Friday, May 22, 2009

Stompin' at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse

…He puts the record on his
Thorens Transcription turntable.
They listen. It’s early November 1960.
Election time, Nixon vs. Kennedy.
But when my father
hears Lester’s first upturned note,
he smiles a knowing smile
at Preston. “Ahhh!
The President!”

Poems about Lester Young (“Prez”),
Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, about two old friends listening to precious jazz records, arguing about what they hear, reminiscing, talking about life. Philip S. Bryant’s new book, Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace: A Jazz Memoir in Verse pulls you back in time to Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s and '60s, where Bryant grew up and his jazz-loving father, James, and James’s friend Preston shared a passion for music. We learn that Preston had a massive record collection (“a conservative estimate would be more than twenty thousand albums…broken into fifty or so sections, each meticulously ordered and numbered”) in his otherwise Spartan apartment, empty of almost everything else after his most recent divorce.

I’ve seen record collections like that, known jazz fans who cherish vinyl, wished I could take time out of each week to sit and listen to music with friends. Now we mostly listen alone on our iPods, if we listen to jazz at all, or go out to clubs, if we go, where the conversation is rarely about the music. Stompin’ made me feel nostalgic, and glad that I have hung onto the few jazz LPs I have.

The book is a good read. Once I started, I read all the way through to the end, putting post-its on poems/prose pieces I want to return to—“Miles: Prince of Darkness,” “The Death of Bill Evans,” “Basement Apartment: Blues and the Abstract Truth,” “Washing Aunt Janey’s Feet,” “Poinciana” ("Somewhere on a hot/and stormy Saturday night/in Kasota, Minnesota,/ Poinciana is playing/on the radio/above the kitchen stove"), “Chubby Checker Comes to North Dakota.”

The first part is James and Preston and jazz. The second part is about the author’s colorful Aunt Janey, who held strong opinions. The third part seems drawn from poems written over several years about jazz and music, love, and living in Minnesota, where Bryant teaches English at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Jazz singer Kurt Elling is a Gustavus alum; he writes poetry, too. Maybe there’s something in the water down there.

The book includes a CD of Bryant reading to music by jazz pianist Carolyn Wilkins, who teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The two plan to tour Minnesota together later this year, in October. I met publisher and editor John Gaterud a few weeks ago when he brought a copy of Stompin’ to my door. Gaterud taught mass communications at Minnesota State University, Mankato, for more than 20 years before retiring to pursue his passion, the small literary publishing company Blueroad Press, which he founded in 2007 with his daughter, Abbey. This is their second book.

Publishing, poetry, jazz, poetry about jazz, publishing poetry about jazz: They're all labors of love. Some labors of love are amateurish. Stompin' is a class act all the way—well-written and crafted, beautifully produced, with the added gift of the CD and its fine music and the sound of Bryant's voice. It's on my shelf beside Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa's Jazz Poetry Anthology, good company, where it belongs.

Bryant reads from Stompin' at the Grand Terrace on Saturday, May 23, at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis.

A Q&A with Bryant.
Amy Goetzman’s article about Stompin’ on MinnPost
The evolution of the book, from the Mankato Free Press.

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