Jazz in Australia: Yusef Komunyakaa, Charlie Parker

May 22, 2012

I’m heading there later today, so I’ve been doing a bit of homework.

Komunyakaa, of course: it’s so strange that I should be talking about his play adaptation of Gilgamesh at the University of Sydney, when there is a statue of Gilgamesh right there at the university, donated to celebrate its sesquicentenary in 2000.

And other coincidences: Komunyakaa himself was married to an Australian writer, Mandy Sayer, while teaching at the University of New Orleans.  He spent significant time in Australia, two stays of 12 months each, which he wrote about in February in Sydney (1989) and Thieves of Paradise (1998).

In 1995 he was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to write write the libretto for an opera about Charlie Parker, with music by Australian composer Sandy Evans.  What he did was a series of 14 “testimonies” – 2 verses of 14 lines each – with titles like “Boxcars”, “Chicken Shack”, “Black Cockatoo”, “Deep South”, “Cain and Abel.”   His Parker was someone who would “go inside a song with enough irony to break the devil’s heart.”  The production, featuring over 30 Australian jazz musicians and vocalists, was first aired on ABC Classic FM.   In 2002 it was adapted for live performances at the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

Komunyakaa’s love of jazz is longstanding and ongoing.   He edits jazz poetry anthologies.   He gives free jazz poetry concerts.  He has written poems about  Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis.  But a collaboration of this scope?   It’s a first, I think.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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