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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