Art Works Blog

Jazz Mix Tape: U.S. Poet Laureate edition

Philip Levine. Photo by Geoffrey Berliner

Thanks to his Detroit upbringing, former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine has more than a passing connection with some of the country's jazz legends, such as NEA Jazz Masters Kenny Burrell, Elvin Jones, and Tommy Flanagan. In fact, Levine has credited his friendships with jazz musicians with inspiring him to pursue his career in poetry. As he told the NEA in an interview for The Big Read Blog, "They were the first real artists I ever met who were about my own age and were a kind of model to me. I thought, 'If Kenny can do it, if Tommy can do it, if Bess [Bonnier] can do it, I can do it.' (You can read that entire interview here.) So it seemed only fitting, as we celebrate tomorrow's announcement of the 2013 Class of NEA Jazz Masters, that we should ask Levine to chime in on some of his favorite tunes.

Well, "Body and Soul" would be the first, because of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Charlie Parker. And Sonny Stitt has a fabulous solo on tenor sax. I love "Lover Man." Great, poignant tune. The Charlie Parker "Lover Man.” One of the records, which is an absolute essential record, is terrible, because he's having a nervous breakdown, right then and there, and you can hear it. He's not playing as well as he should, but there's something so poignant about it, so moving. It's phenomenal. There's a Louis Armstrong thing called "Weather Bird," an old tune, and "West End Blues." Oh my god. It's fabulous stuff. [John] Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"---beautiful, even though McCoy Tyner hits the wrong note somewhere. It doesn't matter. They just go on. It's beautiful. "A Child is Born," written by Thad Jones, who was a guy who played in Detroit. He's one of the Jones Brothers---Hank, Elvin and Thad were brothers. They're actually from Pontiac, Michigan, about 20 miles away, but they all played in Detroit. And he wrote a thing called "A Child is Born." About a year ago, I found it on Kenny Burrell, piano and guitar. And it is beautiful. You had the feeling this wasn't rehearsed; they just did it. It's a live performance. It's sensational. Thad was a hell of a musician, because he was also an arranger for a lot of big bands. He played in Detroit a lot. My favorite musician is Lester Young. If I could play like anybody in the world, it would have been Lester Young. --- Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate

Don't forget to visit our News Room at arts.gov tomorrow for the announcement about the 2013 NEA Jazz Masters!

 

 

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