Sherman Irby’s Inferno

“Hell’s never sounded as suave and soulful as it does on Sherman Irby’s Inferno by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis. Irby, the lead alto saxophonist for the JLCO, cleverly interprets Dante Alighieri’s epic poem from The Divine Comedy to create a sweeping work that takes listeners on a lyrically swinging tour of the underworld’s nine circles.

“The epic composition, recorded live in 2012, lets the JLCO’s all-star improvisers give life to the colorful denizens of hell and casts the late, legendary baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley as the voice of Dante. Irby’s Inferno both stands alone as an irresistible musical narrative and sheds new light on Dante’s classic; this unique exploration of the epic poem captures its timeless quality and ingeniously places it in conversation with the jazz canon.”   —wyntonmarsalis.org

You can download the album or access it through various streaming services here.

Recorded May 19, 2012.

Released January 17, 2020.

Sherman Irby discussed his work on Inferno, his circuitous path to Dante (starting with a Divine Comedy anime!), and his plans to set all three canticles to music at the webinar “African American Interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy” (Oct 4, 2020).

See our previous posts on Irby’s Inferno here and here.

African American Interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

The virtual symposium “African American Interpretations of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” sponsored by the Cesare Barbieri Endowment for Italian Culture and hosted by Trinity College, was held via Zoom on October 4, 2020. Video of the event, featuring Sherman Irby, Dennis Looney, Carl Phillips, and Cornel West, and moderated by Dario Del Puppo and Matthew Collins, can be viewed by clicking here.

“You are warmly invited to an event organized by Dario Del Puppo and Matthew Collins, hosted by Trinity College in Hartford, on African American receptions of the Commedia. Though originally planned as an in-person gathering, which would have included a debut of Sherman Irby’s Purgatorio jazz composition, we are still delighted that we can proceed through digital means.

“It will now be a shorter e-event via Zoom, featuring Dennis Looney (author of Freedom Readers), poet Carl Phillips, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Sherman Irby, and philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West.

“We will start at 4:00pm this Sunday, October 4, and will wrap up around 5:30pm (NB: Eastern Time).”   –Cesare Barbieri Endowment for Italian Culture

Watch the recording of the symposium, held virtually via Zoom on October 4, 2020, here.

 

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)

“Thus [Soaphead Church] chose to remember Hamlet’s abuse of Ophelia, but not Christ’s love of Mary Magdalene; Hamlet’s frivolous politics, but not Christ’s serious anarchy. He noticed Gibbon’s acidity, but not his tolerance, Othello’s love for the fair Desdemona, but not Iago’s perverted love of Othello. The works he admired most were Dante’s; those he despised most were Dostoyevsky’s. For all his exposure to the best minds of the Western world, he allowed only the narrowest interpretation to touch him. He responded to his father’s controlled violence by developing hard habits and a soft imagination. A hatred of, and fascination with, any hint of disorder or decay.

“At seventeen, however, he met his Beatrice, who was three years his senior.”   –Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)

For more on this passage, see Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 183-188.

Amiri Baraka, “A Chase (Alighieri’s Dream)” (1967)

The following is an excerpt from Amiri Baraka’s 1967 prose poem “A Chase (Alighieri’s Dream),” the first piece in a collection of short stories called Tales.

“Place broken: their faces sat and broke each other. As suns, Sons gone tired in the heart and left the south. The North, years later she’d wept for him drunk and a man finally they must have thought. In the dark, he was even darker. Wooden fingers running. Wind so sweet it drank him.

“Faces broke. Charts of age. Worn thru, to see black years. Bones in iron faces. Steel bones. Cages of decay. Cobblestones are wet near the army stores. Beer smells, Saturday. To now, they have passed so few lovely things.”

Read more at Akashic Books.

See also Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 165-166.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

“So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the “Blackness of Blackness.” ’”   –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

This excerpt is available to read at Penguin Books.

Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

“I would like to submit one last example of a writer of color who turns to Dante in a moment of personal crisis. Consider the case of Edward Smythe Jones, who ‘in his over-mastering desire to drink at the Harvard fountain of learning tramped out of the Southland up to Cambridge. Arriving travel-worn, friendless, moneyless, hungry, he was preparing to bivouac on the Harvard campus his first night in the University city, when, being misunderstood, and not believed, he was apprehended as a vagabond and thrown into jail. A poem, however, the poem which tells this story, delivered him. The judge was convinced by it… and set him free to return to the academic shades’ (Kerlin 163-64). The poem called ‘Harvard Square’ ends on this note: ‘Cell No. 40, East Cambridge Jail, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 26, 1910.’ But the familiar scenario of a black man harassed by the police and thrown in jail for no discernible reason is transformed into a magical encounter with the muse. The divine goddess of inspiration comes to the poet’s aid with a brief lesson in literary history in which she compares his fate to Dante’s — ‘I placed great Dante in exile’ — suggesting that she has now done the same to Jones. Dante’s actual banishment from Florence sheds light on the figurative exile of Jones: the Negro in the white man’s world; the southerner in the North; the backwoodsman in the ‘University city’; the autodidact amidst the hypereducated; and the would-be Dante at the very center of Dante’s American home.”   — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 201-202

An excerpt of the poem “Harvard Square” is printed below. You can access the full poem, in Jones’s collection The Sylvan Cabin, on Project Gutenberg, as well as the volume by Kerlin cited above.

“Weep not, my son, thy way is hard,
Thy weary journey long—
But thus I choose my favorite bard
To sing my sweetest song.
I’ll strike the key-note of my art
And guide with tend’rest care,
And breathe a song into thy heart
To honor Harvard Square.

“I called old Homer long ago,
And made him beg his bread
Through seven cities, ye all know,
His body fought for, dead.
Spurn not oppression’s blighting sting,
Nor scorn thy lowly fare;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
The songs of Harvard Square.

“I placed great Dante in exile,
And Byron had his turns;
Then Keats and Shelley smote the while,
And my immortal Burns!
But thee I’ll build a sacred shrine,
A store of all my ware;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
A place in Harvard Square.”   — Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

Dante Micheaux wins 2019 Four Quartets Poetry Prize for Circus

“Congratulations to Dante Micheaux who has been awarded the prestigious Four Quartets Poetry Prize for his 2018 collection, Circus.

[. . .]

“Circus was selected as the winner by judges Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Rosanna Warren, whose citation reads: ‘How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.'”   — Dan Sheehan, Lit Hub (May 1, 2019)

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village” (1955)

James Baldwin, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955

“For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”   –James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” from Notes of a Native Son (1955)

Read the full essay here.

Martin Luther King, Jr., on Nonviolence (March 31, 1968)

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.   Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Address delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (March 31, 1968)

Read the full transcript at the website of the King Institute, Stanford University.

The image above comes from here, courtesy of the DC Public Library.

Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948)

“Harlem, the world’s largest urban Negro community, can sometimes laugh at the dog-gonest things. But its laughter is often a bitter laughter — the kind of laughter that, I imagine, reverberates through Dante’s hell when the devil suddenly slips on his own hot pavements and burns his sitter-downer.”   –Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948), cited in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture (1942-62), ed. Christopher C. De Santis (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 113-114