Communique: Jazz Percussion Meets Classic Poets At Thalian Hall | "Program For Jazz" March 10

Feb 28, 2018

Part storytelling, part poetry, part jazz percussion...Program for Jazz performs at Thalian Hall's Stein Theatre on Saturday, March 10 at 7:30pm. The band is comprised of Clark Holtzman & David Shore...and Walt Whitman, ee cummings, Shakespeare, Lord Byron....

Listen to our interview above (including clips from a performance) and see our extended conversation below. 

Clark:    What I do is what most people do in retirement; look for things to do. And one of the things I do is write poetry. I teach a poetry class up in Chapel Hill and I write books. I've got a manuscript of food and travel essays, mainly about risotto, and risottos I've had around the world. So I've written that book in the first two years of my retirement. Now I've, with my band partner David Shore, formed this little band called Program for Jazz, which gives us something else to do.

Gina:     You write about risotto, you mean like the pasta?

Clark:    I used to travel globally and so I would eat Italian food, especially risottos because it's fairly light on the stomach when you travel. So I wound up having risottos in Hanoi, Saigon, Beijing, all over Europe, Sao Paulo, Rio, you name it, Santiago, Chile. I've had risottos everywhere, plus every major city in the US. And there always seems to be a story that goes with it. So I wound up writing a book of stories, true nonfiction stories about events that happened and risotto happened to be associated with it. So I describe also the risotto and get a recipe for the risotto and that goes in the book.S o I have this manuscript that I'm trying to shop around and I'm finding it's taking me longer to shop the book than it took to write the book, but that's not uncommon I guess.

Gina:     What did you do before you retired?

Clark:    Well, for 28 years I worked for an international consulting firm called Ernst and Young and that's part of the theme of the book. I was handed a copy of the book Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, which my firm used to issue to everybody who got an international assignment and that's a book about different cultures and greetings and how you interact with people. And so I got issued that hefty travel budget and told to go make it happen somewhere in the world. So that's what I did for 28 years and before that I had been teaching English, I have a PhD in English and I taught at UNCW, Auburn University and UNC up in Chapel Hill.

Gina:     And what is the book called that you are shopping around?

Clark:    It's called Places Everyone. But the subtitle is what I like best about it, it's: Risottos I've Known Around the World and the People I've Known Them With. But everybody tells me that's too long for a title.

Gina:     So this performance that you're going to do here at Thalian Hall, tell me about that....

Clark:    It's called Program for Jazz: Stories, Poems, Percussion, and the name of our group is Program for Jazz, so it's just a generic name that's now our brand, I guess. It's a spoken word, jazz poetry performance. It's about 90 minutes. As you can see on the poster that we're putting around town, the special guests are William Shakespeare and Lord Byron and William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats and Walt Whitman and all of those kinds of people.

Gina:    e e cummings.

Clark:    e e cummings, especially. If you go to our soundcloud page, we have some recordings of us doing an ee Cummings poem, a Shakespeare poem, and there will be more. We post some different stuff there every once in awhile. To answer your question, the show is an hour and a half of doing classical poetry. The stuff you studied in college or high school that you maybe didn't pay a whole lot of attention to rendered to syncopated or jazz drum drum beats. So some of it's hip hop, some of it's jazz, progressive jazz drum beats, some of it's New Orleans, R&B, and some of it's just stuff that we make up as we go along. So it's a voice and drums duo using my own poetry as well as some classic stuff that people would recognize. But we want people to hear it in this different context.

Gina:     Which is one of your favorites?

Clark in Sketch
Credit Clark Holtzman

Clark:    It's an ee cummings poem titled Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town. And the first verse goes, "Anyone lived in a pretty how town with up so floating many bells down. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. He sang his didn't, he danced his did.” And it goes on from there. The drumming is really cool on that piece.

Gina:     Tell me about your band partner.

Clark:    David Shore. He lives in Durham. He plays with about eight different bands. He's kind of your classic musician. He flits around the triangle area. He plays bluegrass. Actually, I went to a Mardi Gras show the other night that he played in. So he plays that. He plays jazz, he plays rock, he plays whatever they want him to play, just so he can sit at a drum set and play.

Clark:    Poetry is sound, first of all. It's sound and then it's rhythm. If you think poetry is the stuff your high school teacher told you it was, then you're not gonna like it. And most high school teachers ruin us for life when it comes- no offense, by the way. They teach it as message. A poem has a message that you either have to guess or you have to analyze. For me, poetry is, well, lyric poetry to take it back to its roots, is words set to song. So it's all about sound, tempo, rhythm, pitch. It's all about the voice. And one thing that David and I have accomplished that's so energizing to both of us is we both learned how to talk to one another- him with the drums, me with the voice and the poems, and with his help I've kind of learned how to breathe through these poems in different ways. They're all new. It's just hearing Shakespeare done in 5/4 time, for example, is not the same kind of Shakespeare you remember from high school or your sophomore lit survey class. It's a different animal. Does the name Glenn Gould mean anything to you? Glenn Gould the pianist and composer. He did the Bach variations and was famous for what most people would say, misinterpreting them. What he did was bring them back to life. I'm not comparing myself to Glenn Gould in any way other than to say, yeah, we're trying to break some rules here.

Gina:     You're trying to misinterpret.

Clark:    We're trying to misinterpret. We're trying to reinterpret. It's all very exploratory for us. And we'll work together on a poem for weeks and we'll try different tempos, different pauses, different beats, different pitches, different emphases until we come up with something that's different all the way through top to bottom, front to back. And it's almost like, “You mean Shakespeare wrote that? You mean Walt Whitman wrote that?” Yeah, he did.

Gina:     What poem by Walt Whitman do you do?

Clark:    We're going to open the show with one called Song of the Open Road and it's an adaptation. I took only maybe a third of the poem, which was probably the most musical, or the most easily rendered to a drum beat and then I rearranged some of the, some of the lines in it. So literally, the whole program starts with the word “listen.” And then we go on from there because that's a key word in that poem is the word “listen.” So I just put it up top. I moved it from the bottom of the poem to the top of the poem to start the whole show off with that.

We also have plenty of audience interaction. Spoken word stuff.

Gina:     Oh, you have audience interaction. How do you do this?

Clark:    Well, I get the audience to say certain lines with me. Yeah, it's fun.

Gina:     How long have you been working with Mr. Shore?

Clark:    Only about a year on this project. I've been listening to him play for seven or eight years in different bands around Chapel Hill and Durham. And four or five years ago, before I retired, I approached him with an idea to do what we're doing today. It took me a few years to work this out in my head what we could possibly do. David's one of those writers, everybody likes working with David because he always says, "Sure, let's give it a try." And that's what we did. We just explored for a couple of weekends on a couple of poems.

We started with Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town because that's got this kind of ballad or ballad-like beat that you can do different things with. And we saw in short order pretty much straight away that we could do something with that. And then other poems and as we went along we realized we've got something here that could be a lot of fun. Marketing it is a difficult thing because is it a poetry reading? Kind of. Because we do work with script and we read from a script, but is it a jazz concert? Yeah, it's kinda that.

Gina:     Hi David Shore [we called David Shore]. I've been talking with Clark about how he reads poems or performs them and how you play percussion. What is it you guys do?

David:    Well, we do a poetry in percussion performance where Clark and I have coordinated poems he has either written or knows about and recites to different sort of drumming, which involves all sorts of things. Sometimes it's accompanying the cadence and the voice. Sometimes it's setting the mood for the words, for the meaning, and drums can add a lot of drama to things. Drums are a very dramatic instrument and poetry has a lot of drama in and so it seems to go together really well.

Gina:     What kind of drums do you play?

David:    Well, it's a whole drum set and so that's unusual for this. Typically when people think of poetry and percussion, they're thinking of like a set of bongos in an old coffee house, but this is actually an entire drum set so I have available a whole pallet of sounds and colors through the drums and the symbols. As far as the actual kind, it's a 1965 Rogers Gold Sparkle.

David in Sketch

Clark:    That's a beautiful, beautiful piece.

David:    My favorite.

Clark:    But David uses different sticks as well. Brushes and I don't know all the names of the stuff you use, but it's not just drums. Drumsticks.

David:    Yeah. There's brushes, wire brushes, and then mallets and there are soft and hard mallets and then the typical drumsticks and then something called hot rods, which are these dowels, many small dowels, wooden dowels taped together with a little piece of foam in the middle and they give a very inexact sound compared to a stick, it's sort of between a stick and a brush. So there's a lot of opportunity for different tones to come out of the drums depending on what you're using and where you're hitting them. And the rims too. I play on the rim. I play with my hands.

Gina:     Which poem do you think is the best that you all have?

David:    Oh boy.

Gina:     That question is not meant to be an exact answer. I'm just trying to get one that you really like.

David:    Has Clark answered this question already?

Gina:     Yes. He gave me his perspective.

David:    I like Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town. Seems to have a lot going on in it rhythmically. That's very, that's a lot of fun to play. I enjoy that. And then Internal, which has a great call and response to it. I don't know that they're favorites, but they're the ones that come to mind as being rhythmically a lot of fun to play.

Gina:     What did you think when Clark started talking to you about having poetry with you playing drums?

David:    I thought it was a really interesting concept. One I had never considered before. It was a stretch, but it made sense to me in certain ways right away because people speak with a rhythmic cadence and that cadence can affect the meaning of what they're saying. So I was excited about it. I thought it would really be fun to try this. It's been really nice. It's really turned out to be something really, really interesting to me.

Clark:    Most people aren't into poetry of any kind because of their high school experiences or their college sophomore literature survey experiences where they showed up to get the credits, but that was the only reason they were there and they missed a lot and for good reason- they weren't getting a lot. So you know, in a way, what I'm trying to do is to go back to those days, grab some of those poems from those days and revive them with David's help. Like I said, it's a whole different experience and a lot more fun than class. Some people, many people- I used to be one of them- teach it very well and in a very dedicated way, but when there's a test to be had at the end of it and you have to analyze it and I think it was Blake who said "we kill to dissect" or something of that nature in one of his poems. For many people, that's their experience with poetry is you hack it up and then you lose it. It kind of loses a bit of its life that way. So we're putting it all back together.

David:    The thing that surprised me the most, because I wasn't real familiar with poetry, other than the typical things that we all learn, is how much of a performance art it is. When I read it on the page versus hearing Clark recite the poetry, it's a completely different experience and it really is a performance art and I hadn't realized that before.

Gina:     Yeah, it's like reading a Shakespeare play. I mean honestly, Shakespeare was never meant to be read ever.

Clark:    Those were just stage notes. Right, exactly. Well, we're talking a lot about the poetry, but the drumming, there's a whole cannon of drum beats and drum rhythms and drum styles that David brings to this. He tells great stories. We'll be working on something and he'll say, "You know, there's a Smokey Johnson rhythm that would go really well with that," and then he'll play it and in fact it goes really well with one of the poems we're doing. So he's got this whole lexicon or repertoire of drums. David, jump in, you're the one who tells all these stories, but it’s not like he's inventing every time we do a poem, he's bringing some serious knowledge about the drumming cannon to this as well.

David:    Yeah, there's certain touchstone drummers and drum beats that they're connected with. Clark mentioned Smokey and he's a New Orleans drummer- was, he's passed on now- and what he did in this one song called “It Ain't My Fault,” he sort of produced a whole next generation of how to play New Orleans funky music. It was all embedded in that one song, and then people took it from there and added their own variations. There's certain rhythmic touchstones that exist and it's amazing, when we go through these and figure this out, how these poems call to mind so many of them. It's so interesting how really hooking them up wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be. There's a lot of embellishment and a lot of creative process that takes over once it's established, how this is going to go in a way, but the rhythmic patterns are surprisingly embedded in the poetry. There's one famous Cuban rhythm that fits really well with one of the poems and it just presents itself as an obvious choice. So it's been fun to see that happen.

Gina:     So would you say that poetry and percussion or percussive activity shares some space in your brain. It comes from the same pool of thought.

Clark:    Well, that's what I was saying earlier about poetry for me anyways, is sound first, sound and rhythm. And because every spoken word has a certain rhythm to it, as David was saying, you can emphasize it, you can violate the syllables of a word. Listen to rap music or listen to hip hop. That's what they do. They take words of three syllables and they'll really chop those syllables up. You recognize the words, but that's not how you say the word when you speak it. By the way, hip hop I think has been the savior for American poetry in the last 25 years. It's been one of those vehicles that has helped poetry revive and renew itself again and again and again. You know, in the sixties or the fifties, it was the beat poets. 150 years ago or 130 years ago was Walt Whitman and then the modernist came along and then the beats and then 20 years ago was the hip hop artists.

Gina:     You don't focus on the meaning of the poem.

Clark:    Don't focus initially on it, but there is a meaning.

David:    Going back to the rhythms and how they present themselves, Clark's written this poem and in the course of it he talks about 5/4 time because it was like take five or something that was part of this other ongoing movement of beat generation, happenings and probably unconsciously the poem felt like it was in 5/4 time. So the meaning of the poem and the sense of it actually came out of Clark in the time signature that he was trying to signify and it was just a perfect fit and that's the kind of sort of magical meeting of these things. It happens consciously or unconsciously. It's real. It happened. So that was an exciting thing.

Clark:    Come out and listen. If you've been to poetry readings before, God bless you. I find them as yawnful as anybody else. But this is a poetry reading because I do read from script from time to time. Some of the stuff we've memorized, but come out and give it a listen because it's not your average ordinary run of the mill poetry reading and it's not your average ordinary run of the mill jazz performance either. It's kind of a new animal and I think you'll enjoy it.

Transcription Assistance by Production Assistant, Lindsay Wright