Major Features of Langston Hughes' Jazz Poetry. An Analyis of his Poem "Railroad Avenue"

by Roswitha Mayer (Author)

Term Paper 1998 11 Pages

American Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Jazz music in „Railroad Avenue“

3. Jazz poetry and Modernity
3.1 Urbanity
3.2 Popular Life

4. „Railroad Avenue“ and the distinctive Afro-American voice

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

During the 1920’s a new music emerged in northern cities like Chicago and New York. It was called jazz and after it decade-long party of the 20’s was named the jazz age. „Jazz ist eine in den USA aus der Begegnung des Schwarzen mit der europäischen Musik entstandene künstlerische Musizierweise“[1]. Jazz music therefore has been considered ‘black’ music, although it has found many fans among white musicians. In New York jazz was played mainly in Harlem, the flourishing quarter of the Afro-American population. The „Cotton Club“ and the „Savoy Ballroom“ were the most famous clubs there, where musicians as Duke Ellington started their career. Those clubs were often frequented by whites and jazz was a part of black culture that found broad acceptance among white Americans.

The twenties did not only witness the introduction of a new music, but also the rise of an Afro-American intellectual movement, that is known as the Harlem Renaissance. Young poets, artists, publisher and intellectuals gathered together in Harlem to celebrate a new black self-confidence, the „New Negro“, and to express it in art and literature.

It seems to be logical that the movement profited from the new music, that was considered black and appreciated among whites, to transmit the Afro-American self-confidence, but the opposite took place. „Harlem intellectuals promoted Negro art, but one thing is very curious, except for Langston Hughes, none of them took jazz - the new music - seriously.“[2] Jazz music was considered by the Harlemites a popular folk music. Their aim, however, was to create a black high culture that could compete with that of the whites. With regard to music the leading Harlem intellectuals dreamed of a classical black music for which jazz could at best serve as a basic. Langston Hughes was an exception, because he had a different conception of art. For him the lower classes could express better the black race spirit than an elitist art, because in his opinion they „Do not particularly care whether they are like white folks“[3]. So he took jazz, which he considered the „child“ of the common men, transformed it into poetry and brought this distinctive poetic genre into a high level of development.[4]

But how did Hughes shape music into poetry, what were the items of his jazz poetry and what message did he want to mediate? Unfortunately dictionaries of literary terms fail to provide any definition of jazz poetry, that would serve as a first approach to answer the questions. Onwuchekwa Jemi however, tries to give a definition in his essay „Jazz, Jive and Jam“:

Unlike classical blues, the jazz poem has no fixed form: it is a species of free verse which attempts to approximate some of the qualities of jazz. The dynamic energy of jazz is to be contrasted with the relatively low-keyed and generally elegiac tone of the blues. Blues is for the most part vocal and mellow, jazz for the most part instrumental and aggressive. The jazz poem attempts to capture that instrumental vigor. . . . Jazz poetry . . . moves with the bouncy rhythms and exuberance that characterize the music. The sentences are casual and short-winded, the phrases are short, tumbling after one another in rapid succession. . . . The jazz poem derives from oral performance and music. Its relaxed attitude reflects the informal atmosphere in which the music thrives, and the open verse form is reminiscent of the improvisational latitude of the music. Its language - swift-paced, informal talk - aids the impression of spontaneity. The language is most often colloquial, sometimes the hip talk of musicians, almost always the language of common people, rarely the language of the academies.[5]

Jemie’s approach deals so to speak with the „musical“ side of jazz poetry. It names some of the literary devices that reflect the characteristics of jazz music: Bouncy rhythms mirror the syncopated four-beat jazz rhythm, free verse give reference to improvisation techniques, short phrases remind of the instrumental energy, colloquial language resonates the informal atmosphere in which jazz performances took place.

Concerning items and message of jazz poetry, secondary literature offers no help. Reading Hughes jazz poems and combining it with the status of jazz music and Hughes view of art, the following assumptions are plausible: Hughes’ jazz poetry tries with literary devices to imitate jazz music. This poetry reflects to reflect modern, urban black popular culture. His poems transmit a new black self- confidence.

The aim of this paper is to give reasons for those assumptions by analyzing a jazz poem closely. The poem that is to be analyzed is called „Railroad Avenue“ and was published first in 1926.

2. Jazz music in „Railroad Avenue“

[6] Of course, it is not possible to compare the form a jazz poem in all points to the complex form of jazz pieces. Music is governed by other laws than poetry is, but nevertheless it is possible to find some features of jazz music embodied in „Railroad Avenue“.

As mentioned in the definition above, especially the rhythm of a jazz poem reflects jazz music. Early jazz rhythms consisted of solid four-beat-to-the-measure rhythms coupled with syncopation (accentuation of the weak beats). The so created tension produces dynamic energy.[7] By using free verse, that are marked by constantly changing meter and strong rhythmical movement, in „Railroad Avenue“ Hughes was able to catch this energy. Already the meter of the first fife lines demonstrates the rhythmical vigor of the poem. The first line starts , like a reversed upbeat, with two stressed syllables, followed in the next line by three iambs. The third and fourth line are metrically identical: a stressed syllable, two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed ones. An unstressed, two stressed, an unstressed and a stressed syllable make up the fifth line. Additionally to the meter, the employment of short sentences contribute to catch the rhythmic intensity of jazz music. A lot of the words in „Railroad Avenue“ contain hard consonants like r, p, t, s, k. Those letters create rhythm within the single word, for example ‘dusk’, ‘dark’, ‘railroad’, ‘block’, ‘box-car’, ‘drum’, ‘truth’ and ‘rolling’. So the choice of words supports the jazzy tone.

In a jazz piece, ensemble and solo playing alternate with each other. Brief solos are called breaks and consist only of a short flurry of notes.[8] In „Railroad Avenue“ some lines are rendered prominent typographically and recall to a playing of a solo. So the 10th, 11th and 24th line remind of a break and the 16th - 22nd line of a longer solo played by a musician who rises from his seat and steps to the rim of the stage.

Another element of jazz music is repetition. The theme of a jazz piece is either a standard song in the AABA form or blues scheme[9]. It is not possible to find exactly such a theme in „Railroad Avenue“, but the first eight lines that are repeated with a variation at the end of the poem suggest a jazz theme introduced at the beginning and repeated with slight embellishment at the end.

Last but not least, the player piano and the drum, two instruments, set the poem in an environment, in which music is present.


[1] Joachim E. Berendt, Das große Jazzbuch, (Frankfurt: Fischer 1989) 436.

[2] Nathan Irvin Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford UP, 1971) 9/10.

[3] Ibid., 204

[4] Langston Hughes did not event jazz poetry, for Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay were also known as jazz poets.

[5] Onwuchekwa Jemie, „Jazz, Jive and Jam“, Modern critical views. Langston Hughes, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988) 61.

[6] Jazz music developed in the course of time, therefore it is necessary to remark, that the elements of jazz mentioned in the following chapter refer to the jazz music of the twenties.

[7] Eileen Southern, The music of Black Americans. A history, (New York: Norton 1971) 377.

[8] Ibid., 378.

[9] Berendt, 161.


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major features langston hughes jazz poetry analyis poem railroad avenue


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    Roswitha Mayer (Author)


Title: Major Features of Langston Hughes' Jazz Poetry. An Analyis of his Poem "Railroad Avenue"