At Home with Harold Bloom: (3) The Jazz Bridge

Not the least of Harold Bloom’s many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he’s heard as well as all he’s read, and making meaning of it.

Bloom’s theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century. As Bloom remarked to me:

That is because the whole jazz tradition from at least Amstrong on features what was called ‘cutting.’ And cutting is the pure instance — from the Greeks on, and it was revived by Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzche — of the agonistic spirit; the agon or the contest. The last cutting contest I heard was the rather unequal match between the extremely brave Branford Marsalis and Sonny Rollins — very brave of Branford. Of all living masters in jazz now, Rollins is surely the greatest extant… Among poets it’s always a competition. Mr. Stevens and Mr. Eliot existed at the same time. Mr. Eliot thought well of Wallace Stevens and published him in England by Faber & Faber. Stevens refused to say a word about Eliot in prose, though it entered into the letters occasionally and it was family tradition; that’s how they told me he didn’t like Eliot or his poetry. Didn’t like the fact that Harmonium had been crowded out by The Waste Land in 1922…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Besides, Harold Bloom actually knew that elusive, suffering genius Bud Powell (1924 – 1966), the pianist who lives as large in legend as the great innovator Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins, who played with both of them, told us last spring it was part of the unspoken lore of jazz in the 1950s that “Bird was jealous of Bud.”

Bloom haunted Minton’s and other uptown hatcheries of the new music on weekends home from Cornell in the late 1940s. Bud Powell dominated the scene on intermittent leaves from the state mental institution at Creedmoor. Bloom remembers Powell as sharply as people who played with him:

I had conversations with him. He was very tightly restrained. You had the feeling of someone who was balancing himself on a wire, knowing he could plunge over on either side. Cheerful enough, but grim underneath. Very tense. Very beautiful. He had that wonderfully stripped down face at that point. It got tormented and puffy after that, but it was rather an astonishing profile at that point… He was very literate, though he didn’t like to talk in terms of literacy.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Who but Harold Bloom would have thought to put a volume of the doomed poet Hart Crane (1899 – 1932) into the hands of Bud Powell?

I actually talked to Bud Powell about Hart Crane. I gave him a copy of the old black-and-gold Liveright edition of the collected poems of Hart Crane. [Bud] was an extremely articulate and quite brilliant person. He read “The Bridge” and “The Broken Tower” at my suggestion, and “Repose of Rivers” and the “Voyager” sequence. And I told him there was a real affinity, I thought. I could not hear “Un Poco Loco” played by him, whether on the recordings — those three wonderful takes — or in person without hearing “The Broken Tower”… “The bells, I say the bells break down their tower and swing I know not where.” Because that’s what you feel is happening. Expecially when the now, alas, late Max Roach, in that extraordinary drum work in the latter part of it, particularly on the final take, the definitive take… You really feel the bells are breaking down their tower and swinging I know not where. You feel that the mind has reached its limit and is coming apart. Un Poco Loco indeed. The title is well chosen. It’s a highly autobiographical work, in a very complex way, “Un Poco Loco.” And for me it’s one of the summits of jazz. A cowbell ringing doom in the Hart Crane sense, or the Herman Melville sense.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And who but Harold Bloom would swing the conversation through accounts of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Coltrane and Proust, around all the glories of American music, back to our starting point? “Well,” he said, “it’s Walt Whitman. The two great American contributions to the world’s art, in the end, are Walt Whitman and, after him, Armstrong and jazz. Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Mingus, what you will. If I had to choose between the two, ultimately, I wouldn’t. I would say that the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

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  • Potter

    This part reads better than it sounds- at least for me. I find Bloom very difficult to listen to-it’s his tone of superiority. I have to get through that every time and in this section it was thick- a real turn off. I was offended not necessarily that he could not remember the name of his student who wrote ( a book or thesis) about this, but again the sense that I had that he did not need to. He was unapologetic.

    Still, as I say all of this, Bloom gives a lot. I should keep quiet and be a student.I am going to pull out my Hart Crane to those poems knowing a bit more about him. Thank you.

    on to Vendler…..

