City of Asylum - Jazz Poetry Month


Many artists take for granted their ability to freely create and perform. For some of the musicians and writers at Jazz Poetry Month, this freedom of expression has been threatened or taken away. As I sat at the final concert of this years’ series last Sept. I experienced why it is so vital to support music, poetry, and the beautiful collaborations they yield.

City of Asylum Pittsburgh was founded with values of safety and inclusion as a refuge for persecuted writers in 2003. They started Jazz Poetry Month in 2004. Both the organization and the event are fueled by the grassroots generosity of the community with the intention of integrating these exiled writers into the city. For the past 15 years, they have created a platform to not only hear but to celebrate these courageous individuals.

Alphabet City is the perfect venue for Jazz Poetry Month. With its book-lined walls, rows of cushioned couches, and white noise chatter from connecting restaurant, Brugge on North, it created an inviting, laid back atmosphere, as if I was watching a concert with old friends. Did I mention that the tickets were free? As exciting as a free concert is, I was still surprised at this fact given the quality and prestige of the performers at the shows. What was not surprising was that the quaint bookstore filled quickly, because the limited tickets sold out for most performances. 

The concerts work in a way such that the first half of the night features a jazz band that either performs pieces or freestyles. I had never seen live jazz before my first of these Jazz Poetry nights––that’s right, I went to more than one this year––and I was blown away by how much fun it was. Jazz allows musicians to collaborate with the audience. During their freestyles, these artists appropriately responded to cheers or silence in order to create exactly the musical experience they wanted. It was incredible. 

After a brief intermission, the second half of each performance consisted of four to six poets each performing a few of their pieces with the jazz band accompanying in the background. This was my favorite part. Some of these fantastic poets, like Justin Phillip Reed and Ilya Kaminsky, are well-known and nominated for National Book Awards. Others I had never heard of before and performed in their native language with their poems projected on a screen behind them for the sake of audience understanding. 

Poetry is so personal and powerful that I felt as if I got to know each artist after just a few verses. Through their poems, I got to learn about why these writers are so persistent and passionate in their art. Poems I had never heard before quickly became my favorites as small trills of piano or notes from the bass emphasized points and created moods. 

City of Asylum spotlights some of the most incredible writers and artists I have ever experienced. To persevere through unimaginable hardship in pursuit of artistic beauty is a journey that few will ever take, but it makes each performance during Jazz Poetry Month unforgettable. 

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Cassie Scheirer