Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards. Harvard Univ., $35 (328p) ISBN 978-0-674-05543-8
In this alternately dazzling and prosaic study, Edwards (The Practice of Diaspora), an English professor at Columbia University, compares the ways poets use melody in language to the ways musicians use literary devices in jazz. It’s named for the 1941 bebop work “Epistrophy” by Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke, in which the main melody repeats phrases and turns in on itself. Edwards examines Louis Armstrong’s “scat aesthetics,” illustrating how the vocal pyrotechnics of scat singing clear a way for the unsayable and revealing that such dynamics also operate in Armstrong’s published prose writing. In a brilliant reading of cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra, Edwards vividly probes Ra’s sounds—in both poetry and music—to show that Ra develops a poetics “where sound-equations mark an impossible exit.” Edwards examines the prefaces of Harlem Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson, the literary tendencies of Duke Ellington, and the song titles of saxophonist Henry Threadgill, among other examples, to illustrate that the language and sounds of jazz and poetry wind fluidly and innovatively in and around each other. Regrettably, Edwards’s own innovative readings too often slip into turgid writing and jargon (“an exercise in fugitivity”), obscuring his compellingly original perspective. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/10/2017
Release date: 06/01/2017
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