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Pittsburgh's venerable Jazz Poetry festival back to full capacity

Elina Dunn wearing a black rimmed hat.
City of Asylum
Singer Elina Dunn performs May 7 and 8 at the Jazz Poetry festival, at Alphabet City.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Jazz Poetry is one of Pittsburgh’s signature arts events. It’s poets reading, jazz musicians playing … and also poets reading while jazz musicians improvise one-and-done accompaniment to their words.

The festival began in May 2005, when City of Asylum Pittsburgh — which shelters and supports writers persecuted in their home countries — paired its first resident, Chinese dissident poet Huang Xiang, with jazz legend Oliver Lake. The free, one-night concert took place on a temporary stage on the North Side’s Sampsonia Way, where City of Asylum was housing Huang.

That show drew about 300 to the alley-like Sampsonia, and from there the numbers only grew. In the mid-2010s, City of Asylum held a couple of the annual Jazz Poetry nights under a huge tent in nearby West Park. The carnivalesque-feel was fun, but logistically challenging; in 2016, organizers transitioned from a single big concert with many performers to a more manageable Jazz Poetry month: multiple smaller shows throughout May. Since 2017, Jazz Poetry has been held at the group’s intimate Alphabet City venue, used year-round for readings and concerts.

While last year’s Jazz Poetry month was the first to be in-person since the pandemic struck, this year’s — the 19th — will be the first to utilize Alphabet City at full capacity since 2019. (It will also be the first since City of Asylum co-founder Henry Reese was wounded in the knife attack that badly injured famed author Salman Rushdie, whose words had originally inspired Reese to launch the nonprofit group.)

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Alphabet City might well need all those seats. The first of the nine concerts, Wed., May 3 (with jazz musician James Brandon Lewis and his quartet, and poets including Terrance Hayes), is already sold out, and subsequent shows feature many notable performers, some hailing from quite far away.

Highlights include two nights with Swiss-Albanian jazz and folk singer Elina Duni and British jazz guitarist Rob Luft, who share the stage May 7 with Allegheny County ASL poet laureate Mj Shahen and poet Yalie Saweda Kamara, and May 8 with Booker Prize-winning Nigerian-British poet Ben Okri and Cuban-born poet Jorge Olivera Castillo.

The May 14 program includes acclaimed poet Eileen Myles, while Hungarian saxophonist Mihály Borbély is featured in the May 21 and 24 shows.

COAP director of programs Kelsey Ford said the performers — most of whom are out-of-towners, to say the least — get one brief rehearsal together each before their largely improvised evening concerts.

The May 31 closing night features young local poets collaborating with the Pittsburgh-based Hip Hop Orchestra, a performance and education project that plays contemporary popular music using acoustic orchestral instruments. Think: singers and rappers backed by cello, oboe, marimba, and more.

“I wanted to be able to think about the future of jazz poetry and what that might look like,” said Ford. “They’re sort of the next generation of jazz poetry, which is a really joyful way to end the month.”

If you can’t make it out to fill one of Alphabet City’s 185 seats, note that all events are also live-streamed.

More information on Jazz Poetry is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: