Homer Jackson, director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project, is very interested in Walt Whitman these days. And he’d like you to join him in celebrating Whitman’s 200th birthday by taking a long summer’s walk with him. And maybe singing a little if you’re up to it.
Hang in there; this is about to make sense.
You know the name Walt Whitman—even if you don’t know why on Earth anyone would want to walk and sing and chant in honor of his life and work and what it still symbolizes for us today.
You know that Philadelphia’s second most prominent bridge is named for him—the green one near the stadiums that seems a little less well-cared-for than it’s more architecturally celebrated counterpart to the north.
And you might even know that Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life living in Camden, only to have city leaders affix his name to the bridge that goes not to Camden but to...Gloucester City! Which just goes to show that Philadelphia will value a poet… right up until another guy comes along who’s looking to get struck by lightning just to prove a point.
What you might not know is that Walt Whitman, the prodigious writer and poet best known for his collection Leaves of Grass, was also a prodigious walker. He walked for the same reason a comedian might sit in a coffee shop, to mine material—to, as Whitman put it, “hear the éclat of the world.”
He liked to sing, too. And chant. He must have. Whitman’s poetry practically begs to be put to music, to be sung, to be chanted. Leonard Bernstein paired Whitman’s words to music, as did composers Charles Ives and Benjamin Britten.
But, almost intuitively, you can sense that Whitman’s style was even better suited to jazz. Whitman was “The Father of Free Verse;” jazz is the medium of musical improvisation. They belong together. Reading Whitman confirms this—to read Whitman is to read jazz occurring on the page.
That at least begins to explain why Homer Jackson and the Philadelphia Jazz Project are so bullish on Whitman these days.
To honor the Whitman Bicentennial, Jackson, a multi-disciplinary artist in the tradition of the multitudinous Whitman, has created New Songs of the Open Road, a program of singing walks that is part performance art, part community organizing, and part fun simply for its own sake.
By taking the spirit of Whitman off the page, by singing and chanting words inspired by Whitman’s own, Jackson doffs a cap to poetry’s primordial roots. There can be little doubt that Whitman would’ve approved—this, after all, was the man who sought to “sound [his] barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Allen Ginsberg would’ve approved, too. Ginsberg, a central poet of the Beat generation who was always striving to update and rethink Whitman’s celebration of America, believed poetry’s natural habitat was with music (and dance). To keep it locked up on the page, exclusive to academia, was something akin to keeping a majestic animal in zoo—perhaps not inhumane, but certainly sub-optimal.
A patron saint of the Beat artistic movement, Whitman inspired Beat writers like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and even comedian Lenny Bruce. The Beats also notably drew inspiration from jazz and bebop, particularly from musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It’s amazing how clean a through-line from Whitman to jazz begins to emerge through close reading, listening, and maybe a little squinting.
Homer Jackson sees it clearly—using the forms of the musician, in the best of the Ginsbergian tradition, to enliven the spirit of Whitman’s poetry. That’s why he’s so jazzed about this undertaking. “There’s definitely this idea that we’re celebrating Dizzy and Charlie Parker by celebrating Whitman,” says Jackson. “Creatives owe a debt to Whitman, but we don’t know it directly. He is a pioneer of this thing called modern.”
Whitman subscribed to the radical notion that by signing the song of himself, he was signing the songs of everyone else, and vice versa. To learn the tunes, he walked—through landscapes urban and rural, industrial and agrarian, rich and poor, black and white. This is how his writings came to embody the motto that served as the revolutionary seal of the American republic and eventually came to be stamped on our currency: E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. And what is jazz if not the ultimate artistic embodiment of E Pluribus Unum? Whitman’s values were jazz values, and vice versa: where individual expression and interdependence are thought of not as competing ideals, but rather as indispensable to one another, as two sides of the same coin.
Jackson’s walking program takes Whitman’s peripatetic spirit of wide-lensed inquiry and his unity-through-diversity ethos and infuses it with the galvanizing spirit of the civil rights movement’s freedom songs. It sounds more complex than it is, really. Really, it’s just friends and neighbors—aided musically by a couple of professional vocalists, lest the group fall too far out of tune—walking and singing and trying to embody the type of camaraderie and empathy that might catch on.
By the time New Songs of the Open Road finishes on July 6th, Jackson and his band of ambulatory singing bards will have walked through four Philadelphia neighborhoods, singing songs of affirmation. These new and re-worked songs are inspired both by Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” and the songs that fueled civil rights marchers to, as Jackson puts it, “challenge with their feet the boundaries of freedom.” Written and arranged by choirmaster and composer Waverly Austin, the musicality of these tunes will be buttressed by a trio of local singer/songwriters, James Solomon, V. Shayne Frederick, and Toby VEnt Martin.
Jackson and his walking choir have already hit North Philly and Germantown, but opportunities to join them remain: Saturday, June 22nd, in South Philly (beginning at Marconi Plaza and ending, appropriately, at Whitman Plaza); and Saturday, July 6th, along the Ben Franklin Parkway to Boathouse Row.
The walks will be vigorous, the temperatures potentially high, so wear comfortable shoes and don’t forget to hydrate while celebrating the man Jackson credits with a foundational role in creating “a trajectory of oneness” in the American arts. More information is here.