Eli Siegel's Hymn
to Jazz and the Like —
& Why I Love
By Shirley Jones
a television documentary on jazz now airing across the country, more people
than ever are becoming interested in the music America claims lovingly
as its very own. As a person who has loved jazz all my life -- my father
had a swing band in the 40s which I began singing with at 13, and as a
singer with jazz groups and big bands for some 20 years -- I want people
to know there is a way of seeing jazz with new depth that has it mean even
That way of seeing is Aesthetic Realism, the magnificent education founded
in 1941 by the American poet and critic, Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism
is based on the principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and
the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."
Had I been able to study this principle in my 20s and 30s -- a time
when I was often turbulent and felt happiest and most expressed singing
jazz -- I would have known myself better and learned the music that
thrilled and excited me so much puts together opposites that troubled me
-- pain and pleasure, freedom and order, rest and motion.
Aesthetic Realism shows we can learn in our everyday lives from the
way opposites are one in jazz and all art.
Eli Siegel, whose interest in the world was unlimited, cared for jazz
from its beginning, describing it in a column he wrote for the Baltimore
American in 1925 when he was twenty-three, as "that great new thing
in music." He saw in those years -- earlier than any other critic -- that
jazz was an art form in its own right, and he defended it against critics
who looked down on it. He wrote:
"I like jazz -- I believe I like it as much as the most faithful
patron of dance halls -- and I also like poetry which has been called great
through the years.... To tell the truth, I find that the pleasure I get
from great poetry is a good deal like the pleasure I get from jazz. Jazz
has a beautiful elementalness and depth of sound...a beautiful and needed
rhythm; that is, jazz that is good."
Mr. Siegel had just won the prestigious Nation Poetry Prize in 1925
for his poem, "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana." Decades later, William
Carlos Williams wrote about the poetry of Eli Siegel: "He belongs in the
very first rank of our living artists." And of the poem, Williams wrote,
"The eyes back of it are new eyes." (Something to Say, New Directions,
I remember the wonder and sheer joyous pleasure I felt the first time
I read Mr. Siegel’s 1966 poem, "Hymn to Jazz and the Like," published in
his second volume of poetry, Hail, American Development (NY: Definition
Press, 1968). I felt the largeness of jazz, the rowdiness, sweetness, and
dignity with energetic abandon given form -- a rhythm that is like jazz
itself. Here was something so fresh and beautiful -- a person seeing the
world and jazz with "new eyes." I’m so grateful to know it, and I want
you to know it too. Here then, is:
Hymn to Jazz and the Like
By Eli Siegel
What is sound, as standing for the world and the mind of man at
any time, and in any situation?
Sound is an unknown, immeasurable reservoir which has been gone
into and used to have chants, rituals, jigs,
symphonies, songs, concertos: all of these
proudly saying, I am sound, I am music.
Sound took a new form in America or somewhere, Oh, say, around
There had been Go Down, Moses, which did new, clattering,
ominous, delightful, religious, thundering,
kind things with sound.
There had been Never Said a Mumblin’ Word, which did things with
sound different from what occurred in Don
or The Bohemian Girl–you know, The Bohemian
Girl of Balfe.
Sound is looking for new illustrations showing the might, glory,
findingness, and abandon of man.
Yah, and Oh, Lord, there was the St. Louis Blues.
Sounds were made to fall into different places in this.
Notes behaved otherwise.
Something in you expected a note here, and it was there.
Something in you expected a note to be this way and it was that.
Ha, what Jazz does to the this and that of notes, the isness and
wasness and might-be-ness of chords.
Frankie and Johnnie was notes doing different things in America,
being in front of each other and in back of
each other differently,
Being large and small differently.
Ah, what a blessing in rowdy divinity Casey Jones is!
She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain helped to have notes show
more of what they could do.
And there was Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
(Berlin, Irving first name, was proximate to the right wildness then.)
And Venus Anadyomene, the Beale Street Blues, with its going
down and up and around,
And its sassy tragedy.
And let’s mention Memphis Blues.
East St. Louis Toodle-O, go into dark, make advanced noise there,
moan with grandeur, and come out right.
The Mooche, you come like a procession of right people at twilight
saying, This is right, not that; and you walk
against walls and
the walls run.
In the Mood, Glenn Miller or no, you show what repetition can do
and surprise like the surprise in Beethoven’s
as it changes from a hush and faintness to
In the Mood, you are acclaimed.
Fletcher Henderson, when you brought scholarship to the new
joyous earth-turning in America, you did something
and destiny’s certificate.
The Music Goes Round and Round—whatever you come from,
you do something for reality as center and
whirling, valve majesty, surprise and the
heaven of brashness.
Jazz, you have faltered, but it was you who faltered, and there was
Jazz, you show that symmetry and unsymmetry, order and
casualness are alike.
The Beatles have used you somewhat to show that the whisper
of one person can shout across land and water.
Rock and Roll, you say something of geology and man’s uncertainty.
Jazz, you are amiable about Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.
Jazz, when Mozart was most vocally bold in the Don Giovanni,
you were looking on years ago, ready to be
Jazz, you were around when the Gregorian Chant was doing things
to man somewhat after Charlemagne and after
the changing of
France to a kingdom.
Jazz, you have in you Homer, Marlowe, Coleridge, Kipling,
Swinburne, Hopkins, Rimbaud, also the person
Sir Patrick Spens.
(I am not being careless.)
Jazz, you deserve another hymn.
* Shirley Jones, who
studied music at the University of Illinois, is a consultant on the faculty
of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene St., NYC
10012, (212) 777-4490; www.AestheticRealism.org. Her papers on Billie Holiday,
Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf among others have been presented in public
seminars at the Foundation.