By Greg Bem
& then, of course, “the jazz life” joints
we smile after hours on the lower east side
steppin’ & stompin’ & steppin’ & stridin’
where dairy bars hop with hip tales
all the living legends gather
over record dates/historic gigs/dope stories
music intrigue & sudden disappearances
“rough life”/”no breaks” unrecorded
among boppin’ feet/gippin’ hips
- from X-75-VOL. I, HENRY THREADGILL / “SIDE B (AIR SONG/FE FI FO FUM)”, page 31
Newly-released, Thulani Davis’s Nothing But the Music is a collection of poetry that feels at its core musical and alive—living songs on loop in bustling centers of humanity. It is a collection that embodies jazz, embodies soul, embodies funk. It is a poetry of resistance and a poetry of liberation. It is also uniquely its own through love, through description, through tones of spontaneity and concentration.
Strongly a selected, a mix, a range, this collection features works published as early as 1978 and many published closer to now. Its core rings true. It is a jewel of the Black Arts Movement, a collection that sings and roars addressing the significance of presence, of now, of time and space and place, and of performance.
Distinct and vocal, Nothing But the Music features most prominently the music of Davis’s voice. Thulani Davis’s voice resonates that reflects a mix of edgy poetic underground and street-side vernacular. It feels of the clubs and cafes that these poems originally found audience within. It feels of the lives of New York, San Francisco, and DC, and of Gorée Island, Senegal, and Harare, Zimbabwe—places Davis found these poems, created them, and presented them. It is a voice that connects across time, spinning historically forward from the 1970s to the present.
More literally is the book’s connection to music. The “Music” of the book’s title is in reference to the source of these writings. As Davis acknowledges in her book’s opening, “many of the poems here were performed with an umber of musicians in different improvising configurations” (page 1). Indeed, the improvisational subtext feels quite clear from poem to poem, that rambles almost as a score would ramble down a page. Ghostly, the accompanying instruments are absent, but Davis ensures through her own instruments, her language and voice, that the rhythm is percussive, and the poems are in harmony with their origins.
Davis’s work as printed often feels like one of many configurations, alternations, contextualizations. The page poet’s presence is just as improvisational, and as such, the feelings of the reader as the poem is intercepted.
some springs the Mississippi rose up so high
it drowned the sound of singing and escape
church sisters prayed and rinsed
the brown dinge tinting linens
thanked the trees for breeze
and the greenness sticking to the windows
the sound of jazz from back
boarded shanties by railroad tracks
- from C.T.’S VARIATION (page 45)
The verse within Nothing But the Music is incredibly agile, spanning a vast swathe of content and subject matter. As Davis’s friend and poetic collaborator Jessica Hagedorn says in her foreword:
“We were curious and passionate about everything, from Jimi Hendrix to Anna May Wong to Jean-Luc Godard and Tennessee Williams. Thulani turned me on to The Original Last Poets, Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess, Archive Shepp & Jeanne Lee’s “Blasé,” Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary, Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” and Amiri Barak’s “Beautiful Black Women” (page 6).
These literary interests, alongside the influence of jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, fosters a space of both inquiry (study) and soul (spirituality). They also reflect an active, engaged pursuit to create and to be on the edge of creativity, to know much and go further alongside the bounty of expression that live performance can support. This engagement is reflected in the imperative statements serving as one of a handful of motifs from poem to poem:
this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air
- from C.T. AT THE FIVE SPOT (page 22)
Reinforcing the imperatives and necessities of the poems themselves is the stunning introduction from literary critic Tobi Haslett: “Darting through these poems is an answer to a question, posed by multiple and overlapping waves of Black artists: How do you account for the dynamism at the heart of Black expression, and its centrality to the wider culture it’s been forced to resist?” (page 11) . . . “These are backstage poems. By which I mean that they issue from a place of sophisticated doubleness, slung between intimate complication and the blast political life” (page 12).
Haslet’s commentary explores the poetry, and the poetry is the documentation of life and lives within certain positions, within acts of restoration and rebellion. It is also a poetry within the margins that have always existed for Black artists and have existed in particular and ongoing forms over the past 50 years. Documentation is one lens through which this book can be received.
Like the work of Thulani’s husband Joseph Jarman, this book also invites the reader to actively learn as a participant, through a relational agreement, through intimacy, and allowing connection to what experiences and images Davis and her musician and poet peers have felt, have created. These are the gifts that have elevated and served to reposition, to repair, to rebuild. Such a collection is impossible to generalize here. The nuances are too ecstatic and complex. Davis’s work is compelling but not only as an idea of itself, but as an action of being read, being explored, being listened to by the readers who have the opportunity to find it.
You can find the book here: https://blankforms.org/publication/thulani-davis-nothing-but-the-music/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com