Jazz Poetry Month

Celebrate the 16th Annual
International Jazz Poetry Month

At its core, Jazz Poetry is about the exchange of music, language, and ideas. The festival began in 2005 to showcase the voice of our first exiled writer-in-residence, Chinese poet and author Huang Xiang. Although Huang Xiang spoke no English, pairing his words with the music of renowned saxophonist Oliver Lake allowed his poetry to transcend differences in language and enabled Huang Xiang to express himself freely to his neighbors in Pittsburgh.

Over the last 15 years, Jazz Poetry has grown from a one-night concert in a Northside alley, to a month-long festival, “known ’round the world.” And never has that moniker been more true than in 2020.

This year, the festival will take place on our virtual programming channel, allowing us to feature artists and performances from around the globe.

The eight concerts of Jazz Poetry 2020 virtually connect international musicians and poets, bringing together a diverse set of voices to collaborate, to exchange ideas, and engage in a conversation about freedom of expression.  

Jazz Poetry 2020 closes City of Asylum’s 15th anniversary season and although it’s been a dramatically unexpected season, there is still much to celebrate. This festival allows us to grow the virtual home we’ve built for artists over the last several months, continue to connect artists and audiences, and grow our international community committed to protecting and celebrating  creative freedom of expression.

City of Asylum builds a more just community by protecting and celebrating creative freedom of expression. We provide sanctuary to literary writers exiled under threat of persecution, so that they can continue to write and are not silenced. And we offer a broad range of free literary, arts presenting, and humanities programs in a community setting to build social equity through cultural exchange. We anchor neighborhood economic development by transforming blighted properties into homes for our programs.

Ways to Watch

All programs on the Jazz Poetry Month channel are streamed on Crowdcast. See the event listings below for access and registration.

All programs are streamed at 7:00 PM.
Missed a program? Don’t worry—all programs will remain archived and accessible on the City of Asylum Crowdcast page.

All poetry programs will be captioned and made available in accessible format 7 days after their original air date. These accessible videos can be found on “past events” on the City of Asylum Crowdcast page

See below for a full list of events and ticketing links.

A complete calendar and poster can be downloaded here.

View the program for Jazz Poetry Month.

TUESDAY, September 8, 7:00 PM
Waclaw Zimpel
ft. Poet Alex Frieheit
Run time: 90 minutes

Classically trained clarinetist and composer Waclaw Zimpel is one of the key figures of the Polish improvised music scene. He first wowed City of Asylum audiences in 2017 with 3 evenings of sold-out solo shows. Waclaw is known for using many instruments throughout his performance, as well as a looper, allowing him to layer sounds on top of sounds and creating a harmonic musical experience like no other. 

Waclaw will join us from Warsaw in collaboration with Alex Freiheit, Polish spoken word poet and punk singer. Their concert was filmed in an abandoned communist era swimming pool, (discovered by mistake by a friend of Waclaw’s) with perfect acoustics for a stunning musical performance.  

Alex Freiheit – lyrics, vocal
Waclaw Zimpel – music, alto clarinet, electronics
cinematography, editing by Arek Blomka
recording, mixing  by Waclaw Zimpel
english translation by Agata Pyzik

THURSDAY, September 10, 7:00 PM
Thoth Trio: Meditations on Quarantine

ft. Poets Richard Blanco, Asieh Amini, Joy Katz, & Natalie Diaz
Run time: 90 minutes

Thoth Trio debuts their new work Meditations on Quarantine, a suite of five works composed by Ben Opie. Written entirely during the pandemic, the works are impressions of the composer’s experiences and interests throughout quarantine. This suite, written in a time of uncertainty, explores the outcomes when musicians are forced to innovate, re-examine, and push the boundaries of their creativity. 

For over fifteen years, Thoth Trio has been at the forefront of Pittsburgh’s creative music scene. Defined as intense acoustic jazz, Thoth Trio plays lively original music as well as devoting performances to the music of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman.

Musicians: Ben Opie (reeds); Paul Thompson (bass); and David Throckmorton (drums)

This program also features readings from national poets Natalie Diaz (right), Richard BlancoJoy Katz, as well as Asieh Amini, an Iranian exiled writer-in-residence currently living in Norway. The poets will read new work, reflecting on the creativity of this moment on the intersection of isolation and exile.

TUESDAY, September 15, 7:00 PM
The Jaak Sooäär Trio

ft. Poet Kai Aareleid
Run time: 75 minutes

Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär returns to Pittsburgh following a 2016 Jazz Poetry performance with his quintet. 2016 was Jaak’s first ever U.S. performance, coming directly to Pittsburgh from Estonia just for the festival. The Jaak Sooäär Trio is most known for their album The Mighty Five, nominated as best album of the year by JazzTimes in 2015. It’s an improvised exploration of titans in Russian classical composers, translated to jazz. Listening to the album, and their live performances, is like sheer exhilaration—and with this concert we think you’ll be lifted into a musical euphoria and transported right from your couch to a jazz club in Estonia!

The Sooäär Trio will collaborate with well known Estonian novelist and poet Kai Aareleid, the 2016 Estonian writer of the year.

