In 1941 Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke copyrighted “Epistrophy,” one of the best-known compositions of the bebop era. The song’s title refers to a literary device—the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses—that is echoed in the construction of the melody. Written two decades later, Amiri Baraka’s poem “Epistrophe” alludes slyly to Monk’s tune. Whether it is composers finding formal inspiration in verse or a poet invoking the sound of music, hearing across media is the source of innovation in black art.
Epistrophies explores this fertile interface through case studies in jazz literature—both writings informed by music and the surprisingly large body of writing by jazz musicians themselves. From James Weldon Johnson’s vernacular transcriptions to Sun Ra’s liner note poems, from Henry Threadgill’s arresting song titles to Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou,” there is an unending back-and-forth between music that hovers at the edge of language and writing that strives for the propulsive energy and melodic contours of music.
At times this results in art that gravitates into multiple media. In Duke Ellington’s “social significance” suites, or in the striking parallels between Louis Armstrong’s inventiveness as a singer and trumpeter on the one hand and his idiosyncratic creativity as a letter writer and collagist on the other, one encounters an aesthetic that takes up both literature and music as components of a unique—and uniquely African American—sphere of art-making and performance.
Brent Hayes Edwards is the finest literary scholar of his generation—an intellectual and artist of transformative force. His work reshapes the study and the making of world literature and art.
Epistrophies is a brilliant and essential contribution to the new and vital field of critical jazz studies. In addition to thorough explorations of poetry, liner notes, song titles, autobiography, and the many ways in which words can become musical (and vice versa), Edwards covers key figures from the entire history of jazz. He has provided nuanced readings of poetic writing as well as the multiple levels on which jazz and literature participate in the same aesthetic projects.
This is an excellent book on an enduring theme of African-American culture, the intimate relationship of music—particularly jazz—and literary practice. Brent Edwards sees this as a two-way relation with many different manifestations rather than as a one-way subordination of black literature to jazz, as is often suggested. No author to my mind has approached this issue as thoroughly and in as nuanced a way as Edwards in what is the culmination of a decade-long project.
Dazzling…[Edwards] compares the way poets use melody in language to the ways musicians use literary devices in jazz…[A] compellingly original perspective.
This is a brilliant and utterly arresting book that takes a surprisingly uncommon subject and looks at it in a profoundly original way.
[Edwards] exhibits what I can only call intellectual glamour. He joins syntax and sentiment with élan, demonstrating a charismatic brilliance that persuades in parallel with, as well as through, his argumentation and evidence…Hilarious and trenchant at once, Edwards would be a beguiling writer in any field…He’s that rare academic whose work demands attention outside of experts in the field, without sacrificing tone or complexity. Almost conspicuously, William Empson comes to mind…As an alternative aesthetic history, Epistrophies is immensely satisfying…What makes Epistrophies such a singular work is the vividness and rigor of Edwards’s storytelling. As with Coleman’s Skies of America, there exists a temptation to discuss Epistrophies for what it could have been. Nevertheless, there is brilliance.
Furnish[es] the reader with material that constantly surprises and subverts expectations.
[Edwards] says something surprising and new that no one else has, or can, about two revered musicians [Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor]—a genuine rarity in jazz scholarship…[The] critical and creative impulse to test the boundaries of the ‘sayable’ in both words and music—a ‘ferment at the horizon of articulacy’—is among the book’s guiding threads. In a brilliant chapter on the ‘poetics of transcription,’ Edwards studies the blues poem, a genre that has never found a happy home in either music or literature…Ambitiously, Edwards aims not just to hear, but to read, write, and think across a range of radically different sources. Epistrophies is a book whose individual parts persuade so easily and cohere so elegantly…The gift of Epistrophies is [an] act of renewal, an expansion not just of jazz literature as a category, but of jazz as a method.
- 2017, Winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards
- 2019, Winner of the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin
- 336 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.