  • hurley

    Bloom’s comments on Whitman sent me back to this passage by William Bronk:

    Whitman speaks to the sea as a phantom in the night, as one who though knowing himself to be part of the universe and activated by desire, yet feels himself a still unspecified part, and feels a still unspecified desire. It was no personal and eccentric longing that made Whitman feel his kinship for the sea, but rather a feeling that both of them shared in some cosmic and elemental passion. On the beach at night alone, he had become aware of a vast similtude which interlocked all. All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, all distances of place however wide, all distances of time, all inanimate forms, all souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds, all gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes, all nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages, all identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe, all lives and deaths, all of them past, present, future, this vast similtude spanned them, and always had spanned them and compactly hold and enclose them.

    The Brother in Elysium, pp. 123-4 (reprinted in Vectors and Smoothable Curves)

    I don’t really mind Bloom’s airs, his curmudgeonly take on contemporary academia, the sometimes pointless and improbable self-aggrandizing claims (1000 pages an hour, etc.– remember the Woody Allen joke about speed-reading War and Peace), his occassionaly precious pronunciamentos. And I do I often disagree with him — not that I’m competent to, but I do anyways. But I find most of my perhaps over-weening misgivings redeemed by his great enthusiasm and advocacy for so much that is incontestably good. Listen to him read Wallace Stevens’ The Auroras of Autumn and you’ll never forget it. So, many thanks as ever for another wonderful set of shows.

  • Potter

    Thank you Hurley for that quote and I agree about Bloom. I’m frightened by the sea and that may help me know why. But your quote made me think of this one which may or may not have anything to do with the Brock except that it made me think of it-though I think it does.

    Mystical dance, which yonder starrie Spheare

    Of Planets and of fixt in all her Wheeles

    Resembles nearest, mazes intricate,

    Eccentric, intervolv’d, yet regular_

    Then most, when most irregular they seem,_

    And in thir motions harmonie Divine

    So smooths her charming tones, that Gods own ear_

    Listens delighted.

    John Milton, Paradise Lost

    Book 5

    Eccentric meaning moving in an orbit that circles a point other than the main center earth; this eccentric center itself moves around earth, its planet describing a complicated spiral pattern. Eccentrics were modifications of Ptolemiac cosmology introduced to account for apparent anomalies in celestial motion.

  • Cwright

    I have never commented on Open Source before but I have been enjoying your archive over the last few months and want to thank you particularly for everything you have done with Harold Bloom. I am pretty sure I could listen to him forever.

  • hurley

    And another thing, more or less apropos: anyone interested in jazz piano should give a listen to the Polish expatriate Adam Makowicz, whose technique rivals even that of Tatum. Two clips from YouTube here:

  • I agree he sounds a bit arrogant, but I guess when it’s caused by being so undeniably brilliant, I have to excuse it.

    As for Jazz, the Bud Powell discussion lit me up. From the first time I heard him, I have been confident that his music is just this side of devine. His style of playing: hands turned in, incessent humming, and the neglect of left hand technique, coupled with the utter beauty of his playing coming through, just leads me to believe that the music is simply passing on it’s way throw him from the sublime.

    Of course, maybe Bud Powell was just a screwy Junkie, and Bloom is a talky old jewish man, but I think brilliance is a better explanation.

  • Ty

    I must respectfully correct Professor Bloom with regards to his anecdote about Erroll Garner. He must have meant Art Tatum, not Garner, particularly considering Garner (b. 1921) was an exact contemporary of Powell (b. 1924) and Monk (b. 1917), while Tatum (b. 1909) preceded all of them; Tatum is also the pianist Horowitz went to see, according to every telling of that anecdote I’ve heard. The point is still the same, regarding the “anxiety of influence,” but the exact name of the antagonistic antecedent Professor Bloom provided was incorrect.

  • Roy

    As a not very good poet who loves jazz, especially live, I was very grateful for this link. You could argue that all music that reaches the heart of somebody is poetry, but as I recall the old days of live jazz in South London at the Lord Napier, jazz can be especially moving and inspirational, even before the effect of the beer sets in.