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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Poet Sonia Sanchez

Temple University Archives
Sonia Sanchez

Poetry. Motion. Sound. For most of the 85 years Sonia Sanchez has existed, she has known and embraced the power of words and music, eventually merging both aspects into her lyrical yet powerful poetry. To hear Sanchez recite poetry is to listen to her sing, all with a distinct musicality and cadence that belies the early challenges she faced as a motherless girl child who stuttered.Sanchez was born in 1934 as Wilsonia Benita Driver—the namesake of her jazz musician father Wilson Driver. She was a toddler when her mother, Lena Jones Driver, died during the childbirth of twins. Her paternal grandmother then took charge of Sanchez and her sister, teaching her to read at age 4. Her father relocated the sisters to New York City after her supportive grandmother’s death, and Sanchez developed a stutter which honed her awareness of language dynamics at an early age. Her realization of the power and art of words, spoken or as literature, has fueled her Civil Rights endeavors as a poet, playwright, activist, scholar, and co-architect of the Black Arts Movement.

“You know, as a Black woman and as a writer, quite often there’s always this problem about us,” Sanchez explains. “There was a whole period during the time when Black women started to write in the Black Arts Movement, and the people we were involved with at that point were bringing truth to the people. There was nothing negative about us working together. I mean, we got on the stages, and we read poetry with the brothers, and the [audience] would go, ‘um hum’…There was equality on that stage.”

Sanchez, an emeritus professor at Temple University since her 1999 retirement as the Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women’s Studies, was appointed as Philadelphia’s first poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. The award-winning author—who has penned or co-edited over two dozen books, including Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, Does Your House Have Lions?, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Shake Loose My Skin, and Morning Haiku—remains an in-demand speaker and performer who continues to campaign tirelessly for peace, gender equity, and Black liberation. It seems fitting that during April 2021’s dual celebrations of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month a compendium of work from Sanchez’s 40-plus career will be released by Beacon Press. The book’s cover features quotes from her friends and colleagues Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, with the latter offering: “Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature’s forest. When she writes, she roars, and when she sleeps, other creatures walk gingerly.”      

Sitting in the Germantown home where she has resided since the '70s, Sanchez reflects more on the lessons she’s learned than the ones she’s taught. She expounds on the creative and real-life experiences she shared working alongside musicians and activists acknowledged nowadays as Black History pillars.

“An organization like the Black Arts Movement was about artists who demanded an art of struggle; an art that related to our her-story/history, and what was really going out in the world… you had to live it and taste it. One of the ironies of the Black Arts Movement is that the most important people who really made [it] work were Malcolm X and John Coltrane—and by the late 6'0s, they were both dead. And so what will then continue that motion and movement, especially like Coltrane’s motion of dismantling Western music and then Malcolm’s words [advocating] human rights? We wrote beautiful and moving works outside these Western constraints and was talking about a new world that was possible.”

Her lifelong affiliation with jazz music was rooted early (the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame inducted her late father in 1980) and continues to blossom in her creative performative collaborations. Shortly before the 2020 pandemic pronouncement, Sanchez teamed up with bassist Christian McBride to perform his composition The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Muhammad Ali.

“We grew up and listened to people talk about music, going and playing it into people’s houses,” recalled Sanchez. “I was raised on these jazz records, and my father had the most beautiful records. He taught [drummer] Papa Jo Jones, and we knew [drummer] Max Roach and these musicians who would come to the house all the time… That’s why I loved to gig with Brother Max because he was pure genius. And that’s why I love doing work with Christian McBride because he plays that bass and holds that bass close to his heart. He loves that bass, and because he loves that bass, only beautiful music can come out of that bass. Sometimes, I touch that bass while he’s playing, and I even think I can play it, right? I say the words, and the words jump up that bass, into his hands, and he plucks that bass, and he returns the words back to me. And I began to soothe the words and, and the words say, ‘You can sing this: the brother just gave you permission to sing’— and so therefore I sing.”

Sanchez describes her contributions as “poetry, motion, and sound” as the inspired, yet nearly two-hour conversation drew to a close.

“We, Blacks and others, have known and been in outer space via our music,” she shared. “The universe is not alien to our eyes as a consequence of this great classical music sometimes called jazz.”

Bobbi I. Booker is an award-winning multimedia journalist and radio personality whose velvety voice has been a mainstay in the Delaware Valley for over two decades. She can be heard on Spirit Soul Music, Sundays from 6 to 9 a.m., and Jazz Through the Night, weeknights from 12 midnight to 6 a.m.