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When Walt Whitman became a jazz artist

When Walt Whitman became a jazz artist

Courtesy of Shayna Sengstock

A symphony of music and poetry filled the air at the Shapiro Family Hall as spoken word artist and professor of writing studies and rhetoric, Paul Kirpal Gordon, celebrated the life of Walt Whitman through the power of jazz. 

On Friday, April 19, Gordon presented the third showing of “Walt Whitman Meets the Great American Songbook,” with the help of The Greengrove Collective – the jazz band for the evening – and his peer teachers, Betty Araya and Benny Gottwald. Featuring tenor and soprano saxophonist John Aleman, guitarists Tim Matishek and Nicolas Placa, drummers Andrew Kupferman and Placa, pianist Seth Denis and vocalist and bassist Gottwald, The Greengrove Collective mixed sheet music with improv to create the illusion of Whitman’s words as jazz.

Gordon was first inspired to combine these elements when he heard “Take Five” by Paul Desmond as he read the work of Whitman.

“I had been doing a lot of spoken word with my band, and one day I was listening to jazz while reading Whitman, and they kind of blended together, and that blew my mind. So, I called my music director, and the next week we did a show,” Gordon said.

The 10 songs played throughout the 90-minute performance with Whitman’s poetry spoken over them served to remind the audience that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you;” as each selection for the night showcased what it means to have a different identity but still feel united.

The seemingly strange duo joined forces in a manner that allowed for the audience to forget that the words spoken were in fact those of Whitman and not the original lyrics. 

The set list for the first half of the night featured prominent jazz music, including “All Blues” by Miles Davis, “You Go to My Head” by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, “Afternoon in Paris” by John Lewis, “Skylar” by Johnny Mercer and Hoagie Carmichael and “Joy is Sorrow Unmasked” by Roy Hargrove. All songs featured selections from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” voiced over them by Gordon.

What followed was perhaps the most unconventional intermission in which six students read the first two stanzas of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in their native language. However, the recitation was not simply a word-for-word translation, instead the audience heard the students’ interpretation of Whitman’s words in French, Hindi, Creole, Mandarin, Portuguese, Urdu and Amharic.

Although the audience was not fluent in the languages presented, the emotion carried through their words transcended language.

“It’s fascinating how one thing can be transposed in so many different languages and still have the same meaning,” said freshman health science major Juvanissa Powell.

The second half that succeeded followed suit with “Afro Blue” by Oscar Brown and Mongo Santamaria, “Someone to Watch over Me” by Ira and George Gershwin and “Beautiful Love” by J. Fred Coots, Wayne King, Victor Young and Egbert Van Alstyne accompanying the words of Whitman. The evening did not end without one final surprise though – an original piece by bassist and vocalist Benny Gottwald, a junior English major, titled “Crawl,” with an excerpt from Whitman’s “Preface” spoken in sync with his melody.

Each arrangement was distinctly unique, yet flowed into the next as though it were one composition. Gordon and The Greengrove Collective picked up on the emotions of one another, resulting in impromptu solos and a synchronization of voice and music that could not have been rehearsed. 

“We got together through the music department. There’s a thing they do called jazz combo. I heard [Placa] play three notes, and I immediately said to him, ‘You’re joining my band,’” Gottwald said. “The best part of this is that these guys make jazz what [it’s] truly about, a conversation.”

The evening concluded appositely with Irving Kahal’s and Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with stanzas one, nine and 17 of Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” lingering over each note.

Gordon managed to unite two seemingly unfitting forms of art into an event that not only celebrated the life of Walt Whitman, but inspired others to remember that regardless of their differences, each and every story will find a way to unite.

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