The Mary Lou Williams Teen  Spoken Word
Meets Jazz
By Jonathan Gramling

       When it is happening right now, it seems that it will last forever and everyone
knows its name and remembers the feelings that it evoked and the meaning that was
infused with every note and lyric, But alas as time moves on and culture rapidly
evolves, the awareness of cultural movements like jazz fades in memory even if the
music of what is happening now is forever bound to it by rhythm and feeling.
       For many members of the hip hop generation, jazz is a foreign notion that they
don’t care to give the time of day to. Yet as Mary Lou Williams so rightly observed,
the spirituals were born of suffering and the musical forms that have come after,
from jazz to the blues to rap, have sprung from that same tree of musical creativity.
While the connection may have been forgotten, the connection is forever forged in
time.
       As a part of the year-long observance of the centennial of Mary Lou Williams’
birth, Madison’s Mary Lou Williams Centennial Committee contracted with Johnson
Brothers Entertainment to bridge the generation gap between jazz and spoken word
in the minds of young people. Derek Johnson and Monica Davidson have been
meeting with groups of young people during the fall semester to help them express
themselves through spoken word and to understand the interconnectedness of rap,
spoken word and jazz within the context of African American and American culture.
According to Davidson, the young people were resistant at first to being introduced
to a “foreign” musical form. But after learning about it and being exposed to it, they
learned to tolerate, if not appreciate jazz.
       “They knew it wasn’t hip hop,” Davidson said about jazz. “They knew it wasn’t
something that they could turn their radio on right now and not necessarily hear it.
       They didn’t know where it came from, why it existed or who some of the key players were. Some of the things that I have heard, just
little snippets and lines, were like ‘Man, I learned something I didn’t know. I didn’t know it was this. That’s really cool.’ Even though they
might not like the music, they respect the art and the culture of it. I think that is more important. They don’t have to be a fan of it. They don’t
have to try to convince their friends that jazz is the new thing. We play jazz at every session. They aren’t saying ‘Oh, can you put on
something else?’ They will even say ‘Let’s play track such and such because I really like that one.’ Again it wasn’t so much as them liking
it as it was them appreciating it and respecting it.”
       Over at West High School, Johnson’s group, part of a high school night class, had written spoken word and took turns reading it in
class. Many of the pieces spoke of the angst and pain that the students were experiencing as they made the transition to adulthood. And it
is through this expression of their pain that they make the connection to the pain that jazz artists like Mary Lou Williams expressed through
their musical instruments.
       “My biggest thing is letting them understand that both were created as a means for people to express themselves,” Johnson
emphasized. “Through jazz, we see different jazz artists really express themselves and they did it without words. They did it directly
through their music. But you could still feel what was going on. Why did they play that key versus that key? And it is the same thing with
poetry. You hear a poem and they said this. Why didn’t they say that? Both of them are means of letting people hear their stories. I feel good
with poetry. It’s just releasing something that is built up inside of you. And I could only imagine what the jazz artist felt when Mary Lou
Williams was playing the piano. What was going on in her head? How did she feel when she was hitting those keys? It’s the same thing
with the other jazz artists. What inspired them to do what they did? I’ve enjoyed these workshops personally because I feel like I’ve
learned so much information. I really wish we had this in the classroom setting throughout the year consistently because I know so many
students are really opening up. It took a while. When we first started up, they said ‘Jazz, we don’t want to hear about jazz. I want to hear
about rap. I want to learn about hip hop. Play something I am familiar with.’ But throughout the weeks, they have really become a lot more
open to it to the point where I can put in a jazz song and they can relate to it. ‘Did you hear that note that they played?’ They could talk about
the different jazz styles and look at the new form of poetry and see both of those as a way to share their stories with the world.”
       And his students have been making the connection. “I’ve learned that jazz can mean more than how it sounds,” Prodajae Huntley
said. “It emphasizes more than just those African American jazz artists whom you hear about. It’s actually feelings and actual experiences
that they go through in their lives, different things and different situations that were happening at that time and evolved to our time. The
course actually helped us see how things evolved and how change happened. There is a connection between spoken word and jazz. There
is the feeling connection. Both are used to express emotions and different feelings, to let them be heard. Also there is a major difference.
Spoken word poetry is more intense, the feeling is more intense. You can actually feel the power through people’s words. You can actually
experience that.”
       Terrance Jones also got the connection of expression. “Basically with the jazz and everything, I learned a lot of different things, about
Mary Lou Williams and her playing the piano,” Jones said. “Everyone would come together and dance and sing and make jazz. Everyone
was having fun and enjoying jazz. We read a lot of stuff about jazz artists like Miles Davis. He was a cool dude. That’s why I like the jazz
stuff. We did poems and everything. The poems give you the chance to express feelings that you have inside that you don’t really want
anyone to know. There isn’t a big difference between spoken word and jazz. Jazz has music to it. Without the music, jazz is a poem. It’s a
feeling that you are letting out, the same with poetry. You are letting out what your feelings are. You are telling a story. With jazz, you’re
telling a story, but there is a different rhythm to it. But they both have the same kind of meaning, so there really isn’t a huge difference
between them.”
       Taylor McDonald became open to a new art form. “We learned a lot about jazz,” McDonald said. “I’ve never thought about listening to
jazz or anything that has to do with jazz only because I thought it was boring. But taking this class and actually studying jazz and listening
to the different jazz types got me curious so that I’ve actually started to listen to more jazz now. It’s a very calm way to relax. That helped
me a lot. There is kind of a connection between spoken word and jazz. I like poetry. But I had never thought about putting music to my
poetry. Jazz is like poetry with music in the background. You are listening to someone else tell their story.”
       Ironically, Davidson also found that the roots of hip hop and rap are starting to fade into the past just as jazz did a generation before.
“They didn’t know who these artists were, but they had heard it,” Davidson said about some of the pioneering hip hop artists. “We played
Grandmaster Flash. I asked them if they had ever heard of him and they said no. I played the song and they responded ‘Don’t push me …’
They knew it. They’ve heard it. They didn’t know the roots of hip hop, not even something they would be most familiar with. They didn’t know
where it came from, didn’t know about the five elements of hip hop. They asked ‘Where did that come from? Isn’t that just Lil Wayne? Didn’t
he start it?’ No. I put on Grandmaster Flash and some of the boys said ‘This isn’t hip hop. What is this, spoken word with music?’ No. This is
hip hop.”
       Johnson felt somewhat frustrated with the time limitations of the project, so much to learn, so little time to learn it in. “I don’t feel we
had enough time to really explore jazz and poetry as much as I would really like to,” Johnson emphasized. “Right now, I feel like I am
leaving them on a cliffhanger. There is so much that I want to teach them about and so much more that they have to learn about it.”
As long as they stay true to their feelings, they will always feel the connection between jazz, spoken word and the eternal expression of the
human condition.
       On November 22 at 7 p.m., the West High School students will be some of the featured performers at the Mary Lou Williams Teen
Explosion at the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall. This free event will feature spoken word artists, youth jazz bands, a youth jazz choir
and a DJ. All are welcome to attend this celebration of jazz and spoken word.