WEDNESDAY, September 16, 7:00 PM
Off Minor Jazz: Nat King Cole, the Pianist
ft. Poets mónica teresa ortiz, Grace Shuyi Liew, Mansur Rajih, & Sara Borjas
Run time: 90 minutes

Singer and composer Nat “King” Cole is undoubtedly one of America’s most identifiable and beloved musicians. His silken voice helped jazz gain wider popularity. But Cole was also an elegant keyboard player whose innovative groups popularized the jazz piano trio. Additionally, he was an influential figure in the struggle for racial equality—he was the first Black American to have his own television show. It only lasted one season, as he could not secure a sponsor. This concert will highlight Cole’s early trio and explore his piano music. 

The Off Minor Jazz Series is a season of thematic jazz programs that focus on legendary musicians or specific techniques. These concerts offer musicians the opportunity to experiment and innovate in a format rarely heard in traditional jazz clubs. They also feature an educational component and further connect audiences, artists, and jazz history. In signature  Off-Minor style, in this concert, drummer/curator Tom Wendt will tell us more about Cole’s history with the racial justice movement. 

Musicians: Dwayne Dolphin (bass); Tom Wendt (drums); Deanna Witkowski on piano.

This is the first time Off Minor jazz has synced with the Jazz Poetry festival. The musicians, live from the Alphabet City stage, will participate in virtual collaborations with poets mónica teresa ortizMansur Rajih (ICORN writer-in-residence from Yemen), Sara Borjas, and Grace Shuyi Liew.

TUESDAY, September 22, 7:00 PM
Mihály Borbély Quartet

ft. Poet Tibor Zalán
Run time: 90 minutes

Mihály Borbély is a giant on reeds, playing saxophone, clarinet, and  árogató, clarinets, recorder and different kinds of peasants’ pipes. His concert is a polyphonic experience like no other—ranging from Hungarian folk music to world music to jazz and contemporary in one tight set. The Mihály Borbély Quartet is a classic jazz piano quartet harkening to the peak melodic period of Coltrane. But they go one step more and combine Serbian, Slovak, Gypsy, Jewish and German folk influences with classical jazz, shot through with that thing that swings. The Quartet has twice won “Best Hungarian Jazz Album of the year,” and is well known for their rich, mature sound and the complex beauty of their compositions. Their set, commissioned just for Jazz Poetry 2020, is recorded at the famed Budapest Jazz Club. 

THURSDAY, September 24, 7:00 PM
Yoko Suzuki Quartet: The Music of Geri Allen
Run time: 75 minutes

Geri Allen is remembered as one of the most important musicians of our time because of the intricacy of her jazz compositions. During her 35 year career, Geri composed over 100 songs, many of them so highly complex in melody, harmony, and rhythm that musicians do not typically attempt to play them live; it takes multiple players to recreate songs that Allen played on her own. This concert is the first in a series of Geri Allen performances by Yoko Suzuki, a former student and colleague of Geri Allen’s. Yoko has created new arrangements of Geri’s work in collaboration with local musicians. 

This concert is a rare chance for audiences to hear Geri’s challenging music live, and understand from the musicians just what a complex puzzle the work presents. 

Geri first performed at City of Asylum in the 2009 Jazz Poetry festival alongside Oliver Lake’s Trio 3. Tonight’s performance revisits videos from Geri’s powerful 2009 poetry collaboration.

Musicians: Yoko Suzuki (saxophone); Cliff Barnes (keys); James Johnson III (drums) ; John Shannon (guitar)

TUESDAY, September 29, 7:00 PM
Kaja Draksler

ft. Irena Tomazin
Run time: 90 minutes

Slovenian pianist and composer Kaja Draksler is a superb improviser, and is constantly thinking about innovation and the future of music—explorations that feel more salient than ever. Kaja is known for combining composition and improvisation, drawing from a variety of styles, places, and historical periods. 

In this performance, Kaja duets with Slovenian singer/dancer Irena Tomazin, using music, voice, movement, and text in a Jazz Poetry performance like no other.     

Tallahatchie LullaBye, Baby
Run time: 75 minutes

A riveting, vital poem—a lullaby to Emmett Till with four national jazz greats creating new pieces in response. Read by author Douglas Kearney, compositions and performances by Pheeroan akLaffDee Alexander, Orrin Evans, and Nicole Mitchell. Co-curated by MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes

This concert features multiple interpretations and multiple hearings of one piece, created in response to longstanding issues of systemic social injustice and racial inequality. 

DOUGLAS KEARNEY has published six collections, including Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016), winner of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award, the CLMP Firecracker Award for Poetry, and California Book Award silver medalist (Poetry). M. NourbeSe Philip calls Kearney’s collection of libretti, Someone Took They Tongues (Subito, 2016), “a seismic, polyphonic mash-up.” Kearney’s Mess and Mess and (Noemi Press, 2015), was a Small Press Distribution Handpicked Selection that Publisher’s Weekly called “an extraordinary book.” His newest collection, Sho (Wave, 2021) is forthcoming. His operas include Sucktion, Mordake, Crescent City, Sweet Land, and next year’s Comet / Poppea. He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, residencies/fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others. Kearney teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities and lives in St. Paul with his family.

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WZUM is Pittsburgh’s essential jazz station and proud partner of Jazz Poetry.
Tune in at 88.1 FM and learn more at www.wzum.org

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