Audience memebers smile and clap as musican and poet Oliver Lake and the 16 other Big Band musicians take their places on the New Hazlett’s stage for the annual City of Asylum Jazz Poetry Concert. (Photo/Kelly Thomas)
Inside the New Hazlett Theater, on a cloudy September night, over 500 people waited in the dark, the low buzz of chatter hanging over them.
A woman in a shimmering ivory shawl took the stage, her name — Hinemoana Baker, of New Zealand — projected onto the screen behind her. She raised her hands to waist level and shook them as she sang a greeting prayer in Maori, the language of New Zealand’s native people.
A translation of the song replaced Baker’s name: “I honor the dignity in all of us / and I celebrate you!” and thus began the annual City of Asylum Jazz Poetry Concert last Saturday.
In addition to Baker, the concert featured readings from City of Asylum writer-in-residence Khet Mar, former writers-in-residence Horacio Castellanos Moya and Huang Xiang, Belarusian poet Maryia Martysevich and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
The Oliver Lake Big Band provided the musical background for many of the readings, as well as two half-hour sets of its own music.
Castellanos Moya read from his book Dance with Snakes, a humorous novel about a Salvadoran man who assumes a homeless man’s identity, and wreaks havoc on San Salvador with the homeless man’s four poisonous snakes. He read in English, his thick Salvadoran accent coloring the excerpt about a man reading someone else’s private letters.
Emcee David Conrad, of Swissvale, kept the mood light between readings. When he introduced Khet Mar, he commented that her name sounded like that of a villain from a James Bond film.
Mar, along with Conrad, read the text of the newest “house publication” recently completed by Mar’s husband, who is a visual artist. The “house publication” series on Sampsonia Way features several renovated houses that have been painted with murals and poetry. 324 Sampsonia Way’s mural depicts Burma, Mar’s native country, and Pittsburgh coming together.
When Conrad prompted Mar to read her poem “Early Spring,” translated from Burmese into English, she laughed and said, “I didn’t practice this, my pronunciation might be awful!”
“That’s okay, we’re from Pittsburgh, we don’t worry about that,” Conrad responded.
Mar’s voice was soft and sweet, but strong and mournful as well. Many of the poems she read at the concert deal with her persecution under a dictatorship in Burma, and her feelings of relief and freedom upon coming to Pittsburgh.
As soon as Mar took her seat, a noise from the catwalk behind the projector screen drew the crowd’s attention. Through a translator, City of Asylum’s first writer-in-residence, Chinese poet Haung Xiang, thanked the crowd and expressed his joy at returning to his “second home.”
From the catwalk, he performed, rather than read, two poems in Chinese. With grand gestures and a loud voice, he acted out “Wild Beast,” pretending to be one.
After Xiang’s performance, the lights dimmed and a voice sounded in the dark. Everyone looked around, but no one could see where the voice was coming from until the house lights went up again and the cameras focused on Oliver Lake, poet and jazz musician, reading on a balcony to the left of the stage.
Lake’s poem, which is the text to be included on the next “house publication” on Sampsonia Way currently in progress, ended and immediately the rest of the Oliver Lake Big Band took up their instruments and played as they filed down from the balcony to the stage.
Conrad introduced Lake after the band’s warm up, and for the next half hour the Big Band filled the New Hazlett with energetic solos and ringing brass symphonies.
The Big Band’s jazz tunes had the crowd tapping its collective toes and while more than a few people bopped along in their seats, only one stood up to dance. With over forty extra folding chairs packed around the 450 permanent seats in the theater and 17 musicians on the stage, space was at a premium.
After the band’s first solo set, Maryia Martysevich took the stage and read her “Midsummer Poem” as the drummer played along with the rise and fall of her voice.
Martysevich read quickly in Belarusian, and more than once the subtitles lagged behind her, causing the audience to laugh long after she delivered a punch line, and the poet to turn around and see what everyone was laughing at.
During Khet Mar’s repeat performance pianist Yoichi Uzeki plucked the piano strings directly rather than playing the instrument’s keys while flautist James Stewart and sax player Lake added a sense of whimsy to her words.
After a few more poems and songs in Maori and English from Baker, Yusef Komunyakaa took the stage and read several poems, including “Ode to a Drum” and “Ode to the Saxophone.”
Komunyakaa hunched over the microphone, his deep voice creating a steady rhythm for the band to follow. His words hypnotized the crowd, and this time they tapped their toes in time with Komunyakaa’s voice rather than the music playing in the background.
The Big Band played a second raucous set, and D.J. Soy Sauce headed up a dance after party. At the end of the show, the crowd trickled out of the New Hazlett into the damp evening air, talking happily and still bouncing along to the beat in their heads.