What started as a jazz project between two Fresno State colleagues has earned the respect of Downbeat Magazine readers who rank “The Poetry of Jazz” the number three Jazz Album of the Year in the 2018 Readers Poll. The poll results appeared in the December 2018 issue and praised the performance of Pulitzer-winning poet laureate and former Fresno State professor Philip Levine and Dr. Benjamin Boone, Fresno State Professor of Music.

“I am just so pleased that this labor of love and this Fresno-based project has resonated with listeners. It couldn’t have happened without the support and participation of so many people, including the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Council, and Fresno State Research and Creative Activities grants, who provided release time and financial support,” said Boone.

Downbeat Magazine poll

A continuation of the album, “The Poetry of Volume Two” will be released in January 2019.

“It is being released in January so that it can be featured at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Congress conference in New York City. I am excited Origin Records will have it there as their featured release,” said Boone.

Philip Levine behind glass in the studio
Philip Levine in the studio

The first album “The Poetry of Jazz,” released in March 2018, has been well received by critics and the public. Following its release, it spent some time on Amazon’s bestseller list and has been reviewed by many jazz publications, jazz artists, poets and has even been featured on NPR — but Boone was especially excited about the Downbeat ranking.

“Being on this list — and right below Wynton Marsalis and Chick Corea who are my idols — cuts to my heart and has tremendous significance for me,” said Boone. “I remember gleefully sitting around and reading and rereading Downbeat Magazine with friends. I was ecstatic when the CD got a glowing review in Downbeat a few months ago, but I never guessed it would ever place in even the top 10 in the annual poll.”

Boone went on to say that he is “thrilled to shed light on the amazing jazz and poetry communities here in Fresno. I am truly privileged and honored to have been able to collaborate with all of these amazing folks, especially U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient Philip Levine, and musician extraordinaire Brian Hamada, both who are now gone.”

Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone
Philip Levine and Benjamin Boone

It all began when Fresno Filmworks asked Levine and Boone to perform at a fundraising concert. Boone said he knew of Levine’s work and was excited to be playing at the same event with him.

“I contacted him and asked if he’d collaborate since we were doing the same show, and he graciously agreed,” Boone said. “It really seemed to resonate with the audience, the Fresno Bee’s Donald Munro gave it a super review, and folks asked when we would do it again. So we decided to try recording some of it.”

The resulting album features an impressive mix of jazz stars such as Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Greg Osby, and Tom Harrell; Fresno musicians, drummer Gary Newmark, bassist Nye Morton, singer Karen Marguth, and pianist David Aus; and Fresno State faculty and staff, Max Hembd (former Fresno State staff), Spee Kosloff (Fresno State Professor), pianist Craig von Berg (Fresno State faculty), and drummer Brian Hamada (former Fresno State faculty). Recording the tracks, Boone says, was a long and thoughtful process that was not done all at once.

Spee, David, Philip Levine, and Benjamin Boone
Photo by Joe Osejo

When asked about his favorite moment in making the album, Boone replied with the following story:

“During one of the last sessions, we recorded Phil’s poem “Gin”. I had written a basic melody, but the rest is freely improvised. Singer Karen Marguth was there to do a different track, but at the last minute, I asked her to do some improvisation. Phil was in an isolation booth, I was in another, and the pianist, drummer, and bassist were in yet another, but we could all see each other through the glass and hear each other through headphones.

“The music started, and Phil began his reading and at the line ‘‘he was very well read for a kid of fourteen in the public schools,’ Karen starts laughing hysterically, and all of us hear her through our headphones but keep playing. Phil smiled, and he had a mischievous grin as he kept reading, making even more lines even more humorous.

“You can hear how perfect his comic delivery is on this track. You can also hear the fun we were all having, making music, getting into the profound humor of Phil’s marvelous poem about the stupidity of all teenagers and all of our fear, anxiety, and caution disappeared. That is the first track on the CD, and that is the take we used. Of course, we had to mute out Karen’s laughing, but you can hear it in our playing. Magic. Being around Phil was magic.”

For any musician, naming a favorite song on their album is a tough ask. This was no exception for Boone. After naming off several songs; “Gin” because of the fun experience, “A Dozen Songs Plus One” because it was difficult to compose, or “They Feed the Lion” because of the simmering anger in Levine’s voice; Boones’ choice came down to the song that strikes a chord with many who live in Central California — “Our Valley.”

“We played it on that first concert, and it’s the only composition from then that survives. And the poem so accurately describes this valley — my home, Phil’s home and the home of almost everyone involved in this project — in a profound and touching way.”

Since “The Poetry of Jazz” was recorded, two masters of their craft have passed away — Poet Laureate Philip Levine in 2015 and drummer Brian Hamada in August 2018. Boone had warm words for both.

“Phil’s poetry and performance is just so musical,” said Boone. “When he was with us it wasn’t like he was reading the poetry on top of us, rather it was like he was the member of the band. Amazing musicianship and timing. What an honor to be able to collaborate with him.”

“Brian Hamada was (it hurts me to use past tense) a truly world-class musician. Notice I didn’t say ‘drummer.’ Yes, he could play the drums amazingly well, but he always did it incredibly musically. Instead of being flashy, Brian always focused on supporting the other musicians and making them sound good,” said Boone. “What an honor to be able to collaborate with him. He was also a calming ‘Zen’ presence. We all miss him terribly.”

levine band bw 4

Combining one of the great humanists of our time with a group of talented artists has produced results which both critics and the public have found remarkable; an achievement the Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities takes pride in. In a parting thought, Boone agreed.

“This collaborative, interdisciplinary project speaks to the power of the combined arts to communicate that which is difficult to communicate and is indicative of what the College of Arts and Humanities can do when given the resources it needs. It is through artistic expression and humanistic investigation that we learn how to seek truth, and how to be human. That is what Phil’s poetry is about to me at its core. What type of people do we want to be? What is truly valuable in our brief time on this earth? Do our actions represent these values?

“Fresno State has historically fostered an environment in which artists and humanists can thrive, and doing so has improved the experiences of our students, the community and our society immeasurably. It has also led to having two U.S. Poet Laureates in a brief span of time, and it is what led to these projects. It is my profound hope that this support for the arts and humanities will not only continue but be augmented, fostered and grown.”