Literary Saxophone

el jazz es la única música surrealista

– Julio Cortázar


– Victor Hernández Cruz

January, 2018. Invited by the Jazz Program at Bowling Green State University, where I teach Spanish in the department of World Languages and Cultures, the alto sax from Puerto Rico/New York City, Miguel Zenón (1975), visited my class, Foundations of Hispanic Culture. He came to share his experience studying in the Puerto Rican public musical school system until age 17, at Berkeley College in Boston, the Manhattan School of Music in NYC; and receiving a MacArthur Fellow (“genius award”) in 2008. He is a bright hardworking man, a lucky one, I told the class.

Among other things, we talked about his literary epiphany –efflorescence!– in his CD, along with French pianist Laurent Coq, Rayuela (2012), a jazz rendition of Argentinean novelist Julio Cortázar’s (1914-84) opus magnum, Rayuela / Hopscotch (1963/1966); the jazziest Latin American XXth century novel –written by the jazziest Latin American writer of the “Latin American Boom” of the 1960s and 70s. Cortázar turned his proclivity for Charlie Parker (1920-55), the man, the philosopher, the musician, into a short story, “El perseguidor/ The Pursuer” (1959/1963), emblematic of his oeuvre. He called Louis Armstrong an “enormísimo (enormous) cronopio” –a neologism defined below.

Reciprocity; Zenón’s alto interpretation of the jazziest Latin American canonical novel gives back to literature –yes, to poetry!– some of the reverence literature has professed for music: ut musica poesis. According to Carmen Rabell’s “Las ‘Rayuelas’ de Cortázar y Zenón” (2013), Zenón’s –along with Coq’s– ten compositions “suggest” an order that, emulating the novel’s, instead of partaking of linear chronology, “transfers” the “lack  of spatial chronological ordering” to pieces of jazz that “jump” from “’Talita’ (Buenos Aires)’ a  ‘La muerte de Rocamadour (en París), a ‘Gekrepten’ (Buenos Aires), a ‘Buenos Aires, to “Morelliana”, to “Oliveira” (París/Buenos Aires), a “Berthe Trèpat” (París), a ‘Traveler’ (Buenos Aires), a ‘La Maga’ (París) y a ‘El club de la Serpiente’ (París).”

Zenón’s tribute to Cortázar’s novel pierces through the book’s 576 pages (and 155 chapters), perforating its textuality, “transferring” its musical vortex from literature (the novel, Rayuela, 1963) to another book, Jazzuela: el jazz en Rayuela, la novela de Julio Cortázar (2014); in which, among other things, its author, Pilar Payrats, honoring Cortázar’s elan, presents a “musical biography” of the writer, delineates his connection to jazz, transcribes all discussions about jazz, lists the blues songs and provides information about musicians discussed in Cortázar’s novel. To top it off, Jazzuela incorporates a CD with recordings of the tunes mentioned in chapters 10 to 18 (tunes originally compiled by Payrats in an homonymous CD, Jazzuela, 1999) –from Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang, Kansas City Six, Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra, Coleman Hawkins and His Orchestra, Dizzie Gillespie and His Orchestra, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and All His Stars Big Bill Boonzy, The Chocolate Dandies, Champion Jack Dupree, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, Fred Warins and His Pennsylvanians, and Oscar Peterson.

From Zenón’s alto, given to reinventing traditions on both sides of the equation –Puerto Rican/Latin American music, and jazz–, to Cortázar’s novel, Rayuela, playfully critical of literature, philosophy (Eros), space-and-time (exile/diaspora), art, politics; to Pilar Payrats’s neologism: Jazzuela! A trip triggered by a pedagogical and provocative, lyrical and studious alto sax, reading its way through archives, sounding like poetry; blowing like adjectives and adverbs on synesthesia. Smoking prose.

Intersection. From a MacArthur fellow’s alto piercing through a monumental novel and a robust neologism, the thrust of Zenón’s literary blow, spiraling with lights, gravitates towards its saxophonic rhizomes, crisscrossing with another rendition of Cortázar’s literature, coming from tenor sax, and compatriot, David Sánchez (1968). A composition, “Los cronopios” in Street Scenes (1996), that brings to light one of Cortázar’s supreme short story creations (1962) –acronopio (untranslatable; unless an invented cognate is accepted: a cronopious), “a type of fictional person… depicted as naïve and idealistic, disorganized, unconventional and sensitive creatures, who stand in contrast or opposition to famas (who are rapid, organized and judgmental if well-intentioned) and esperanzas (who are plain, indolent, unimaginative and dull)” (Wikipedia).

Counterpoint. From Zenón’s alto (2012) to Cortázar’s novel (1963); from Sánchez’s tenor (1996) to Cortázar’s short story (1962). Pivot. The literary saxophone, alto and tenor, pierces through Cortázar’s literature, reaching a different textuality, Boricua Jazz: la historia del jazz puertorriqueño (2019); a history of Puerto Rican jazz, already in its second edition (2020). The Bible of Puerto Rican jazz; a book (of 540 pages) its author, Wilbert Sostre Maldonado, has turned into a lifetime commitment, promising to periodically update it so as to keep it fat, but never heavy to read, alive, and in tune with information about Puerto Rican jazz –growing and changing.

