“Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination” by Brent Hayes Edwards, Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $35.
Brent Hayes Edwards is a literary scholar and Columbia University English Professor. His publisher here in this remarkable book is one of the most notable of all Academic Presses. It is, then, no surprise to find passing clumps of post-structural jargon and thought thickening the broth enough to make for infrequent lumpiness.
Nevertheless, this is a brilliant and utterly arresting book that takes a surprisingly uncommon subject and looks at it in a profoundly original way. The subject is the subtitle of the book -- “Jazz and the Literary Imagination.” But the actual title gives you a sense of what makes Edwards’ book unique: it shares its name with a famous composition by Thelonious Monk and drummer Denzel Best called “Epistrophy” which Monk, for many years, always used as the closing theme of every evening’s closing set.
Here is Edwards explaining where that title came from: “the word (Epistrophe) means ‘turning about’ in Greek and ‘refers to a literary device in which a word or expression is deliberately repeated at the end of successive phrases, clauses, sentences or verses.” And that, says Edwards, not only describes what happens in one of the greatest compositions in bebop but could also refer to “the unusual little dance ... that Monk would often do during his concerts, standing up and leaving the piano while his sidemen soloed.” That is what is unique to the point of shocking here. Edwards is looking at literature through jazz eyes much of the time and not the other way around, no matter how profound his literary engagement. He is deciphering Henry Threadgill composition titles, and the poems and notations on the backs of Sun Ra Records (“you could call me the jester of the creator” Sun Ra wrote memorably) and “Literary Ellington” including his autobiography. He turns the duet concerts of Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor into literature and reads seriously the letters of Louis Armstrong as well as the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes. He has, incredibly, foregrounded what is all too often backgrounded. A unique book.