today transcends the descriptions of a music style that swings, improvises, and adheres to a certain rhythm. It is more about mood, imagery, urban life, the rise of a culture, and music that gives wings to the soul.
Today, jazz describes a musical genre that is emotional, soulful, and wildly improvisational, one that is intrinsically American, imbued with the passions and agonies of African American history. It is a distinct sound, played by particular instruments, and its roots run deep into the red clay of southern people who went north in hopes of a better life. Jazz was born in New Orleans and migrated north to Chicago at the end of the 1800s, when the red light district around 22nd Street in New Orleans, where many music clubs were located, was closed. Many bands resurfaced in Chicago, such as the Tom Brown Band, but they were not allowed to associate their music with the term jazz. Many sources trace the origin of the word to New Orleans. At the time, it was spelled jas or jass. The term was slang for sex and had inappropriate and seedy connotations with it. The story goes that in 1915, the Tom Brown Band took a job playing in Lamb’s Cafe´. In Chicago, labor unions ruled, and the band had not obtained permission from the local union official to work there. In an attempt to smear the band’s reputation, labor representatives spread a rumor around that jazz music was being played at Lamb’s Cafe´. The plan backfired when the word got around. People swarmed the club because they were curious about what this music really was. Of course, this was just the beginning of the music that has shaped the United States for over a century without taking a breath. Today, jazz encompasses many subgenres, such as blues, bebop, hip-hop, rap, and even beat box.
‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ has gained more popularity today than ever in its history. Jazz clinicians take the poem with them when they travel to teach the essence of jazz. It is a favorite piece in poetry slams. Vocal artists accompanied by jazz musicians have recorded it multiple times. There are audio downloads of ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ available as a vocal reading by dozens of artists, all with differing interpretations. Music teachers use it as a vocal class project, assigning the vocal sounding of the jazz instruments to some and echoes of the sound words in dual pitches to others, while one student reads the text. The poem has been incorporated into samba music. ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ written in 1919 and published in 1920, was a visionary prophecy of an art form that would be prominent in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American poetry, music, and culture.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Carl Sandburg, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Cynthia Gower, Critical Essay on ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.