Jane Ira Bloom is a soprano saxophonist and composer who’s been pushing the boundaries of jazz for more than 40 years. One of the most unique things she does is connect her music to things that aren’t musical subjects. For example, she’s paired her music with other art forms including painting, film, theater, and light design. But she’s also been an out-of-the-box composer, pioneering the use of live electronic elements and collaborating with athletes, neuroscientific researchers, and even the NASA space program. About Wild Lines she says, “Poetry is a new collaborative direction for me and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to immerse my musical thinking in concepts driven by language.”
Deborah Rush is an American actor. She has worked in television, film, and on Broadway and joins Bloom onstage as “the voice of Emily Dickinson.” Rush was nominated for a Tony® Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play for Michael Frayn’s comedy Noises Off. She has been described as a “…delightful comic redhead from theater, films and TV customarily steal scenes with a mere vacant look or simply by opening her mouth.”
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) is one of America’s most original poets with nearly 2,000 published poems to her name. She began writing as a teenager, and was kind of an outsider—she mostly lived and wrote alone. Even her family didn’t discover much of her poetry until after her death. Dickinson used musical forms—like hymns and ballads—as inspiration for her poems’ unusual cadence (how a poem sounds when it’s read, the rise and fall of the voice, rhythm, and pitch). Dickinson’s poetry can speed up, then slow down, pause, and perhaps even interrupt itself and trail off, kind of like a conversation with the poet herself. Her use of dashes and Random Capitalization—much like this paragraph—give an almost musical quality to the stop—and start—of her work.
So, What's Going On?
You might be thinking…what’s jazz got to do with poetry?
We get it. It’s not every day we imagine these two art forms on the same stage. A jazz band probably brings a specific picture to mind—cool musicians, low lights, a laid back stage. And poetry presents a pretty different mental picture. But actually, jazz and poetry have more things in common than you might consider. At least, that’s what saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom thinks as she sets her sights on 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson.
Huh? How? What does Emily Dickinson have to do with jazz?
In both jazz music and Dickinson’s poetry, it isn’t just important what the artist has to say, but how the artist says it. The energy of Dickinson’s words inspired Bloom to transform the impulse and improvisation of poetry into musical sound. Along with her quartet featuring pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Bobby Previte, and rounded out by Bloom’s signature instrument, the soprano saxophone, Bloom explores different parts of music—like rhythm, lyrics, and ideas—through the language of Dickinson’s poems.
For example, think of a tune you’re really familiar with. It has a set sequence of notes and rhythms, right? In a piece of jazz music, the musician will take that tune and explore it, changing the rhythmic structure and notes, sometimes trying out new keys or scales, or even breaking into something entirely new, called an improvisation.
Well, Dickinson’s poetry improvises, too. That should come as little surprise given that she was an accomplished pianist who used her musical skills to inform her poetry. Dickinson took the usual organization of poems like stanzas and meter (the basic rhythmic structure of lines and verses) and changed them to fit her voice, just like a jazz improvisation. And this was a half century before the “invention” of jazz.
Here’s an example of a stanza of one of Dickinson’s poems, similar to what you might hear at the performance, and touching on music, no less. If you read it out loud, you’ll hear its music:
Musicians wrestle everywhere:
All day, among the crowded air,
I think the silver strife;
And—waking long before the dawn—
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “new life”!
Rounding out the performance experience, actor Deborah Rush performs readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters.
The Language of Jazz
Here are some key jazz terms to know and to listen for during the performance:
Articulation Performance techniques used by musicians that determine the style or sound of the music by specifying how individual notes are to be played within a section or entire piece of music
Improvisation Creating music or song spontaneously, a technique that requires great musical skill and creativity
Melody The tune of a piece of music created by a series of notes; most often recognizable as the main tune you hum or sing along with in a musical work
Harmony Two or more notes played together that create a compatible or pleasant sound
Rhythm A strong, repeated pattern of sound
Soloing When a musician improvises by elaborating on the music’s melody and harmony in their own personal style
Jazz Standards Popular musical compositions, mostly created between the 1920s and 1960s for Broadway musicals and films. They are called “standards” because they are so widely known and performed, they have become a permanent part of the jazz music repertoire, also known as the “Great American Songbook.”
