lapis lazuli comes from its rocks and its dust contains nuggets of gold

on subtext, scatting, the spoken

Last summer I was deeply engrossed in writing a series of little sketches I was calling “scores.” I was writing to music and thinking about poetry as accompaniment to music. Later they became part of “Chamber Music”— something I am not finished with and might never be finished with. But it tries its best (not so well, probably) to imagine many voices crowded together in a small space playing together but individually at the same time. It also tries to negotiate and live in this relationship between music and poetics and Black study. What would happen if written language, the mode we so often associate with “study” took the back seat? Or perhaps better said—what if music and poetry were wholly intertwined?

It’s sort of a silly question, because they already are, and always have been.

But I have been so mired in the written mode for so many years that I have lost touch in many ways with the part of my poetic sensibility that is inextricable from music. I think we often split them when we shouldn’t. Some poets get touchy when you say musicians are (can be) poets and poets (can be) are musicians but it seems obvious and undeniable to me.

I often say music was my first language. I sung before I spoke and I think that’s true for most people. Our pre-speech “gibberish” is musical if not music. Poetry came second or as I see it now from music.

I say this to say for a year or more I’ve been trying to live at the intersection of poetics and music, and I think a threshold between written language and music for me is spoken language.

This leads me to why I’m writing you today in the first place.

My dad used to always tell me when you were making a track you have to listen to it in the car to really get a feel for it. I agree and I’d add that when you’re listening to a track someone else made, you’ve gotta listen to it in the car, in your over ear headphones, and your in ear headphones, and if you have a record, lie on the floor and listen to that too. I hear something new in every mode. 

During the process of making the scores, I was listening to “Ruby, My Dear” on vinyl a lot and once I thought I heard a little voice underneath the music. So I decided to listen to it digitally to see if I could hear it better, and I could. It was presumably Monk, humming. Apparently I put this first instance of this phenomenon in my mental pocket. 

It came up again very recently, when I was listening to “Tangerine” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (for the billionth time…) You start to hear a scatting at about 1:20 right along with the piano before the sax comes back in. And oh God, why do I love it so much? Maybe because I feel like I’m in the studio with them. 

You can hear it, too, in “Blossom’s Blues” from Blossom Dearie’s self-titled 1967 album. In this case, it isn’t Blossom scatting but one of the instrumentalists in the background right at the very beginning of the song. I’d venture to guess it’s the bass player, as that’s the only instrument playing at the time. Ray Brown, according to Wikipedia. Buh buh bye da, buh buh bye da he whispers. It continues faintly and near inaudibly at other points during the song. And it’s so pleasing to hear— I can’t explain why. There’s a warmth in it. Maybe it anthropomorphizes the instruments, makes the bass or the drum brush simply another arm or leg of its player. 

On Eartha Kitt’s 1967 television special, the musical guest casually happens to be Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, and Sergio scats too. In fact, he may well be so into the music that after it’s done he begins speaking to the audience in Portuguese instead of English, perhaps in a post-song stupor, forgetting where he is.

It’s also present at the beginning of Movement 4 of Pharoah Sanders & the Floating Points’ incredible Promises album (shout out to Lou) and it emerges as a sort of scatting then slips in and out of singing. Though I don’t know a lot about speaking in tongues, it certainly feels like there’s a conjuring happening. 

If you listen to Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s “Springtime Again” in this off-season, you can hear sniffling and breathing just as the song is starting. 

Today is John Coltrane’s birthday, and I spent the better part of the morning reading these deep dives into A Love Supreme by Coltrane’s biographer Lewis Porter: A Deep Dive into John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' by His Biographer, Lewis Porter (Pt. 1) | WBGO

Naturally, after reading, I had to revisit the album itself, and another instance of that little whisper. You can faintly hear scatting in the beginning of “Acknowledgment” as well, unless I’m just experiencing an unshakeable case of frequency illusion at this point. And later, of course, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme which has the very much intended effect of a religious chant. In this case, the spoken works in tandem with what is played. It isn’t quiet or barely heard. It’s invocation, divination, spelling.

And in A Love Supreme the poetic and the musical are directly intertwined with Trane’s poem.

You can’t talk about Coltrane without talking about God. This was rambling and all over the place, but I’ll end by saying in some way the humanizing of these instruments via the sounds of their players feels...like a little prayer to me, maybe? Some part of the human in it touches the human in me. Where the poetic and the musical converge (because I do also see those little sounds as poetry, somehow) is holy to me.

I will speak for myself when I say I am scrambling to get to God in whatever way I can, be it music, or poems, or some splicing of the two. When I hear that humming underneath, the scatting, that breathing underneath, it makes the music breathe too. And that’s a little of God for me. A little like man from dust.