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Slam Poetry Meets Jazz

Let’s play a word association game.  What’s do you think when I say, “Kansas City?”  Barbecue?  The Royals? How about jazz?  Now what about when I say “Jazz,” what do you think?  It probably isn’t poetry.

Each month the American Jazz Museum hosts the Jazz Poetry Jams.  Anyone can come and perform in these open mic slams.

“I get hysterical when they tell me blacks are meant to be miserable, only tolerable, or put to sleep.  These words, our speak not mine, words from the divine so give me time to get my thoughts together. Guess whether or not you know it, you, and you, and you need a savior. But the only one to save us is ourselves and the only trinity is you and me.  Have you stopped to think of all the things we could be?”

 Bobbie Jones is performing a poem at the Jams in the Blue Room. The room, like its name suggests, has blue walls and flooring, even the lights in the bar are blue.  Jazz memorabilia is all around and a mural of famous musicians covers one of the walls.  By show time the place is packed but still comfortable with about 150 people of all ages and races.  The stage is set with a grand piano, a couple basses, and a drum set all shining in the mood-setting red and purple lights. 

The Jazz Poetry Jams are a true blending of Kansas City’s established jazz scene and the ever-growing presence of spoken word.  Kansas City’s abundant and formative history in jazz is reshaping the way Kansas City slam poets are writing.

Glenn North is the Poet in Residence and Education Manager at the American Jazz Museum.  North defines “Spoken word” as “every-man poetry with an extra edge and is meant to be performed.”  Every Jazz Poetry Jam hosts a featured poet that have included Georgia Me, Terrance Hayes, and Elizabeth Alexander.  North explains what makes Kansas City special.

“But when they come to Kansas City they all agree that there’s something special happening here in Kansas City.  They’re surprised at the level of talent that they see in Kansas City and they are surprised, also, at the originality.  Often times on the coast there are certain cadence where what happens is a lot of the spoken word sounds the same, but you hear a lot of original voice here in Kansas City and I think that’s one of the things we can really be proud of.”

Slam Poetry is a competition style of spoken word that got its start at the Green Mill in Chicago in the early 90s.  Its originator, Mark Smith, wanted to mix the energy of boxing with the art of poetry.  It quickly took off and a national poetry slam was organized with teams from all over the country.  North thinks that slam poetry is a great way to get youth interested in poetry in general. 

“When a storm drives you to a point of break, keep your foot on the gas and accelerate your wheels through the night and windshield wipe your tears from your face.  Your road to redemption is just right up the block.  All you have to do is leave this parking lot and if anyone wants to be Bruce and karate kick you while you’re down tell them you rip Lee’s,  believe it or not.”

That was Trey Newman, a Paseo High School graduate, with his poem, “Scars of Fallen Shadows.”  Newman is one of the young men on the American Jazz Museum’s team headed for the national slam competition “Brave New Voices” in San Francisco this July.

Slam poetry may be worldwide at this point but what sets the Jazz Poetry Jams apart from any other slam is in its name, the jazz. Before the open mic begins there is a 30-minute jazz concert by the house three piece band.  Poets are encouraged to ask for musical accompaniment by the band during their poems to create a true blend of the two arts.  North explains why the two work so well together.

“There are several things that connect jazz and poetry.  One is the musicality of language.  Poets are very concerned with exploring, like, the way words can create music.  Often times listening to jazz music kind of helps you explore that in a more substantive and meaningful way.  The other thing is when we’re talking about spoken word is that spirit of improvisation.”

The next Jazz Poetry Jam is scheduled for Tuesday, July 17 in the Blue Room.  The music starts at 7 and admission is five dollars.

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

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