The lady speaks the blues: You can see Dana Bryant on MTV. So what? So she's a jazz poet. Joseph Gallivan reports

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The Independent Culture
'You know, the last time it happened was Robert Frost for Kennedy, so seeing Maya Angelou reading her poetry at Clinton's inauguration, it was like wow, a black womaaan, that was fierce, heh heh heh. It must be a sign of the times - I had to do a double take.'

Which is precisely what people do when they first see Dana Bryant as she trips on to the stage in various club and coffee-house stages around America. Standing 6'2' tall (that's without the high heels) in her customary gold lame dress, the 29-year-old New Yorker looks like a glam Grace Jones but sounds, to use her own term of approval, twice as fierce. Next Sunday she brings her version of the renascent blend of jazz and spoken word from New York to the city that even the Americans admit is the epicentre of it all, London.

'The spoken-word scene is really big in New York at the moment, but people are really interested in the English jazz-rap scene and the record label Talkin' Loud, the way artists like Young Disciples and Galliano work in jazz riffs. Also, in New York you have rap and poetry finally recognising each other.' Bryant and her band Giant Step have done shows with KRS1, Heather B and the Jamaican dub poet Muta Baruka, and performed with a string of urban poets such as Jane Cortez and the Firespitters Band, the Last Poets, Jamal, Joseph and the City Kids and Queen Latifah.

The key to her sudden success - she sang jazz standards for years, and only began writing her own lyrics 21 months ago - is the timely way she is bringing together the three strands of jazz, rap and poetry. Her inspiration was the acerbic Seventies performer Gil Scott-Heron. Her poem 'Heat', which describes through child's eyes the sweating matriarchy of a southern Baptist church, proceeds over simple bongo backing, in exactly the same style as Scott-Heron's hilarious 'Whitey's on the Moon'. It's an influence she further acknowledges in an update of his masterpiece 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'.

'I grew up with his music, before rap got big, but I thought nothing of it until I was reintroduced to it - by a Brit actually, a flautist called Richard Worth. He started spontaneously reciting some passages over coffee, and I thought 'This is the funniest thing, you know that poem is funny': 'There'll be no pictures of you and Willie May pushing that shopping cart down the block on a dead run and trying to slide that colour TV into the back of a stolen car . . .'

'My God, wasn't that writing prophetic?' she exclaims, in her swooping, slightly southern tones. 'That man wrote that twenty years before the LA riots.' Her version of 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' remains true to the form but changes the topical references. 'When I talked to Gil about it he said 'There ain't no revolution, there was no revolution, and there will be no revolution'. That was scary. I didn't dare take him up on it.'

Bryant's own writing is not overtly political. 'OK, I'll tell you who I admire. I have an aunt who is 57 years old, a probation officer, she's a lesbian and she's aware, but it's not like she's a PC woman. And I realised I've been denying what I am, I can't get away from the fact that I'm black and a woman, and to acknowledge that and to hold it up to the light for me is a personal revolution.'

Taking a look at her poem 'Dominican Girdles', which is about a skinny teen trying to acquire curves in time for a big party, or 'Can't Be Music (Ode to Chaka Khan)', in which the father-figure thinks Chaka can't be music in the way that Charlie Mingus is music, the poetry purist might complain that their lines are not just free and slender like the writer, but slight. Can this sort of writing get over the 'Is it literature?' hurdle?

'Well, my mother was a teacher and she knew that words are currency and knowledge is power, and so she put me through private school until finally I graduated in English Literature. Sure I've been influenced by white male writers - most writers are white males after all - but since college I've tried to concentrate on books by black people about black people, or by women about women. I suppose it's narrow and prejudicial, but what moves me most is the work of women of colour because their experience addresses my own. It's not an academic thing, I'm looking for things that affect me. That's why I write in such a simple, direct style, because I want to be understood by everyone. I'm fortunate I can speak up for myself. I like William Carlos Williams for that, he knew what it was to be voiceless.'

Bryant has become used to adapting to the needs of her audience. 'Yeah, when I'm just doing readings, or choreo-poems, like acted monologues, I just wear jeans, but to reach a club crowd you definitely need extra things. The guys are sitting there in the front row thinking 'Aw no, she ain't gonna do that poetry shit,' so that's what the gold dress is for. You have to come on like a chanteuse. They see the drum kit and feel more comfortable, then they get into it.'

On keyboards she has the remarkable Weldon Irvine, who wrote 'Young, Gifted and Black'. Weldon was a musical prodigy, a self-taught pianist with perfect pitch and 'total recall', able to transcribe and arrange effortlessly. He now teaches music - and rap - to schoolchildren, and plays what Bryant calls 'a sort of jazz- funk kind of thing. I pretty much leave the musicians to themselves'.

'I don't pretend to speak their language and it works out best that way. I just read 'em the text and they play. They have a general idea of form, and then it always changes with improvisation. They know in what parts to drop out or make a special effect. Sometimes I'll get an acoustic bassist to make all the sounds he can: beat on it, bow it, pluck it, pitch it. I'm loath to be in rhythm, because the speech has a rhythm of its own which goes well in contrast to the music. Sometimes it's great to just perform above a noise. Mind you, to go with Weldon we're hiring some funky musicians on this tour. Tony Coleman on guitar, Steve Lewington on bass and a guy who's supposed to be the best drummer in London, Andy Gangadine. If there are any good timbales or conga players out there, they can come along. It's the same old poets' story though - we can't afford to pay.'

This potent mixture of carefully chosen words and stylish Seventies funk has caught the imagination of pop's primary powerbroker in the USA, MTV. Bryant and several others, such as Matthew Courtney, Reg E Gaines, 99, and Max Blagg - people who have come straight out of the spoken-word scene from places like the St Mark's Poetry Project and the Nuyorican Cafe - have been asked by the music video channel to do 30-second sound-bite spots.

'We'll be able to sound off about anything we want, so long as it's done in a life-affirming way,' she says. At first, presidential candidates were deemed hip enough for the charts; now it looks as if poets are.

Dates: 14, 28 Feb, Ronnie Scott's, London W1; 17 February, Old Trout, Windsor; 18 Feb, Gallery, Leeds; 20 Feb, Jazz Cafe, London NW1; 25 Feb, Fantails, Woking; 26 Feb, Jazz Bop, Brighton; 27 Feb, Lakota, Bristol.

(Photograph omitted)

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