On the seventy-seventh anniversary of his birth, I recall the stunning epic poem, Jazz in Jail, by Louis Reyes Rivera. Robin Kelley called it “one of this century’s great works of art.” In tribute, I post the foreword I wrote for the poem’s publication in 2016, four years after Rivera’s passing. Find the poem!!
Steeped in discipline and touched by genius, Louis Reyes Rivera has given us an African-Amerindian lyrical and visionary epic, Jazz in Jail. He was, as he would term it, a romantic realist, one who imagined a better world and worked intensely to achieve it. If his poetry could rally support for that project immediately, so be it. But Rivera, a long-time activist and organizer, was never naïve about the prospects. Rather, he understood, with William Blake, that “the ruins of time build mansions in eternity.” His poetry may be reckoned with forever as an articulation of societal arrangements devoid of exploitation.
Rivera embraced fondly one of his nicknames, “The Janitor of History.” In his estimation, the janitor cleans up the mess left by the professionally trained, including those academics who produce negative “dismissertations” (a Rivera word) about politically engaged literature. So Rivera incorporates a lineage of revolutionary writing. Pablo Neruda, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, Jayne Cortez, and Clemente Soto Veléz are some of his mentioned inspirations. Moreover, he vigorously contests normative historical accounts that underplay the human loss caused by the long invasion of the Western hemisphere by Spain, Portugal, England, France, Holland, and Denmark. By Rivera’s reasoning, which lies at the heart of his saga, upwards of two hundred million fatalities resulted from European colonialism in the so-called New World, a much greater loss than the 15-45 million figure cited in much scholarship. It is in his janitor’s role that Rivera is preoccupied with the historical framing of the political and artistic aftermath of European territorial expansion and also with the historical framing of his own work, thus his career-long penchant for numerous reference notes.
But now to the poem’s central irony. And Black, Brown, and Red life in the Americas has been nothing if not situationally ironic and deeply paradoxical. W. E. B. Du Bois, another Rivera hero, knew this when he mused about double-consciousness and life behind the veil. Jazz is a child of empire but ultimately an instrument of freedom. In addition, Jazz persecuted is the people, and the people besieged are Jazz. Because Rivera, a practitioner of jazzoetry, taught inside the prison complex at Rikers Island, it would have been startling had he missed this metaphor. Our tremendous gain is that as a poet he explored the construct in stellar fashion. This marvel of verse is replete with creatively wide scope, multi-metric forays, rhythmic excitement, sculpted turns of phrase, and keenly rendered observations. The changes are a bit tricky at times, but it is worth working through them to arrive at the compelling conclusion.
Jazz in Jail will become timeless—but is already timely. Recently, anti-jazz articles appeared in the New Yorkerand Washington Post. The first piece is a spoof in the imagined voice of Sonny Rollins. Jazz to the faux Rollins is stupid, and his major self-confession is that he wasted his life. Some joke. Of course, we know that jokes sometimes are serious statements about which one wants to say one is joking. The second essay attempts to argue soberly that jazz is “boring,” “overrated,” “washed up,” and “hard to grasp.” Engaging these attacks at length is beyond the present purpose. But those writers wouldn’t just imprison jazz; they would execute it. Fellow poet Sterling Plumpp declared astutely for many that jazz is the music that brings literacy to the spirit. What powers, then, want to keep folks illiterate? Who wants to extinguish the spirit?
Fortunately, jazz and jazz people (including Sonny Rollins specifically) have a brilliant artist such as Louis Reyes Rivera on their side. When Rivera would read to me some of his work-in-progress, I sensed that he was composing a classic. I am sure of it now and am thrilled that the poem is now available to the general public. It is such a remarkable testament to liberty and human potential, such a vibrant expression of faith in the possibility of progressive communities. In the tradition of Walker’s classic “for My People” and evoking César Vallejo’s rousing “Masses,” Rivera has scored a monumental artistic victory.