Poetry and music go together, but rarely do you have a chance to experience a beatnik night like Monmouth University’s Center for the Arts has planned for Saturday, July 9th in the Pollak Theatre. The evening’s lineup mixes a local legend, up-and-coming talent, and a hometown guy who has reached the pinnacle of his craft. The theater will be filled with spoken word, vocals, and music ranging from jazz to hip-hop.
Performances include some PoemJazz by Robert Pinsky, hip-hop poetry with bluesy beats by Kuf Knotz combined with classical harp and vocals by Christine Elise, original compositions with Nigerian influence by the Digba Ogunbiyi Quartet, and an opener by late local poet laureate Gregory Schwartz.
Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, is the hometown guy. He was born in Long Branch and the town has always been a part of him even as his poetry and academic career steered him out of the Garden State.
“Somebody asked me if I have any poems about Long Branch,” recalled Robert Pinsky in a State of the Arts segment in 2013. “And I responded, all of my poems are about Long Branch. Often only I can tell that they are."
In an interview with Jersey Arts he adds, “I feel blessed to hail from an historic resort town — ‘America’s first seashore resort’ — where my grandfather Dave Pinsky had a bar and his son Milford was an optician. Large history of Garfield, Grant, Winslow Homer, personal history of my grandpa selling liquor during Prohibition.”
Pinsky earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, went to Stanford for his M.A. and Ph.D. then became one of America’s most accomplished poets. He was elected Poet Laureate of the U.S. in 1997 and founded the Favorite Poem Project, which was dedicated to celebrating the role of poetry in the lives of Americans. Approximately 18,000 people from around the country shared their favorite poems with the project. Among his career highlights, Pinsky was a Chancellor for the Academy of American Poets from 2004-2010. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the titles of William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Boston University.
On July 9, Pinsky will be performing his PoemJazz - reading his work alongside the accompaniment of accomplished musicians performing jazz improvisations. “I will be working again, as many times before, with the great, imaginative pianist, composer and arranger Laurence Hobgood. Also two other tremendous musicians, Matthew Clohesy on bass and Sam Sadigursky on reeds,” explained Pinsky.
When asked why poetry and music work so well together Pinsky replies, “Poetry and music are sister arts from way back. The name ‘lyric poetry’ comes from the lyre — stringed instrument you can hold in your hand, making music, while your mouth produces the music of sentences and words.”
He hopes that budding poets in the audience will “feel the melodies in all spoken sentences, the expressive pitches and harmonies and rhythms of the English language. As a balance to a lot of school instruction, I’d encourage that person to enjoy reading with their ears.”
It was his PoemJazz concerts that inspired the show according to its curator Vaune Peck, the Director of Monmouth University Center for the Arts.
Peck said she has never done a show like this one before, but has had Pinsky do his PoemJazz concerts twice in the past. “After I fell in love with Kuf and Christine, I pulled together the rest to make a full evening of similarly cool artists,” explained Peck. “I love curating things like this. This show is somewhat different than what we normally present, but has elements of things we have presented over the years.”
Gregory Schwartz is the local legend. He was named the Poet Laureate of Asbury Park in 2007 and is well known throughout the local poetry and music scene. In fact, a photo of him at the 2012 Bamboozle Festival in Asbury Park was captured by Rolling Stone magazine, furthering the legend.
Schwartz points out how the show will showcase several generations of artists and features extraordinary talent. When asked what he thinks of the show’s lineup he says, “I think it’s ballsy. It’s making a statement.”
Even though there has been a recent resurgence in the Monmouth County poetry scene, local poets rarely get the opportunity to perform on stages like the Pollak Theatre, so Schwartz has been fine-tuning his strongest material for the show.
“I approach it cold, like David Bowie-like,” said Schwartz. “I approach it like I have to be perfect. The intention is to be flawless and take the audience there and back again. It’s going to be fulfilling. You’re going to be taken on a journey and will be returned safely. It’s a beatnik kind of night.”
As far as up-and-coming talent, the Digba Ogunbiyi Quartet brings forth a wonderful pianist named Timothy Ogunbiyi - known as Digba. He grew up in Nigeria and was expected to go to college to study engineering, but surprised his family by choosing music. Following high school, he enrolled at the Peter King College of Music in Lagos, where he studied jazz piano. He would go on to earn a scholarship for classical piano at the Musical Society of Nigeria Diploma School of Music where he won the Music Quest competition and the Steinway & Sons award for piano proficiency.
Digba now lives in New Jersey and is the organist/pianist at the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Freehold. His own music explores the West African Yoruba idiom with contemporary jazz fusion. The Yoruba chant is a form of oral poetry and is an important genre of the traditional verbal art of the Yoruba people, making his music an excellent addition to the show.
“My music is a reflection of my life experience growing up in Lagos, Nigeria,” explained Digba. “Every composition comes from a place of genuineness and I hope that people are able to hear beyond the notes but see even deeper.”
Digba took courses with photography majors, theater majors, sculptors, and art majors while attending college. “I have always been involved with other forms of Arts,” he added. “I think the idea of the show is really amazing. I love poetry and I’ve always thought music and poetry complement each other in a beautiful way. Needless to say that every form of art is sufficient in and by itself.”
You can consider Kuf Knotz & Christine Elise as up-and-coming talent as well, although the Asbury Park Press called them one of “The 10 Jersey musicians you need to know” and an argument could be made that they’ve already arrived. Their music is extremely unique - hip-hop poetry with bluesy beats and the added subtleties of a harp, perfect for the evening at Monmouth.
Knotz admits that the two artists getting together was pretty random. His former band once played a show for an organization that employed Elise. The two ran into each other at a Whole Foods store a few months later and Elise said, “I saw your show and I thought it was great. If you ever need a harpist, I’m available.”
As you might expect, Knotz was not expecting to ever need a harpist, but he was curious and sent her some music he was composing. Elise did some improvisational work on it and sent it back. “I thought it sounded amazing!” recalled Knotz. “We got in the studio, made a record and just started touring.”
The harp adds little touches - subtle layers - to Knotz’ music. They have toured around the country and played many festivals, but have never come across another act designed the same way. “Those small touches add a tremendous amount to the vibe, the feel and everything in the music,” said Knotz.
Knotz and Elise play most of their shows now as a duo, after playing half of them with a band for their first two years. Playing as a duo came as naturally as the addition of Elise’s harp to Knotz’ music.
“It was kind of serendipitous when we did our first show just as a duo,” explained Elise. “We just kind of improvised the whole show and there was no production or anything. We just had the harp and Kuf’s verses. That was pretty magical because we didn’t plan on playing that show as a duo. It just beautifully came together. That was the moment we were like, ‘Alright, we can do this.’”
Knotz and Elise have released two records and plan on releasing their third later this summer. They both love the idea of Monmouth’s show combining poetry and music. “There’s going to be a lot of inspiration that night,” said Elise.
“It’s beautiful,” added Knotz. “I’m always a fan of curated events that kind of tap into a lot of different things, but still don’t feel like they’re all over the place. I feel like everything that’s going to be there - the foundation of all of them draw from each other and some were born from each other. So, I think it’s a beautiful way to represent and show all of the different aspects. It’s the whole culture and the beauty of jazz and poetry, and how important and powerful it is.”
The show takes place on July 9th in the Pollak Theatre on the campus of Monmouth University in West Long Branch. Tickets range from $38-$50. Showtime is 7 p.m. Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.