Three Poems by Stephen C. Middleton

These three poems by Stephen C. Middleton take improvised music, an artform that to quote McCoy Tyner is “as serious as your life,” and tells it slant. Riffing on literary, artistic, and socio-political tropes, as well as parental incomprehension, they place music in unexpected — fresh, sometimes mischievous —contexts…

Surreal photography by Ángela Burón.

by: Stephen C. Middleton

Manhattan Tango (No Ego) 

“John Szwed said / and the sleeve / booklet note, quotes” would be too easy, especially in this context. Let us say rather that, in his essay Szwed draws attention to both Georges Perec’s thoughts on freeform jazz and the, perhaps false, opposition that he sets up. Despite certain iconoclastic actions by Ornette Coleman and others, the primary point of the music was not a complete split with the past. Both Coleman’s seminal Free Jazz, and John Coltrane’s epochal Ascension drew on the past; the New Orleans ensemble, unison, and inherent democratic tendencies, but made it new (emphatically). Szwed accords Perec deserved respect for taking freeform jazz seriously at all, and here we may be near to an Oulipian idea(l); almost by definition freeform jazz is difficult – to play and to feed oneself whilst playing, and to overcome the rejection / obstacles that go with it. Hence the “survival strategies” of the great players, as expounded by Bill Shoemaker. No surprise then that Joe McPhee had a Survival Unit in his early days as a player / performer.

Measure the growl
With valve
& echo

Do you understand the language?

Piccolo, piccolo

Morsels of lament, pure
Or tormented

“Always thinking of gender
+++++++++++of politics”

No discussion(s) of the music
(The way he likes it)
But not prohibitive

Flush out new sonics

Initial, insistent wails
A sour engine
Squeeze & stutter
Fluttering abstract
Shrill metallic
In the atelier

Unoiled cog
Cathexis, or full steam ahead
Roles reversed

Into tango, discursive.


Boundary Line / Perception

No boundary lines to art, said Bird
Configure, word fire
A riot in the air
Higher partials & harmonics
Sonics & phonetics
Miles: ‘time / no changes’

The record producer said, “You must be very proud” to the parents of the free improviser. They looked surprised. As if it had never occurred to them. A lapse, to be sure. They had, perhaps, seeing his hand to mouth existence, not thought of it that way before. Understandable? Or; you decide.


Fragment for Miles

This sinister

Whispers,”…no one plays keyboards
+++++++++like Miles Davis”

Star People
Or ‘Calypso Frelimo’
(Leo Smith’s favourite)

Quick shift
Mood swing
Lap top / pedal steel
Built riffs
Unison (‘Maiysho’)

Hip hop (unfinished)…


Stephen C. Middleton is a writer working in London, England. He has had five books published, including A Brave Light (Stride) and Worlds of Pain / Shades of Grace (Poetry Salzburg). He has been in several anthologies, including Paging Doctor Jazz (Shoestring), From Hepworth’s Garden Out (Shearsman, 2010), & Yesterday’s Music Today (Knives Forks And Spoons, 2015). For several years he was editor of Ostinato, a magazine of jazz and jazz related poetry, and The Tenormen Press. He has been in many magazines worldwide. He is currently working on projects (prose and poetry) relating to jazz, blues, politics, outsider (folk) art, mountain environments, and long-term illness.

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