Excerpt: 'Nothing but the Music' by Thulani Davis


C.T. at the Five Spot

this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air
it breathes of journey/brilliant light journey
up thru the where was & who lived
it works those melodies to their pith/to their pulp
it fists & palms the last dirt roads
of lives that have to give out before they give up
bury me with music and don’t say a word
the only preacher is a poet
the text I have not read
but heard screamin’ out of saxophones
I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music
facing the dinge of spots & twofers
in the night/music/in the night/music have I lived

ripple stamp & beat/ripple peddlin’
stomps taps of feet slick poundin’ out
tonal distinctions between/keys & sticks
between funk & the last love song/he romps in beauty
the player plays/Mr. Taylor plays
delicate separate licks of poems
brushes in tones lighter & tighter/closer in space
sweet sassy melodies lean in
givin’ in at the knees/where it’s at
to get that stuff/sweet sassy melodies
hittin’ fast off the top of the stride
sweet sassy melodies knowin’ what it takes
to even walk those bottom notes/stomps
on those bottoms yes he’s been there he knows
the man struggles/bends the meanness

takes hold of the meanness of a ditch beatin
sweet sassy/man you gotta wrestle that joy
dig your heels rapid on hard ground/over & over
straighten your back and grab hold of the blindness
of stars ’fore you let go
this is not about romance
this is the real stuff
commandin’ a state/of the meanness/of the sweetness
of the time it takes/of the space it needs
of the weight of old air/it breathes
& sees like knives thru the thickness of flesh
& the blindness of our very selves
I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music

April 15, 1975, Five Spot, New York. The Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor,
Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille.


It’s Time for the Rhythm Revue

it’s Saturday morning
and I wanna dance
it’s time for the Rhythm Revue
I don’t wanna riot
don’t wanna riot
it’s Saturday morning
and I wanna dance

I know there’s only minutes left
have to tune in
find out if it’s a riot in LA
or if we can still dance
to Teddy Pendergrass
& songs we hummed before
they made love stories
called “Damage”
Al Green is crying,
Aw baby, did you mean that?

was the jury hung in LA?
did they acquit somebody in LA?
will we burn it down on Saturday
or dance to the Rhythm Revue
the not too distant past
when we thought we’d live on?

“I’m the one who loves you,” Curtis sang
and yet we came up in flames
you don’t have to ask about a riot
lit timbers fell down all around us
chaos, yes, I told the kid
I was there for some of that
yes, I’ve seen a mob

“what’s your name
I’ve seen you before
what’s your name
may I walk you to your door?”
these were dumb lines
that is their charm

don’t wanna riot in LA
don’t wanna be shot down
“what’s your name
is it Mary or Sue
what’s your name
do I stand a chance with you?”
it’s Saturday morning and I’m angry too
I learned my name is Rodney King
long ago and I’m waiting
waiting for a verdict
radio doing four-part

this boy asked me on Friday
had I ever seen any violence
which kind I asked? which kind?
the civil kind, he said
what’s that? I said
the LA kind is what he meant
Sam Cooke is singing
“let the good times roll
we gonna stay here till we soothe our souls”
a helicopter roars over the house
a dozen police cars squat in front of my post office
this very morning

the air is bright and gorgeous
a kid from Brownsville asked me
had I ever seen any violence
that’s why I clean my house
listening to songs from the past
times when no one asked anyone
if they’d seen a town burn
cause baby everybody had.

1992, Brooklyn, NY.



We’ll still be there
In our flatened-seventh hats
Rootie tootie shoulder slips
Saluting, tipping and caning
Where “it’s always night”

Some folks will keep missing
The notes not there
But lots will hum anyway it comes
Brilliant corners jut and glide
Out of mouths and bopping bent knees
Slow dragging our minor styles, sly Miles
The broken hearts and time

For Ruby, Nellie, Pannonica
Four fingers down one up
Ninths pyramid of course
Hide under his slap-and-fly feet
And laugh too
While analysts go in circles
Forget the retributions
Dealing us like they dealt the rest

We’ll still be there
Where it’s always night
Doing more Monk
Not just bipbop not just jazz
Or whatever made him say
“Well, you needn’t” that way
The secret’s in Billie’s photo
Or the back roads of divine healers
Gone the way of God

It’s on the corner of 63rd
In the crackling applause
At the Apollo
For a kid who played “all wrong”
He always won hands down flat out

Not just history not just Trane
No not what we heard about
What we heard
Just what we hear
It always being night
We’ll still be there
Dancing the dissonant logic
The loneness
Just playing music
He speaking to himself
Really paying us no rabbitass mind
Digging what himself was doing
T-monious and “al-reet”

February 17, 1982, 122nd Street, New York.


