Music by Ben Boone and poetry by Philip Levine unite in new ‘Poetry of Jazz’ CD

From left, Benjamin Boone and Philip Levine

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~ By Lisa Maria Boyles, communications specialist for the College of Arts and Humanities

A new CD by Dr. Benjamin Boone, a professor of music theory and composition in Fresno State’s Department of Music, marries music with the poetry of former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine.

The Poetry of Jazz,” released this week by Origin records, has been in the making for the past six years, ever since Boone and Levine, who died in 2015, collaborated on a jazz-poetry performance at the Tower Theatre. The event was a fundraiser for Fresno Filmworks in 2012.

After that performance, Boone and Levine laid down some tracks together. “The Poetry of Jazz” features 14 iconic poems by Levine set to music composed or arranged by Boone, based on the music he heard in their words and their author’s delivery.

“The composer/saxophonist’s vision to put music to the U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine’s prose is a reminder to listeners that jazz was birthed by the common man, and is not to be kept in an ivory tower,” Mark Corroto wrote in a review for All About Jazz.

Boone, who is in Ghana this year as a Fulbright Scholar (his wife, Alice Daniel, a lecturer in Fresno State’s Department of Media, Communications and Journalism, is also in Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar), called working with Levine “one of the highlights of my career”:

“He taught me so much – not only about poetry and how to be a creative artist – but perhaps more importantly to tamp down my inner anxiety and insecurity and believe in myself and my creativity. This gave me the courage to ask top musicians in the world to collaborate, to really push this CD, to apply for this Fulbright to Ghana, and so many other things.”

The 14 tracks of “Poetry of Jazz” blend 11 of Boone’s compositions, two compositions by pianist David Aus and one composition by bassist — and Fresno State Associate Professor of Psychology — Spee Kosloff with readings of the poetry by Levine.

The music is played by numerous Central Valley musicians along with jazz greats Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Tom Harrell and Greg Osby.

Several Fresno State musicians collaborated on the project – including Kosloff, pianist Craig von Berg, drummer Brian Hamada, trumpeter Max Hembd, singer Karen Marguth, drummer Gary Newmark and Eric Sherbon.

“It demonstrates what talent we have right here at Fresno State in the College of Arts and Humanities,” Boone said. “The College supports creative collaboration and creates an environment that makes that possible. You see that in all of the departments in the college, which I find incredibly stimulating. That’s the beauty of a College of Arts and Humanities — we believe in the synergy between all arts and between the arts and humanistic investigation and scholarship. We are all searching for ‘truth’ and new ways of thinking and creating. What a wonderful place.”

Boone described how, in a way, Levine was one of the reasons Boone came to Fresno State to teach. While teaching at the University of Tennessee, he was talking to a friend about some possible tenure-track positions he might apply to, one of which was at Fresno State.

Boone told his friend  Fresno State might not “be a good fit — it’s not in L.A. or San Francisco or San Diego.” His friend set him straight: “Quite the contrary! My absolute favorite living poet teaches there, Philip Levine! They have a great poetry and creative writing program, and if they have been able to retain Philip Levine all this time it must be a great place to be, because Phil wouldn’t have stayed there so long otherwise.”

Boone has collaborated with another U.S. Poet Laureate from Fresno. For the closing ceremony of Juan Felipe Herrera’s second term last year at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Boone and music professor Kenneth Froelich wrote several commissioned pieces of music incorporating Herrera’s poetry for the Fresno State Chamber Singers.

Right before leaving for Ghana, Boone recorded tracks for a CD with Valley poets Herrera, Lee Herrick, Marisol Baca and Dustin Prestridge, tentatively titled, “The Poets Are Gathering.”

“I love working with poets and writers and always have,” Boone said. “My oldest brother, Joseph Boone, is an English literature scholar at [the University of Southern California]. When I was young, he and my mom instilled a love of poetry and prose. When I hear spoken words, either sung or spoken, I hear it as a melody.”

Boone said he plans a CD release event for “Poetry of Jazz” sometime in the fall, after he and his family return to Fresno when their Fulbright terms end. He also envisions a continuation of his collaboration with poets, including more Valley poets:

“There are so many talented poets, writers, actors, dancers and visual artists in the College of Arts and Humanities, and in the greater Central Valley — that I’d love to work with. The list is too long to mention, but I love words and I love interdisciplinary collaboration — it’s food for the soul.”

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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