The Slow Slowdrag 

A.B. Spellman writes to a bebop beat.

When you love jazz as much as A.B. Spellman does, it informs just about everything you do. Starting in 1959 as a young Howard University graduate, he reviewed jazz for Metronome and Downbeat. Published in 1966, Spellman's first nonfiction book — Four Lives in the Bee-Bop Business — was an intimate exploration of jazz greats Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols, and Jackie McLean. A member of the Smithsonian Institute's Jazz Advisory Group, the North Carolina-born scholar has taught courses in jazz — as well as creative writing and poetry — at Emory, Rutgers, and Harvard universities.

So it's no surprise that jazz rhythms and jazz royalty strut and fret through Things I Must Have Known, his new book of poetry and his first book of poetry since 1965. Along with such poems as "Dear John Coltrane" and "On Hearing Sonny ('Newk') Rollins in the Park on a Hot Summer Night," the volume includes "Groovin' Low," a meditation on aging through a jazz lens: "my swing is more mellow/these days: not the hardbop drive/i used to roll," the poet muses; "i've learned/to boogie with my feet on the floor/ ... i'm the one executing the half-bent/dip in the slow slowdrag/with the smug little smile." Spellman, who appears on March 5 as part of UC Berkeley's Holloway Poetry Series in the Maude Fife Room (315 Wheeler Hall), wonders how an African-American artist of his generation couldn't be influenced by jazz: "Modern american culture was largely made by jazz," he reflects. Throughout the early- and mid-20th century, "all the popular music, all the popular dances, were jazz dances. ... The fact that jazz gives the highest expression to the individual within the context of the group is a very American thing — and the fact that it is improvisation is a very American thing, because America is a country that has had to make its culture very, very fast and make its society very fast, and it's constantly remaking it."

In his poem addressing Coltrane, Spellman exults: "now it's your line that opens, & opens/& opens, and I'm flying that way again/same sky, different moon, this midnight ... /if i believed in heaven i would ask/if you & bach ever swap infinite fours/& jam." He misses the music in its essential, experimental, experiential form: "Jazz has somewhat suffered," Spellman laments, in that "it has become respectable." 6:30 p.m.


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