The Joy of Improvisation

Thursday, March 28 at Pima Community College - West Campus's Center for the Arts

Poetry blends with jazz this month as a poet and a musician get together for a night of improvisation at Pima Community College.

"We put improvising jazz musicians together with poets who are pushing the boundaries of their art for a reason—because we think there is a relationship," said Charles Alexander, the executive director of Chax Press.

Chax Press, coming up on its 30th year in business in Tucson, is working with the University of Arizona Poetry Center and POG: Poetry in Action to co-sponsor this night of art with poet and novelist Nathaniel Mackey and contemporary jazz musician Marilyn Crispell.

Alexander met Mackey in 1978 and has had the opportunity to hear him read a few times since then.

Mackey has "always got something new to say and his work is both artistically really engaging, and intellectually and politically engaging too," Alexander said.

Mackey has won several awards for his writing, including the Whiting Writer's Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He has been interested in writing since he was a child and has found a way to turn his passion into a career.

"It's not unusual for people to be into writing when they're young but to be able to somehow continue to do it is the difference," Mackey said.

Reading to an audience is important as well as enjoyable, Mackey said, not only because he gets to meet people he may not otherwise have the chance to, but also because hearing the sound of the spoken word helps him write.

"I write with the sound of writing in mind," he said. "I sound things out when I write; I try to write things that have some interest to me in the way they sound and the way they move as you read them out."

Alexander also greatly admires Crispell's contemporary and improvisational jazz music. He became interested in her music when browsing for something new to listen to.

"I fell love with her work 20 years ago when I first picked up a CD almost by chance, and she's a once in a lifetime."

Crispell started out in classical music, with piano and composition, until the music of a jazz legend changed her mind on what style of music to pursue.

"When I was 28 years old, I heard the music of John Coltrane, A Love Supreme in particular, and it inspired me so much that I decided that was what I wanted to do," she said.

As an artist, she has grown to appreciate a variety of genres, and likes being able to perform at events that blend art forms.

"I'm interested in lots of different facets of the arts," she said. "I'm very interested in visual arts and poetry and dance, and so it gives me a chance to indulge my passion for those things."

Alexander, who founded Chax Press in 1984, had the idea to bring the two artists together to continue a series he has been coordinating for a few years. In the series, a poet and a musician perform together so that people with various artistic preferences can enjoy two styles in one place and also learn about their relationship to one another.

"We hope our audience includes people who maybe come for the music but get carried away by the words, too, and also the opposite: people who come for the poet but get carried away by the music," Alexander said.

Chax Press began as a publisher of novels, but has grown through its efforts to bring art to the public through more than just books. It sponsors events such as the one coming to Tucson to encourage an interest in other art forms.

Anne Guthrie, marketing director for the University of Arizona Poetry Center, is excited about the event's experimental nature. "They are ... a poet and a musician doing experimental work onstage together," she said. "It's very improvisational."