Check This Out...
- The soprano sax is kind of an obscure instrument—even many jazz enthusiasts aren’t familiar with it. It doesn’t have the low notes that other saxophones do. How would you describe its sound? Does it remind you of another instrument (maybe a flute or clarinet)? How do the other instruments in the quartet work with the sax to create a rounded sound?
- Jane Ira Blooms says, “Sometimes I throw sound around the band like paint and other times I play and feel as if I was carving silence like a sculptor.” Is there a time during the performance when you feel like the sound is being thrown? Sculpted? What do you think Bloom is trying to convey at these moments?
- Emily Dickinson preferred to write alone. The cool thing about jazz, especially small groups like Bloom’s quartet, is that it mashes together individual instruments into a group collaboration. What do you notice about the contrast between the actor’s single voice and the group dynamic of the quartet?
- Listen to the rhythm of the poems that are performed. Does the rhythm ever remind you of a song? In what way? How do spoken poems differ from instrumental music?
- When Jane Ira Bloom worked with NASA she says she concentrated on what she could hear from space, rather than what she saw. She called this “collecting impressions.” What “impressions” (sounds) can you collect from today’s music and spoken word?
Think About This...
- Why do you think this performance is titled Wild Lines? How do the words “wild” and “lines” describe the performance in multiple ways? (Hint: lines of poetry, lines of music) If you were in charge of naming it, what might you call it?
- Bloom is considered a master of the soprano sax. How does her sound change to reflect what is happening in the poetry? How does she use unexpected sounds to convey an emotion, event, or action?
- How does the impact of Emily Dickinson’s poetry differ when it is read silently to yourself versus spoken aloud? Does Bloom’s music help you understand the poems better? Do the poems give more meaning to the music?
Take Action: Sound Off
Jazz is about feeling music so thoroughly that the music becomes an expression of a deep part of both the musician and listener’s experience and emotions. While being a great jazz musician requires skill and expertise for sure, it also requires something that can’t necessarily be taught. A player has to improvise, to figure out their sound.
In a lot of ways, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the same. She used poetry to tell her story, but wasn’t afraid to try new things; her poems had its own sound. What’s your sound? Is it poetry? Stories? Jazz or another kind of music? Do you improvise your sound? Do it alone, or in a group?
Snap a picture or take a video of your “sound” and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any other platform. If you’re really feeling brave, tag five friends and ask them to collaborate by adding their sound. Use #soundoff as your hashtag.
N00b Guide to Jazz
So…What’s all the jazz about jazz?
First timer? Don’t be overwhelmed. Jazz music is all about the experience—of performing and listening—so relax and enjoy yourself. Jazz is based on syncopated beats, interesting sounds, and improvisation, meaning that no one is quite sure where a performance might go, including the performers. Unlike classical music which makes every effort to create a unified sound, jazz is all about individual people and instruments coming together to combine their unique sounds in order to explore artistic expression and emotions.
(If you’re already a jazz fan, skip this and move on to the next section.)
But hold on…some history first:
Many people consider jazz one of America’s best contributions to the world of music. Jazz first emerged about 100 years ago in the American South, most distinctly in New Orleans, Louisiana. This seaport city served as home to people of African, French, English, Caribbean, and other backgrounds. It also became a melting pot for music from these many traditions. African American musicians fused elements of ragtime, blues, classical, and big brass band sounds to create this distinct new type of music.
