When his first volume of “The Poetry of Jazz” released last year, nobody knew it would garner attention across the world with numerous accolades, spurring the release of his second volume this year.
Saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone, a music theory professor at Fresno State, has had his music performed in 29 countries and is heard on more than 25 recordings.
He recently released “The Poetry of Jazz Volume Two,” the second installment of his collaborative project that featured U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine.
As a child, the jazz saxophonist’s parents were not musicians themselves. However, it was his mother’s creativity that prompted him to create puppet shows and perform them for others. It was then that he composed his first songs — for his puppet shows.
But listening to a member from a jazz band play in elementary school changed everything.
“I remember hearing the person do a solo with the saxophone and I said, ‘I want to do that’,” Boone recalls. “And when I was a sophomore in high school, I played it.”
The aspiring artist grew up in North Carolina and moved around the country from Colorado, Washington, D.C., New York, Tennessee and ended up in California in 2000 after accepting a teaching position at Fresno State.
“A friend had told me about Philip [Levine] at Fresno State and said, ‘If that university can keep him, it has to be a good place and you have to apply’,” said Boone. “And so the reason that I applied for this job was because of Philip Levine.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Levine was known to be one of America’s most celebrated poets. He won two National Book awards, along with being a professor emeritus for the English department at Fresno State, where he would then be part of establishing the creative writing program.
The jazz fan would soon collaborate with Boone in 2012 for a fundraiser in Fresno.
That’s when the blend of poetry and jazz was born.
“I played saxophone and had my jazz group, and he was reading his poetry and people seemed to like it,” Boone said. “It got good reviews, and so we experimented more to see what else we could do.”
But there were challenges to be faced before the two continued to collaborate.
Boone explained how the mix of spoken words with the sound of music is a compositional challenge. His method for combining the two is to add depth to the poetry that was already there so one can enjoy the experience of both music and words.
Although there might be difficulties to overcome, Boone advises that students be able to face fear and be willing to embrace failure in order to succeed.
Over the next three years after their first collaboration, a total of 29 tracks were recorded.
The project ended up being Levine’s last and only large project before he died on Feb. 14, 2015, at the age of 87.
“The whole project took on even more meaning for us,” Boone said. “It was like a tribute to him because it was one of the last things he did.”
Famous jazz players like Chris Potter and Branford Marsalis were brought out as guest performers to be featured on the first volume, which was released in March 2018.
It was featured as the number 3 “Jazz Album of 2018” in DownBeat’s annual Readers Poll, as well as NPR’s All Things Considered, was listed as the number seven album of 2018 by a writer with UK VIBE, and reviewed on The Paris Review.
The great success of the first volume led the musicians to release the second volume on Jan. 18, which centers around Levine’s poems that explore humanist themes of the working class, the aftermath of war and the immigrant experience, according to a Fresno State news release.
The recordings of the second album took place during the same time as the first.
A total of 18 tracks are presented on the CD, with four instrumental versions that Levine either did on the first volume or on the most recent.
Track number 10 on the second volume, ‘Godspell,’ is a version that’s never been published before with Levine speaking, and track 18 is the instrumental version.
A celebratory CD release concert took place on Friday in Downtown Fresno.
“One thing to say is that this really is a Valley project. But it’s also a Fresno State project of the people that are on this CD,” Boone said.
For example, Levine was a professor at Fresno State for the English department, Craig Von Berg teaches in the music department, and Brian Hamada, who recently died last year, was a drum instructor.
The College of Arts and Humanities helped to partially fund the project through research grants and the dean’s council.
Boone describes his collaboration with Levine and the guest musicians as one of the coolest things that he has ever done.
“You know you might think you need to go somewhere else to get the utopia, but sometimes the utopia is right there,” Boone said.
For more information on Benjamin Boone or his work, visit his website.