Last year, after 11 years of running its Jazz Poetry concert as a huge one-night event, City of Asylum Pittsburgh launched Jazz Poetry Month, with multiple weekends of free smaller-scale events. Attendance almost doubled, according to the group.
A first-week highlight of this year’s festival is a speaker well suited to City of Asylum’s mission of sheltering writers persecuted in their home countries. Zineb El Rhazoui is a Moroccan-born French human-rights activist who was a columnist for Charlie Hebdo at the time of the 2015 massacre that took 12 lives at the French satirical magazine, targeted for its irreverent depictions of the prophet Mohammed. When the shooting occurred, El Rhazoui was in Morocco, where she has been arrested three times for criticizing the government. Today, she is said to be France’s most protected woman, under 24-hour guard due to fatwas and death threats. On Sept. 9, she’s the guest at a public conversation on freedom of speech at Alphabet City. Week one also includes a Sept. 7 concert by the acclaimed Tom Rainey Trio.
The following weekend is when the jazz/poetry collaborations City of Asylum is known for begin in earnest. On Sept. 15, guitarists Jerome Harris and Brandon Ross do solo sets, then join Somali-born poet Ladan Osman and Pittsburgh-based Very Smart Brothas blogger Damon Young for words-and-music collabos. On Sept. 16, Harris and Ross join saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Pheeroan akLaff and bassist Billy Grant for the first-ever reunion of Jump Up, their 1980s jazz-reggae fusion band. They’ll be accompanied on stage by National Book Award-winning poet Mark Doty; poet Kimiko Hahn; and Pittsburgh-based Afro-Mexicana poet Ariana Brown. On Sept. 17, Pittsburgh-based bassist Dwayne Dolphin joins akLaff and Lake for a trio set and collaborations with poets Jericho Brown, Román Antopolsky and Dawn Lundy Martin.
More concerts follow through Oct. 1, including a Sept. 30 appearance by Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith, recently named Poet Laureate of the United States.
Lake, co-founder of the groundbreaking World Saxophone Quartet, also co-founded Jazz Poetry and curated the music for the Sept. 15-17 weekend. Reached by phone in New York, he says he’s excited about the semi-improvised work with poets. He’s also preparing for the Jump Up reunion, for which he’ll share lead-vocal duties: “I’m trying to get my vocal chops together.”