Reprinted from... 
Nashville, Tennessee
April 19-25, 2001
 
 
Eli Siegel's Hymn to Jazz and the Like —  
& Why I Love It
By Shirley Jones 

With 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 more. 

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, 1985.) 

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, bourrées, sonatas, 
     symphonies, songs, concertos: all of these show themselves, 
     proudly saying, I am sound, I am music. 
Sound took a new form in America or somewhere, Oh, say, around 
     1900. 
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 Giovanni, Xerxes, 
     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 Emperor Concerto 
     as it changes from a hush and faintness to crash. 
In the Mood, you are acclaimed. 
Fletcher Henderson, when you brought scholarship to the new 
     joyous earth-turning in America, you did something for Jazz 
     and destiny’s certificate. 
The Music Goes Round and Round—whatever you come from, 
     you do something for reality as center and circumstance, sober 
     whirling, valve majesty, surprise and the heaven of brashness. 
Jazz, you have faltered, but it was you who faltered, and there was 
     you. 
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 encouraged 
     honorably. 
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 who wrote 
     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. 
 
 
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