Philip Levine reads "Mingus at the Half Note"

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Philip Levine is set to become the nation's Poet Laureate this Fall, but he already was WNYC's Poet in Residence back in 2003. Listen to Levine read William Matthews' "Mingus at the Half Note," and how the poem relates personally to him.

WNYC Poet In Residence, by Philip Levine

April 18, 2003

Levine: In 1948 a guy I knew -- who had a lot of money-- asked me to drive his Oldsmobile from Detroit to New York City and to meet him at a fancy hotel because he had a date with a woman and he wanted to impress her with a car, but didn't want to drive it. And I had a week to make up my mind. I made it up in about three seconds. I wanted to go. And I knew where I was going or I thought I knew... I was going to the city of poetry... the city of possibility. I was a kid and I was just, I was enamored of what i was going to see. I had never seen it. I knew my parents had seen it, my older brother had seen new york and I was going to see it at last and my heart was so full. And I think most of all what I wanted to see was what i wanted to hear which was music because I was already hooked on be-bop and I dreamed of seeing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt , Max Roach, and Bud Powell. I have a feeling that William Matthews in Cincinatti had some of the same feeling and the guy he wanted to hear was Charles Mingus and he's written several marvelous poems about hearing Mingus in New York and i'd like to read one to you.

Mingus at the Half Note.

Two dozen bars or so into "Better Get It
in Your Soul," the band mossy with sweat,
May 1960 at The Half Note, the rain
on the black streets outside
dusted here and there by the pale pollen
of the streetlights. Blue wreaths
of smoke, the excited calm
of the hop in congregation, the long
night before us like a view and Danny
Richmond so strung out the drums
fizz and seethe. "Ho, hole, hode it,"
Mingus shouts, and the band clatters
to fraught silence. There's a twinge
in the pianist's shoulder, but this time
Mingus focuses like a nozzle
his surge of imprecations on a sleek
black man bent chattering across
a table to his lavish date:
"This is your heritage and if you
don't wanna listen, then you got
someplace else you'd better be."
The poor jerk takes a few beats
to realize he'll have to leave
while we all watch before another
note gets played. He glowers dimly
at Mingus, like throwing a rock
at a cliff, then offers his date
a disdained arm, and they leave in single
file (she's first) and don't
look back, nor at each other.
"Don't let me constrain you revellers,"
Mingus says, and then, tamed by his own rage
for now, he kick-starts the band:
"One, two, on two three four."


Producer: Abramson, Stacy

Host: Levine, Philip, 1928-