Katia Faroun | Features Editor
A night of melancholy jazz and stimulating poetry. What could be better?
Perhaps listening to it from the comfort of a couch, in pajamas and with a glass of wine in hand.
September 2020 marks the beginning of City of Asylum’s 16th annual Jazz Poetry Month. For the first time in its history, the organization took the festival to the screens of its attendees’ laptops and tablets. Last Thursday, City of Asylum hosted its second event of the festival, and over 200 attendees joined virtually from around the world for an evening of musical and lyrical art.
The event, featuring Pittsburgh acoustic jazz group Thoth Trio and pre-recorded readings from local and international poets, aired from the organization’s home of Alphabet City and started streaming on Crowdcast at 7 p.m. The livestream included a live chat feature, which both viewers and featured poets eagerly used to post reactions and comments throughout the 75-minute-long event (heart and applause emojis were crowd favorites).
Jazz Poetry began in 2005 as a one-night event held in an alley on the Northside, but has since expanded to a month-long event meant to showcase diverse artists and create an open conversation for the freedom of expression. This year, City of Asylum took advantage of the limitations imposed by the pandemic to include artists living throughout the country and internationally.
Thoth Trio took the stage to debut their most recent work, “Meditations on Quarantine.” The five-piece suite was composed entirely during the pandemic by the trio’s saxophonist and bass clarinetist, Ben Opie, and represents the experiences of quarantine and the outcome of musicians pushing the boundaries of their creativity during a pandemic.
Each piece accurately depicted a musical representation of moments, activities and qualities associated with the pandemic. The first half of “Yellow Phase” consisted of dissonance and an air of hesitation, then switched to an upbeat, exciting and edgy second half, effectively reflecting the transition from caution and wariness to excitement and recklessness of Pittsburgh’s move into the yellow phase.
Other pieces, such as “Antisocial Distancing” and “Powderhorn,” displayed the musicians’ talent with lengthy solos by percussionist David Throckmorton in the former and bassist Paul Thompson in the latter. The musicians conveyed their confidence through consistent transitions and uniform progressions of the music, depicting a general sense of trust in each others’ familiarity with the tunes.
The poetry centered around the intersection of isolation and disconnection, with themes touching on immigration, politics, sexuality, war and beauty.
Poets Richard Blanco, Joy Katz, Natalie Diaz and Asieh Amini each presented selected works over video in between the Thoth Trio’s performances.
Blanco shared some of his works that reflect the struggles of immigration and the tension regarding the country’s current political climate. He was selected by President Obama to be the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history and is the youngest and first immigrant, gay and Latino person in such a role. His first poem, “Cómo Tú/Like You/Like Me” was dedicated to DACA DREAMers and, along with his other poems, contained phrases in Spanish.
Amini also presented her poetry in another language, sharing stories of war and the struggles of the Middle East in Persian. An Iranian human rights activist, she went into exile in Norway after living in Iran became too dangerous for activists.
Katz recited a poem written collectively by 15 women, while Diaz reflected on contemporary America and her experiences as a Mojave woman.
Aside from the expected technical difficulties that are custom in the pandemic, the program ran almost as smoothly as the jazz. Multiple camera angles kept the feed engaging and showed close-ups of the trio, with Thompson sporting a Black Lives Matter t-shirt and Throckmorton representing the city with a Steelers mask.
Throughout the event, attendees spammed the chat with encouraging comments of praise or a simple emoji. One attendee commented, “I am clapping behind my screen,” while another stated simply, “Work!”
The significance of the event wasn’t lost on its attendees. The art cultivated a conversation on diversity and expression, and inspired reflection on a unique moment in history being shared by 8 billion people in vastly different ways.
City of Asylum’s Jazz Poetry Month runs from Sept. 8 to Oct. 1. Events are free and require online registration. More information can be found at the Alphabet City website.