Oliver Lake for the crowd gathered between Sherman and Monterey streets. (Photo Courtesy Renee Rosensteel).

by Lindsay Allen

More than 600 Pittsburgh residents filled a street-block of Sampsonia Way to experience the Jazz-Poetry Concert hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P) Saturday evening.

The outdoor event was held in the Central Northside between Sherman and Monterey streets and was the ninth annual concert of COA/P, a nonprofit organization co-founded by Henry Reese and Diane Samuels that is dedicated to providing sanctuary to exiled and persecuted writers from around the world.

“This event is a way of celebrating free speech and creative, artistic freedom of expression, which is something that, in this country, we take for granted,” said Elizabeth Baisley, marketing and communications manager of COA/P. “The concert is a way of drawing attention to that fundamental right.”

This year’s featured performer was Joy Harjo, a Native American poet and musician, marking her first appearance at the concert. Harjo, a native to the Mvskoke/ Creek Nation, is an award-winning poet, writer and saxophone player. Her performance included original music and poetry.

“Joy was certainly a highlight of the event, and there was a lot of anticipation around her performance,” said Baisley. “It was very exciting because she performed her music in addition to reading her poetry. She’s a very talented musician and poet.”

Cecile Shellman, COA/P’s project manager, and Silvia Duarte, editor of COA/P’s publication Sampsonia Way Magazine, emceed the event. Oliver Lake, a jazz saxophonist, curated the concert, and has been curating the concert’s musicians since its first year.

The concert also featured performances by several of COA/P’s current and former exiled writers-in-residence, including Khet Mar of Burma, Israel Centeno of Venezuela, Yaghoub Yadali of Iran, Wang Jiaxin of China, and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo of Cuba.

This year’s Jazz-Poetry Concert welcomed its first singer, Dee Alexander, who was accompanied by her bassist Harrison Bankhead, drummer Ernie Adams and pianist Miguel de la Cerna.

“Another highlight of the concert which was unique to this year was the collaboration between the magician Paul Gertner and the poetry of Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-Argentinean poet who now lives in the United States,” said Baisley. “Paul choreographed his magic act around Ariel reading his poetry.”

As COA/P is a small organization, it relies on numerous volunteers from across Pittsburgh to help in setting up the concert.

“The support of our community here in the Northside is tremendously important, and one of the most wonderful things to us as a community organization is knowing that we can rely on the people in our community to support us,” said Baisley.

Lindsay Allen studies at the University of Pittsburgh and hails from Eastern PA.

Ninth annual Jazz Poetry concert highlights artists from around the world