Thulani Davis’ New Poetry Collection Chronicles Twenty Years of Transcendence, Resistance and Concerts
Thulani Davis‘ writing has always had a very close connection to music, from her jazz poetry and operas to her nonfiction work. Her latest poetry collection, Nothing But the Music, 1974-1992 is subtitled “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” From a music writer’s perspective, she is an inspiration, her concise, crystalline, indelible imagery capturing the febrile energy of the 1970s loft jazz scene, the punk movement in the 80s…or just chilling with friends and blasting records. And she never fails to put the music in historical context. She’s a tireless and transportative guide: if you weren’t there, she makes you wish you were. It hardly comes as a surprise that much of this material has been performed in concert over the years, by the author and others as well. As she takes care to mention in a breathless account of watching Cecil Taylor and his quartet at the Five Spot in 1975:
this is not about romance
this is the real stuff
Even better, Davis lists showdates and personnel. One can only hope, for example, that somebody in the crowd – or the band – had the presence of mind to record the two sets that the hall of fame AACM lineup of Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson, Joseph Bowie, Richard Muhal Abrams, Leroy Jenkins and George Lewis played at Studio Rivbea on February 8, 1976.
Davis’ portrait of a busker outside the Village Vanguard in 1975 is viscerally spine-tingling. Her account of a night in a Washington, DC club a year later may be fervent and ecstatic, but in the context of enormous historical baggage. In a portrait of a David Murray quintet gig in that same city, the way she brings back the motif of how “the truth came down twice” is too masterful, and too spot-on, to spoil: it will leave you green with writer’s envy.
These poems aren’t limited to first-class concert reportage in politically informed free verse. In jaunty period vernacular, Davis imagines Chicago’s Mecca Flats apartment complex in 1907, sixty years before it was razed, where a catchy piano riff wafting from an open window testified to its fertile role in black culture. She connects the dots between Mingus and Henry Threadgill with an erudite bass player’s skill. She tickles you with her observation about the Bad Brains’ attempts at roots reggae. And she reminds that two decades before the Lower East Side’s 1990s days as a rock mecca, there was a jazz joint there called Brownies.
And the book’s subtext, considering this year’s assaults on our civil rights, screams bloody murder. “I wish you all the live music you can get your hands on,” Davis encourages at the end of her acknowledgments. What she only alludes to is that throughout history, relationships and revolutions alike have been cemented around a beat and a catchy tune. That’s why Andrew Cuomo and the rest of the lockdowners are so terrified by the prospect of crowds of people packing stadiums and clubs: because music is empowering. And the lockdown is all about disempowerment. You can’t surveil someone who’s screaming into a friend’s ear over the band. But you can if they’re miles apart, chatting on Facebook while they watch the livestream.