Zoom (The Commodores)

I once drove to Atlantic City
in the middle of the night
I crept thru a thunderstorm
for the Spinners/Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes
& motherfathersisterbrother
otherwise known as MFSB
I lost my voice for love
ever since doo-wop I’ve been weak
for the sound of Philadelphia
it’s well known
I remember the Howard/the Apollo
a few roadhouses
& even Ester’s Orbit Room
sweaty funky overweight underbuilt joints
where you could buy to satisfy
any of your senses
where romance flourished in the garish pink lights
and sweet night of the Coasters/the Tempts
& sweet Smokey’s Miracles
oh! where romance had a chance/was the chance
the only chance any of us had
young college students don’t like to discuss it
young poets eschew it
but after the Club Harlem & sandy crab cakes
under conk lights & dawn drunks
across the street I found the Commodores
known for the profound rhymes of our times
like “it’s slippery when it’s wet”
the tasteless fleshiness of the seventies
can be redeemed if you just learn to zoom
zoom saves love & rescues romance
zoom “I’d like to take just a moment
& dream my dreams”
zoom you Commodores
with all the footlight ardor & corn
with all the foolish sincerity of a man
who don’t care who knows/bout his jones
his love/his woman/his sweet thing
his squeeze/his weakness
his nose that a truck could run up
his crush/his sun/his moon/his starship
the sunshine of his life/the apple of his eye
his queen/his dream/his ZOOM
you can tell me all that/I don’t mind
zoom I’m with you Commodores
talking trash is one of the lost arts
of making love & giving humanity a break
zoom I’m with you Commodores
cause you meant it/and you loved her
and you did fly to that good woman
who waited/who waited for her baby
her man/her jones/her sweet daddy
her good thing/her love/her only one
her sun/her moon/sweet nights in June
her honey/her sweetheart
her ship that was comin in/her zoom
you Commodores
maybe you are the best of us
that can love & believe
all our foolish triteness
& the way we can’t talk when it’s important
& the love that can keep death waiting
til we see those eyes one more time
zoom I love you Commodores
I wanna fly away from here too
zoom I love you
when you call in the night
cause you couldn’t catch a cab
cause you see things in the dark
zoom I love you when you use subterfuge
to get me alone/when you drop hints/or drop by
when you promise me everything cause I’m so divine
zoom I love you
cause you won’t say no/cause you don’t want to go
cause it’s so cruel without love
give me the tacky grandeur of Atlantic City
on the Fourth of July
the corny promises of Motown
give me the romance & the Zoom

1977, Washington, DC.


Excerpted from Nothing but the Music by Thulani Davis. Copyright (c) 2020. Used by arrangement with Blank Forms. All rights reserved.


About the Author:

Thulani Davis (b. 1949) is an interdisciplinary artist and scholar whose work includes works of poetry, theater, journalism, history, and film. Her engagement with African American life, culture, and history is distinguished by poetic economy, passionate musicality, and an investigative concern for justice. While a student at Barnard College, the Virginia native was “schooled” for her first spoken word performance by Gylan Kain and Felipe Luciano of the Original Last Poets, jumpstarting a life of performance that would have her put words to music by Cecil Taylor, Joseph Jarman, Juju, Arthur Blythe, Miya Masaoka, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Tania León, and others. Living in San Francisco in the ‘70s, she joined the Third World Artists Collective, collaborated with Ntozake Shange, and worked for the San Francisco Sun-Reporter, reporting on stories such as the Soledad Brothers trial and the Angela Davis case before returning to New York and continuing to incite radical political thought as a reporter and critic for the Village Voice for over a decade. This experience as a journalist blazes through her historical fiction and her other writing, breathing anecdotal life into the experiences of actors of American history who have remained unnamed as a result of bondage and other unjust erasures. Davis has collaborated with her cousin, composer Anthony Davis, writing the libretti for the operas X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad, and wrote the scripts for the films Paid in Full and Maker of Saints, as well as several award-winning PBS documentaries. In 1993, her writing for Aretha Franklin’s Queen of Soul – The Atlantic Recordings made her the first woman to win a Grammy for liner notes, and her bibliography additionally includes My Confederate Kinfolk, novels 1959 and Maker of Saints, and several works of poetry. She is an ordained Buddhist priest in the Jodo Shinshu sect, founded the Brooklyn Buddhist Association with her husband Joseph Jarman, and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Afro-American Studies and a Nellie Y. McKay Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. Davis continues to explore the relationship between music and language as well as the ways we define being American and deal with race with her forthcoming book The Emancipation Circuit: Black Activism Forging a Culture of Freedom (Duke University Press) and poetry collection Nothing but the Music: Documentaries from Nightclubs, Lofts, Dance Halls & A Tailor’s Shop in Dakar (Blank Forms Editions).

Comments are closed.