I am currently in the second week of a wonderful NEH Seminar on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement, and I’ve already learned more than I hoped I would (and there is so much more I have to process). Anyway, one of our tasks is to work on a project that we can present to the group. Given my interests in literature and music, especially the Beat Movement and free jazz, I decided to work on a syllabus for a course on Jazz Literature.*
What follows is a draft of my syllabus, put here online for a number of reasons, most important of which is the ability to link to relevant webpages*** (including a clear abuse of Youtube). I will be updating, revising, and otherwise tinkering with this syllabus before my presentation on Friday, and then ideally coming back to it over the next year while I think about and develop this course.**
I eagerly welcome any and all comments. But please know that I am not attempting anything close to a comprehensive approach. To attempt to do so would be foolish. Nor am I looking to do a literary-historical approach (even if 3 of the units are arranged chronologically). Rather, my goal is explore what I am calling “jazz as method.” In addition to listening to jazz and reading works that were inspired by jazz, I hope to encourage students to approach the texts in a way that encourages reading for variations on themes, revising and reshaping earlier moments (songs, melodies, movements), and engaging with works of art as aesthetic experiences in addition to personal and political statements. This is the goal with my first unit, which we will then take up again in the final unit, after working with a number of texts arranged into (what I hope are) cohesive – yet fluid – units.
So again, please feel free to comment and offer suggestions. This is very much a work in progress.
James J. Donahue
Course Description: In this course, we will study a sampling of literary works inspired by and responding to jazz. Along the way, we will experience a variety of forms of jazz music, in audio and video formats, from John Coltrane and Miles Davis to contemporary international artists. Because of the large number of artists that could be studied, this course will only briefly attend to a small selection, thus serving as an introduction to further reading and study rather than a comprehensive survey. Although a background in music studies (theory and performance) is not required, you are invited to bring to this class any related training and knowledge. Our focus will be on acquiring a basic understanding of the principles of bop and free jazz as a means of approaching, experiencing, and understanding literary texts. Specifically, we will focus on principles of adaptation, revision, and recurring themes.
Course Objectives: Upon successful completion of this course, you will:
-have further developed your skills in reading, analyzing, and writing about literary texts;
-have advanced your studies in 20th century American literature and culture;
-have built a solid foundation upon which you can further engage the arts.
Note: The music will not be available at the university bookstore. You are encouraged to acquire copies of the music (in the format most accessible for your personal use). You are also encouraged to share materials.
Unit 1: Jazz as Method
Selection from The Sound of Music
Jaco Pastorius, “Donna Lee” live: 1982
Unit 2: The Beat Movement and the Bop Aesthetic
Jack Kerouac: “About the Beat Generation” (handout); “The Beginning of Bop” (handout); “Beatific: The Origins of the Beat Generation” (handout); Mexico City Blues; Old Angel Midnight
Bob Kaufman: Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Unit 3: Free Jazz
Amiri Baraka: Wise, Why’s, Y’s
Michael S. Harper: Dear John, Dear Coltrane
Selected John Coltrane Poems, including:
Charles Mingus: Pithecanthropus Erectus
“Songs in Amiri Baraka’s Wise, Why’s, Y’s”
Unit 4: Jazz Beyond Borders
Michael O’Siadhail, Hail! Madam Jazz
Marianne Trudel Trio: Rehearsals and performances
Unit 5: Spoken Word
Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax
Spoken Word Poems by Native American/First Nations Women
Unit 6: Jazz as Method (2)
Toni Morrison: Jazz
Artists I Would Like To Include (but do not yet know how)
And there are plenty of others, so please make suggestions!
*I have been thinking about such a course since I started at Potsdam, in part because of the the Crane School of Music. I have taught a few different courses on the Beat Movement, and each iteration includes more music and other media. So now, it seems, is the perfect time to finally develop this course (which I hope to teach in the fall of 2016).
**This includes reading all of the books. I am familiar – to some degree – with all of the texts. But I need the coming year to really dive into these works in detail, and do the necessary reading around on the subject. Let me make this clear: I am claiming no expertise in what follows. Rather, think of my syllabus as an attempt to explore in more depth something that has been hanging around on the periphery of my pedagogy. I am a fan of these texts, but certainly no expert. This course is one more step toward that possible expertise.
***Another reason is that this page will become a collection of useful and relevant links. If there is something missing, please feel free to suggest it to me.