“That’s my son collapsed there,” poet Patricia Smith bluntly speaks in the album’s opening line. “My son crumpled there,” a rhetorical finger points past the distracting noise of the pundits and protests to the human crux of the issue. Smith’s voice sharpens the accusation as Benjamin Boone‘s saxophone unravels the emotion behind the mother’s words.
“My son dangling there. My son caged there…My daughter splayed there…My son hanging there.”
Benjamin Boone’s first two “Poetry of Jazz” albums melded his music with the poetry and narration of the late U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient Philip Levine, a longtime Fresno State professor. These albums, praised by critics in The Paris Review, NPR’s “All Things Considered,” DownBeat Magazine and numerous others, served as a commemoration of Levine’s life and accomplishments. In contrast, Boone’s latest album addresses the complexities of life and social justice in 2020 through a gathering of esteemed and diverse poets.
Gene Seymour, culture critic and author of “Jazz: The Great American Art” explains, “‘The Poets Are Gathering’ is Boone’s third album of poetry and jazz and… its arrival coincides with a time of extraordinary upheaval in America’s social, cultural, political and (one could argue) emotional life. The concurrence of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in protests of police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer has galvanized the nation into confronting divisions in race and class so deeply embedded in its collective psyche that too many of its citizens have taken them for granted.”
Boone’s third album combining jazz and poetry, “The Poets Are Gathering,” was released by Origin Records on Oct. 16. Jazz Fresno, The Fresno County Public Library, and the Friends of Woodward Park Library will host Boone and other album collaborators during a virtual “Jazz at the Library” event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20 on Zoom. The password for the event is “Jazz.”
Boone said two-time United States Poet Laureate and longtime Fresno State professor Juan Felipe Herrera inspired this gathering.
“Juan and I set three of his poems to music for his culminating U.S. poet laureate event at the Library of Congress in 2017,” Boone said. “I was moved by his empowering message that everybody is a poet; everyone has something valuable to offer; everyone’s voice is important and deserves to be heard. So when we decided to do this album, we naturally wanted to address issues of equality, empowerment and action.”
In the title track “The Poets Are Gathering,” Herrera spells out his vision in a worldwide roll call of poets. With the beat of a Latin march, Herrera calls out country by country, city by city, acknowledging the poetic traditions of each.
“The poets are gathering. In Mexico City, the poets are hollering at this very moment. In Beijing, the poets are publishing in a clandestine office,” Herrera calls out.
As the march builds intensity, Herrera’s experimental style strongly comes through his vocal rendition as he summons his colleagues and recognizes their societal role in addressing social justice. “In McAllen, Texas, the poets are staring down La Migra! In the Rio Grande Valley, the poets, the poets, are building piece by piece by piece by piece, the sanctuary for the people.”
In total, 11 poets are featured on the album’s 16 tracks. These include two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and International Latino Book Award winner Juan Felipe Herrera, Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess, Los Angeles Times Book Award winner and National Slam Poetry champion Patricia Smith, current Fresno Poet Laureate Marisol Baca, former Fresno Poet Laureate Lee Herrick, MacArthur Fellowship recipient Edward Hirsch, National Endowment for the Arts fellowship recipient T.R. Hummer, rapper Donald Brown II, American Book Award winner Kimiko Hahn and Fresno poet Dustin Prestridge.
“I am humbled and honored to be able to collaborate with such marvelous poets, who so eloquently speak the truth about this country and of existence,” said Boone. “I am touched by their profound messages.”
Collaborating musicians include pianists David Aus, Kenny Werner and Craig VonBerg; bassists Patrick Olvera, Corcoran Holt and Peter Brendler; drummers Ray Moore, Ari Hoenig, Nathan Guzman and John Bishop; saxophonists Atticus Boone and Hashem Assadullahi; keyboardists Donald Brown and Alberto Díaz Castillo; guitarist Ben Monder and Eyal Maoz; percussionist Richard Juarez; violinist Stefan Poetzsch; and trumpeter Asher Boone.
Boone’s 2018 album “The Poetry of Jazz,” 2019 album “The Poetry of Jazz Volume Two,” 2020 album “Joy” with the Ghana Jazz Collective, and his 2020 album “The Poets Are Gathering” have all been sponsored in part by the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Council Annual Fund. The Dean’s Council is divided equally between the Dean’s Council Scholarship Endowment and the Dean’s Discretionary Fund. The Dean’s Council Scholarship Endowment provides scholarship and student assistance to every department and discipline within the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State. The Dean’s Discretionary Fund supports curriculum enrichment, research funding, technological and artistic support, interdisciplinary and cross-culture projects, as well as the unique and unexpected needs of the College. This type of comprehensive support has a direct impact on our students, faculty and programs.
(Photo: Benjamin Boone. Credit: Tamela Ryatt)