Indeed, from the second half of the XXth century to the first two decades of the XXIst, Sostre Maldonado underscores an interesting transformation undergoing in Boricua Jazz; from a proliferation of percussionists and trumpeters during the second half the XXth century, Puerto Rican jazz starts producing saxophone players and drummers in the first two decades of this century. A transformation that explains why, in both editions of Boricua Jazz (2019/2020), Zenón’s picture blowing the alto appears on the cover of the book. A well-deserved privileged, given that, according to Sostre Maldonado, the first truly Latin jazz composition, by Puerto Rican trombonist Juan Tizol, was “Caravan” (1936); a name, Caravana Cultural, Zenón reuses to name his project of bringing jazz, with resources from the MacArthur award, to towns in Puerto Rico not familiar with its sounds. Pedagogical alto —

Caravana Cultural is a project born out of the desire to present music at its purest form, with no other motive than bringing it directly to the people. By focusing on Jazz, we look to bring this music to places where the public has had little or no exposure to it, while making the case for the importance of culture in our daily lives and for the fact that culture should be available to all.

The concerts will focus exclusively on standard songs from the Jazz repertory and each performance will serve as a tribute to a legendary figure from the history of Jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, among others). During the performance a previously chosen group of local students will join the band on stage to perform a song. A “Pre – Concert Talk” will take place before each performance. These talks will include some insight into the music to be presented at the concert, as well as a discussion on the basics of Jazz and Jazz Improvisation (Sostre Maldonado 2011).

Back to Cortázar. Literary reiteration. The saxophone blows through pages of Cortázar’s prose –often poetic; always swinging. Gravitating towards the short story, exuding ink, the tenor (David Sánchez) reads “Los cronopios” (1996) under the 2/3 Afro-Cuban clave. A sonic “street scene” ensues in which, jumping from one note to another, moving between the crispiness of the rhythmic section (congas, cascara, shekere) and a stream of existential saxophonic iterations, the tenor, hypertelic, too hypertelic, traverses the 8 minutes and 26 seconds length of the tune –in the middle of which, like vertigo, a cracking sound portends to break the composition in two. Almost abysmal; an opening, like a black hole, that, instead of subsuming, reenergizes the tenor and brings it back to the surface, where it rejoins the alto sax, the piano, the bass, the drums and the percussive constellation for a safe exit at the end of the composition.

Sixteen years later, breathing books, blowing mountains of pages (155 chapters; including, if the novel is read from chapter 1 to 56, the “expendable chapters”), the alto (Miguel Zenón) takes giant steps towards Cortázar’s mightiest, Rayuela; a novel structured to be read in three different ways. A “counter-novel,” as Cortázar liked to call it. The Puerto Rican alto invites the French piano to read Rayuela. In ten compositions, they transcribe some of its characters and situations into music (alto, piano, drums, percussion, tabla, cello, trombone): tunes that move, with no particular hierarchy, between Paris and Buenos Aires. The literary saxophone makes Rayuela sound in a way not included (for sure!) in Jazzuela.

Intensity grows, bloating the “counter-novel” until it bursts open, propelling fragments of literary jazz charged with poetry-infused prose away from Rayuela, Buenos Aires and Paris, into the pages of Nuyorican textuality from the Lower East Side, Spanish Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx; where one book of poetry, the musicophiliac of the Nuyorican epic era (1969-76), Snaps (1969) –“drummers / writing poems in the sky”– extemporaneously awaits its time –now!– to incorporate the overflow of jazzy fragments sprouting from the “counter-novel” into its own –Snaps’s— music-centered ethno-poetic fabric:

(& arawaks be bebops
bops the arawaks
bebopping         arawaks
be bebops)

Ut musica poesis; Snaps, the Nuyorican book of music, wherein poetry –streetwise, Afrocentric, oral– abides by music (from Puerto Rico, Latin America, and New York/USA). That is, Music, as poetry frames it, as the ultimate proof of cultural presence (difference and dialogue) within the ethno-racial-class warfare of Puerto Ricans’ New York City circa 1969. Not essence, claims the 19-year-old poet of Snaps, Victor Hernández Cruz (1949), “my true nature is gentle / and the stare of a mad eye”; no, it is not essence but culture, history rooted in sound (pre-Hispanic, African, Spanish). A triad politics: music-body-soul —all the third world / sees spirits & / they talk to them / they are our friends.”

Snaps extemporaneously absorbs the jazzy dripping from Rayuela, transforming its novelistic excess into its own lyrical strength: “a true poet aiming / poems and watching things / fall to the ground.”

Everything boiling in the Nuyorican musical landscape of the late 1960s, “your boogaloo is ammunition,” Snapsdocuments: “Energy / is red beans / ray barreto / banging away […] / is Pacheco / playing with / bleeding / blue lips.”

Everything: “stereo music / pucho & the latin / soul brothers / disturb / anglo-saxon / middle class / loving /  americans.”

Poetry dramatizes the presence of music: “some waves / a wave of now / a trombone speaking to you / a piano is trying to break a molecule / is trying to lift the stage into orbit […] / we are traveling / we are going […] / a scream / a piano is talking to you […] why don’t you answer it.”

Surrealistic music: “the piano lost its / teeth / the trombone fell apart / the conga drifted.”

Political music: “everybody passed the drummer / drummers in the park / drummers in the sky.”

Jazz: “[Thelonious] monk dropped his glass / on someone’s head / cause / that’s what he wanted to / do / all over a shirt / & what / about it.”

Snaps; the Nuyorican poetry book of ethno-music: “soul / soul drummer / you marching in space / you talking you / flying / you already there / nothing stopping you / you are magic / magic / magic / espiritu libre / espiritu libre.”

A poemario about which Allan Ginsberg (1926-97) referred to by means of a jazzy –spectacular!– archaism: “Poesy news from space anxiety police age inner city, spontaneous urban American language as Williams wished, high school street consciousness transparent, original soul looking out intelligent Bronx windows” (1969).

Countdown. From the extemporaneous book of poetry, Snaps, to Rayuela, the novel, and the sax. The literary saxophone writes!