When the Harlem poet Langston Hughes and the jazz great Charles Mingus teamed up on the 1958 record Weary Blues, they pressed a cool fusion of art forms into hot wax: Mingus laid down a deep bass groove, while Hughes let his lines of poetry float on top of the syncopated rhythms. The joining of jazz and poetry has been a natural combination since those Beat-out days, so well understood that it lends itself to parody — think Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer.
Now a new event seeks to revive that early Beat energy, with an evening of spoken word and live jazz every Sunday at Kimball’s Carnival (522 2nd St., Oakland, 510-444-6979, KimballsCarnival.com). “You can picture that old smoky jazz club, with someone getting up to recite poetry while the bass player thumps along in the background,” says Rob Woodworth, director of the late, lamented Jazz House of Berkeley and the presenter of the new event. “We want to re-create that whole atmosphere.”
The Sunday night shows are the latest addition to the lineup at Kimball’s Carnival, which has cast about for an identity since Kimball’s established the outpost in Oakland’s Jack London Square four years ago. The club is adding to its current offerings of karaoke and DJs spinning R&B classics because Kimball’s East, in Emeryville, is shutting its doors in the coming weeks, and Kimball’s Carnival is expanding to compensate. Owner Henry Royal hopes the Sunday entertainment will bring in not just poetry and jazz devotees, but also locals looking for a relaxing evening that won’t make Monday morning too grim. With that in mind, it will be an early night, with alternating sets of jazz and spoken word from 6 to 9 p.m. Should some poets request musical backup during their set, Woodworth says the musicians will be glad to put down their drinks and pick up their instruments. “We’ll definitely promote the mixing and commingling of the two styles,” he says.
This Sunday’s first performance, hosted by Brooke Schroeder, features saxophonist Patrick Cress, known for his work with the jazz quartet Telepathy. The following weeks usher in a changing cast of Bay Area musicians, including the trumpet player Geechi Taylor and the Oakland-based pianist Hyim. Woodworth’s tenure as director of the Jazz House, which closed in 2004, gives him plenty of friends to choose from among the area’s jazz vanguard. However, it may take a bit more time to gain credibility — and a following — among Bay Area poets, says Dani Eurynome, who has cohosted the legendary Berkeley Slam at the Starry Plough since 1998. “Spoken word is a huge, burgeoning art form, and it’s getting a lot more attention from the public and from the media,” she says, “so a lot of people are apt to jump on the bandwagon.”
Not that she begrudges the opening. “Frankly, I think we need more venues for live performances, not less,” she says, noting that there is no fixed audience for spoken word. “There’s definitely room in the East Bay for something new, as long as they’re not replicating events that already exist. They can cultivate their own audience.” Therefore, all hep cats and jazzbos are invited down to Jack London Square this Sunday to breathe new life into an old idea. Admission is $5. Berets are optional.