After the first jazz recordings were made in 1917, jazz spread across the nation. It evolved over decades, helped along by influential musicians. In the 1920s, trumpeter Louis Armstrong introduced improvised solos and Duke Ellington popularized big band jazz; in the 1930s, people began dancing to jazz music, thanks to the upbeat sounds of Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s swing music. Charlie Parker’s groundbreaking bebop of the 1940s led to Miles Davis’s complex “cool” style in the 1950s. Jazz moved into the 1960s with pioneers like John Coltrane and his modal jazz; the next decades brought more change—from fusion, which brought together multiple styles, to the neo-classical leanings of Wynton Marsalis and other “young lions.” Jazz continues to evolve today—building on its vast legacy of innovation and experimentation.
And one more thing…
You also should know about jazz standards. These popular musical songs were composed mostly between the 1920s and 1960s for Broadway musicals and films. They are called “standards” because they’re so widely known and performed. They have become a permanent part of the jazz music repertoire, also known as the “Great American Songbook.”
Want to learn more about jazz music and musicians? Check out some of these links:
A detailed breakdown of different type of jazz including suggested listening for each style
How to Listen: An Introduction to Getting into Jazz
A generic listening guide to help you enjoy your journey into jazz
Or visit our Related Resources (to the right of this page)
Nerd Guide to Jazz
(New to jazz? Skip this for now.)
Think you already know all the jazz about jazz? Then this is the guide for you.
You don’t have to be a trained musician to be a bit of a jazz nerd—although you might be. Just listening to jazz will give you an appreciation for the individual mastery and collaboration that it takes to make great jazz music.
If you think you might want to go even deeper into learning about jazz, or even learn to play and improvise, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Listen, listen, listen. And did we mention listen? You already know that jazz is an art that is as much about the experience as the notes played. Jazz is an auditory art, so listening is the best way to learn. You’ll also hear new instruments and sounds. Try streaming jazz radio online or use YouTube to listen to a variety of standards. Speaking of…
- Learn a few standards. Listening to standards like “Autumn Leaves,” “All of Me,” and “I Got Rhythm” will familiarize you with common chord progressions, bass lines, and give you a feel for different rhythms. If you want to go beyond simply listening to standards…
- Take lessons. Finding a good teacher can open a whole new world of jazz. A great teacher can help you choose an instrument (many specialize in several), show you what to start with, and teach you basics to begin developing your sound. Even if there aren’t teachers in your area, technology can bring lessons to you. Sites like OnlineJazzSchool.com, offsite link offer lessons via Skype.
- Discover what you love on the web. There are so many genres of jazz. Finding online jazz communities on social media, YouTube, etc. will expose you to musicians and jazz enthusiasts who can broaden your horizons.
For more information on expanding your love of opera or for pointers on how to begin a singing career, try these links:
All About Jazz
Proclaiming itself “the most comprehensive jazz resource on earth,” All About Jazz offers articles, photos, and sound clips from everything jazz.
Hundreds of channels of streamed jazz allow you to hear jazz from all genres, time periods, and styles.
Soprano Sax: The Story of a Skinny Horn
This NPR jazz sampler features the soprano saxophone throughout jazz history.
Or visit our Related Resource (to the right of this page)
Parents and Teachers: We've Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We don’t blame you if you feel a bit out of your element at a jazz and poetry event. We know not everyone has a strong background in either art form—much less both. So here are a few basics to help you guide and discuss today’s performance with your kids:
Jazz has had a major influence on the most popular music of the American 20th and 21st centuries, including rock, hip hop, and blues. Born from the music and experiences of African Americans in the deep south, jazz is intertwined with the culture and history of America. Jazz is made up of several elements: syncopated rhythms, small groups working together, and a ton of improvisation. It’s all about the experience, so settle in and enjoy!
Emily Dickinson was an American poet who wrote a LOT of poems. She is known for her emotional and poignant verse, and often short, music-like style. Her work heavily influenced the course of 20th-century poetry. Dickinson’s poems often relate to discovering identity and questions about how to fit into society, so teens can easily identify with them. (Adults too!).