Philip Bryant Q&A

March 22, 2021
Philip Bryant is a poet who teaches at Gustavus Adolphus.

“I borrowed the form from what Langston Hughes had done with his column he wrote for black newspapers. In the column Langston would meet up with Jess B. Simple, his character, at a bar in Harlem. They’d have a drink and he and Langston would converse about the events of the day. Jess would give the African-American everyman point of view on topics ranging from race, politics, and money in an unadulterated African-American voice. Langston was the straight man and Jess was, well … Jess B. Simple. I tried to do that with my father and Preston.”

What motivated you to write Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace?

It was a continuation from one poem that appeared in the last part of my first full length book of poems, Sermon On A Perfect Spring Day published by New Rivers Press called Stella by Starlight, which featured my father, his record collection and Preston for the first time. The essayist and poet and my dear friend and fellow Gustie Bill Holm read it a long time ago on a MPR Midday show. The big censorship debate at the station about whether Bill could say the word “motherfucker” on the air.  I thought Stella was a one-off, but the muse had other plans for it, I guess, thus Stompin’ at the Grand Terrace was born. My great cousin Della Mae Collins was a dancer with the Earl Hines Band that was the Grand Terrace house band back in the early ’30s when gangsters like Al Capone owned it.

What was it like growing up in Chicago’s South Side in the ’50s and ’60s? Was jazz just everywhere?

It was more present maybe then than it is today, though it’s still there, alive and kicking. I grew up with it on the radio and on the record player in our house 24/7. There were a lot more jazz clubs on the South Side than there are now. One of the most famous ones was just a couple of blocks from where I grew up, called The Apartment Lounge. Jazz luminaries like Dexter Gordon, who he penned a dedicatory composition in its name, and others played there all the time. It was just a couple of doors down from the famous black South Side soul food eatery called “Army and Lou’s.” When I entered high school all that started to gradually change as the economics of the black South Side took a gradual, steady and irreversible downward trend so local businesses and establishments like jazz nightclubs started to disappear. Musical tastes were also dramatically shifting at that time, too. Less young black kids were listening to jazz. I was one of the last remaining few from my generation.

I love that you wrote your book as a verse memoir. When did you decide on that as the form?

Yeah, I think I was influenced by Jean Toomer and Cane, his classic and highly innovative book he wrote back in the early 1920s. It was a strange admixture of poetry and prose that struck a deep chord in me when I read it, still in college, and I guess stuck with me all the way to the time I began to write Stompin‘. I was so happy to see Claudia Rankine do some of the same things I was trying to do in Stompin’  in her great masterpiece Citizen. I think we all can give a nod of appreciation to Toomer, who was as modern and avant garde as either Pound, Eliot, Williams or Stein, very early on in the game.

You included a CD from pianist Carolyn Wilkins as part of the book. Had you long been a fan?

Carolyn and I grew up on the same block on the South Side of Chicago. She used to come over to my house and we’d sit up for hours listening to my father’s jazz records. She went on to study classical music and composition at Oberlin and Eastman school of music. When we were teenagers we vowed we would collaborate together on an opera. She’d write the music and I’d write the words. That opera turned out to be Stompin.’

I enjoyed the conversations your father would have Preston, the owner of the record shop, in the book.

It was like sitting in on an advanced graduate seminar on jazz history when the two of them would get together. I had to fictionalize Preston’s character some. I borrowed the form from what Langston Hughes had done with his syndicated column he wrote for the black newspapers. In the column Langston would meet up with Jess B. Simple, his character, at a bar in Harlem. They’d have a drink and he and Langston would then converse about the events of the day. Jess would give the African-American everyman point of view on topics ranging from race to politics to money, in an unadulterated African-American voice. Langston was the straight man and Jess was, well … Jess B. Simple. I tried to do that with my father and Preston.

In St. Peter, where you teach at Gustavus, is there a jazz scene?  

Yes, we do have a live summer jazz series here at the St. Peter Arts Center called Hot Jazz for Cool People. It’s been running for the last three or four years now. I think KMSU Radio (at the state university at Mankato) has one of the best jazz programs in the state every Thursday at 7 p.m. hosted by Gary Campbell, aka, Maverick Slim. He plays a lot of Sun Ra. Can you imagine Sun Ra piped out to people living in Henderson or Le Sueur? He’s a hidden gem out here in outstate, rural Minnesota. My students are lacking when it comes to black music as a whole so I try as best I can to educate them to the broader scope of “great black music from the ancient to the future,” as my fellow Chicagoans of the Art Ensemble of Chicago always used to call it. I stay current by listening to what our children listen to. That has been a great gift for both my wife and me.  

You have that great moment in the book when your father woke  you to see Sonny Stitt play an early morning set. Is that a memory forever lodged in your psyche?

Sonny Stitt was one of my dad’s all-time favorites. Stitt recorded this classic album on Atlantic records called Constellation. The title tune I think was based on an old Charlie Parker bebop riff. I then riffed off the title, using the telescope and stargazing in my poem to highlight how musically explorative and forward thinking Stitt and Charlie Parker both were.

You credit your mother to introducing you to Shakespeare and helping form your love of poetry. Do you have a favorite sonnet from your childhood? 

I got to the sonnets fairly late but growing up my mother used to recite out loud all the famous Shakespeare soliloquies from Hamlet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth. That was my first real shot of poetry around the age of 5 or 6. 

You grew up with thousands of books in your house. Do you have thousands of books in your house today?

Yes, I’m sorry to say thousands upon thousands; the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another collection of poetry for Nodin Press, hopefully out sometime this year or next. I’m privileged and honored to be included in an anthology edited by Mary Moore Easter, published by Rain Taxi, called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Poems in the Wake of Racial Injustice. So, inshallah, the beat goes on.

— Photo by Terry Clark