Thursday, January 8, 2009

G. Lock & D. Murray, eds, "Thriving on a Riff"

Graham Lock and David Murray are the editors of Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film.

Lock applied applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 of Thriving on a Riff finds poet Michael S. Harper recounting how the phrasing of his poems reflects his lifelong love of jazz, in particular the solos of master saxophonists such as John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon.

MSH: [. . .] So much of it has to do with the sound. And when I say phrasing, I don’t mean only the arrangement of the words; I mean the periodic sentence. Where I want the details.

GL: The cadences?

MSH: It’s not only cadences; it’s also delay. When I say periodic sentence, I mean a sentence that waits until the end to give you the predicate and the subject. It’s like a solo that gives you a certain kind of suspense but is also building toward something. And what the building is, is the theme, the thematic of it. Sometimes it has to be discovered. It’s not only something that you start out with as an idea and just bring it to completion; it’s more than an idea. In fact, it’s the performance of it.

Thriving on a Riff is a collection of essays and interviews on the theme of jazz and blues influences in African American literature and film. So page 99 is both representative, since it addresses this theme, and not representative at all, in that the book features a dozen contributors, who each explore, in very individual ways, a different angle or artist or piece of work. These range from Paul Beatty’s satirical novel The White Boy Shuffle (Bertram D. Ashe) to John Lewis’s score for the late noir Odds Against Tomorrow (David Butler) to a survey of railroad sounds as influence and cultural resource (Michael Jarrett). Some chapters offer close scrutiny of musical presence in a particular work—see, for example, Steven C. Tracy’s detection of the “John Henry” folk ballad in Sterling Brown’s poem “Strange Legacies”—while others adopt a broader cultural perspective, as when Corin Willis argues that early Hollywood musicals revived blackface and minstrel tropes to counter the potency of African American musical performance.

Co-editor David Murray and I believe this diversity of voices and viewpoints is appropriately “jazzistic”—like a series of improvised solos. Actual performances by Michael S. Harper, plus fellow poets Nathaniel Mackey and Jayne Cortez, as well as versions of “John Henry” by Steven C. Tracy (video) and DeFord Bailey (audio) can be enjoyed on the book’s companion web site.
Read more about Thriving on a Riff on the Oxford University Press web site.

An excerpt from the book, in which Krin Gabbard discusses Miles Davis’s autobiography, will appear in the February 2009 issue of the online magazine Point of Departure.

The Page 99 Test: The Hearing Eye.

--Marshal Zeringue