Poetry and jazz aren’t strange bedfellows. Amiri Baraka regularly performed with jazz accompaniment at Bohemian Caverns. Rarely has a collective of multiple poets and musicians taken to D.C. stages in recent years, however — and even in more distant years there surely weren’t many concerts like the one Heroes Are Gang Leaders put on at Blues Alley on Tuesday night. It was something like poetry and jazz as directed by Spike Lee.
“This is, let’s say, literary free jazz,” poet and co-founder Thomas Sayers Ellis said as he and nine other people filled the bandstand. A very soft soul groove took shape, courtesy of guitarist Brandon Moses, bassist Luke Stewart, pianist Jenna Camille and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis.
“Good morning, Blues Alley!” exclaimed vocalist Crystal Good, just as trumpeter Heru Shabaka-Ra joined in. “Happy birthday!”
If it was incongruous, Good and co-vocalist Nettie Chickering soon explained in singing unison: “Don’t believe everything that you sing.”
Good and Chickering were only two of four vocalists on the bandstand. The other two, Ellis and poet Randall Horton, injected big personalities into the mix. Horton strutted and wiggled in place like a member of a Motown revue; Ellis danced with broader, jerkier motions, as though imitating an exercise routine. Their vocals were equally outsize, a mix of sermonizing and spoken-word performance. On the second tune, “Mister Sippi,” they formed something of a skit. Ellis imitated a lurching drunk, then he and Horton began exchanging lines about drinking: “Johnny Walker Red!” “I ain’t got Jack!” “Number seven, number seven!” “Twist the cap!”
“If you wish you wasn’t tipsy, raise your hand!” Ellis intoned, then fell to calling out the titles of William Faulkner novels.
Such was the evening’s tone. The music wasn’t as chaotic as “literary free jazz” sounds. It was quite tonal — Stewart and drummer Trae Crudup laying down smart, funky lines (with Stewart playing some guitarlike flourishes that Moses, of course, augmented) while Lewis, Shabaka-Ra and alto saxophonist Devin Brahja Waldman chattered melodically on top.
The poets-vocalists were equally engaged in funky counterpoint jams. This was a problem. The vocals tended to get lost or muddied in the instrumentalists’ blare. Only phrases were discernible — though that was often enough. When poet Samantha Riott sat in for the fourth and final tune, “Absolute,” phrases were her stock in trade. They were aggressive, most not fit for a newspaper — but capped by a sardonic, “Does this sound like poetry yet?”
Even with that sonic blur, though, the performance — Ellis called it “a surrender to the art form” — was exhilarating, original and refreshing, an extension of the 1970s Black Consciousness movement.
“That was interesting,” an audience member said outside the club afterward. “That was different.”