“Jazz Fantasia’’ begins with the drums, the instrument most critical to any jazz musical performance. The drums lead the music by their steady rhythmic beat. They set the tone and mood: the cadence of a dance or shuffle. The rhythm of the first part of the fantasia starts out a steady andante (moderate) jazz tempo. Line 1, if spoken in a standard 4/4 time signature (four beats in a row), should have a strict rhythm. In jazz, the first beat is always given more emphasis than the rest; it is stronger than the rest and serves as the downbeat. This convention is helpful in establishing the rhythm of the piece, and it also gives direction as how to dance or march. The repetition of d’s makes the tongue a percussion instrument on the roof of the mouth, just as the b’s make a drum of the lips.
The saxophones now join the ensemble with a wail. Jazz saxophones usually have a sad, beautifully mournful sound. The description of them is like the ripples of high tenor sax notes rushing over, wrapping smoothly over the notes in a gentle massage. However, this passage almost demands the addition of an alto or even lower pitched saxophone, twisting and sustaining. These saxophones are longer and lower to the floor and have a curved shape. Sandburg seems to break up the rhythm with this phrase with a ritardando (slowing) in an improvisational style. He places a bird’s eye (musical symbol meaning to hold) at the end of the line, telling the instruments to take a little break. Then, as if he is the master of ceremonies at a jazz concert, Sandburg exhorts his musicians to play. If he were introducing the origins of rock and roll, he would say ‘‘Go, Johnny, go!’’ He introduces this new music genre to the literary world. As the curtain opens, the anticipation rises.
The percussion section emerges, and the tempo and mood become lively. A poor street musician would use anything available as an instrument. A tin pan made an excellent tambourine, but without the shakers, it would give more of a light knocking as knuckles rolled and thumped across it. It was an embellishment to the drums, which kept the steady beat, and it gave sixteenth-note jazz rhythms in quick syncopation, emphasizing fast beats not accented in the straight 4/4 time (repetition of four beats in a row). The accent is spoken on the letter p, which gives a percussive pop of the lips when read aloud. The trombones come in next and seep their way into the piece. A lower-pitched brass instrument, the trombone has a slide that allows the artist to move directly from note to note or slide smoothly in continuous resonance to the next pitch. The sliding gives the impression of an oozing of sound rather than the strict adherence to intonation that a piano might have. This sliding was very popular when performing while marching. Sandpaper was applied to blocks of wood that were brushed against each other to obtain the repetitive sh sound that Sandburg describes. These blocks are also a percussion instrument, and they provide the shuffle sound, like the brushes on a cymbal. When the poem is read aloud, the lungs and throat produce a soft pop of air on the accent beat, and air rushing through the teeth on the sh at the end of the word creates a swishing sound. In this case, the first hu sound gets an accent, the second one gets a small accent, and the third gets the strongest. The rhythm would span six beats, with sh sound getting one beat, a getting one beat, the next sh one beat, a one beat, and the lastsh being held for two beats. The repetitions of s sounds evoke the warning of a spitting snake throughout the phrase. Then, the accent on the p produces another percussive pop.
The mood becomes increasingly more anxious now compared to the simple contentment of line 5, and the whining sound is high like the tender wail of a tenor or soprano saxophone. These saxophones can have a mournful, aching tone, and they can sound soft but urgent. Unlike the large, curved saxophones mentioned in line 2, these instruments are shorter, and the soprano sax has no curve at all. They are the most expressive of the sax family and can easily replicate the sound of a whine high up in the trees, and at the same time cry out intensely over the absence of a lost loved one. The image rises to a fever pitch as a screaming trumpet play a squeal like that of a fast car fleeing a pursuing motorcycle cop with sirens blasting. With sadness there is now danger: gunfire erupts as the drums fire rapidly, loudly, piercing the ears. The entire ensemble of instruments blasts in unison, and more violence ensues. Two people are clawing at each other, fighting and scratching at each other’s eyes, tumbling in a ball to the foot of a staircase. The instruments wail and shriek, smash and crash, pound and batter as the combatants exchange blows.
Sandburg shouts out to shut up, like an aggravated neighbor in the apartment next door with paper-thin walls and a baby fitfully sleeping. ‘‘Shut up in there!’’ he bangs on the plaster. ‘‘That’s enough!’’ It is the sound of fifty thousand blacks from the South crammed into Chicago in the span of just four years, from 1916 to 1920. Chicago is not the utopia they thought it would be: Jobs are scarce and living conditions deplorable. It is a hardscrabble life, and the music portrays the frenzy. A welcome contrast is introduced, and contrast is critical to jazz. It can soothe and calm, like a mother reading bedtime stories. Sandburg pushes on to the night sounds and images with a Mississippi steamboat chugging up the river at night. A bass saxophone bellows out the three low notes of the pervasive fog horn. Its whoo-whoo-whoo-oo echoes on the banks. There is a pause, and rich imagery appears again to end the poem: The lights on the boat rise up to the heavens, meeting the sight of the moon, red with sunset, rising to the tops of the hills.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Carl Sandburg, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010