The soothing, saxophonic melody of pianist Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight” and the spoken, heartfelt poetry of world-renowned poet Michael S. Harper reverberated off the walls of the Missouri United Methodist Church on Friday.
About 70 people trickled in and out of the jazz poetry concert, part of a three-day symposium sponsored by the MU Department of English and Cave Canem, a national organization whose mission is to cultivate and celebrate African-American poetry.
Harper, a professor of English at Brown University since 1970, has published 16 books of original poetry and received awards for a number of his works. His books “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” and “Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems” were nominated for the National Book Award.
The Dennis Winslett Quartet, a combo based in Kansas City, provided Friday night’s music. They opened the evening by playing half an hour of music by saxophonist John Coltrane, a former acquaintance of Harper.
The combo continued to play as Harper, poets Herman Beavers and Kate Rushin, and Missouri poets Glenn North and Natasha Ria El-Scari took turns reading poetry that corresponded to the music.
Harper read “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” one of his most famous works, as the last poem of the evening. During a call-and-response portion of the poem, everyone in the audience repeatedly sang the words “love supreme.”
“(Harper is) one of the great American poets…just an extraordinary poet,” said Thadious Davis, a colleague and good friend of Harper.
The symposium was held this week in celebration of Harper’s birthday on Monday. After the concert, coordinators brought a birthday cake into the chapel and the audience sang to an unsuspecting Harper.
Other events throughout the symposium included panels with Harper’s friends and colleagues, a luncheon and public readings of his work.
MU English professors Cornelius Eady and Aliki Barnstone both met Harper while studying poetry in their early careers.
Barnstone studied with Harper at Brown and Eady first met Harper at a summer poetry workshop at the University of Rochester. Brown and Eady began planning the symposium last spring after discussing Harper’s influence as a poet, teacher and activist.
“Professor Harper is indeed a great poet,” Eady said. “We… wanted the Mizzou family to be aware that he is one of those artists whose work has affected the way we look at the art.”
The audience was filled with Harper’s colleagues and admirers who traveled from all over the country to discuss his work and the impact he has had on their lives.
Michael Antonucci, associate professor at Keane State College, attributed part of his success in life to Harper’s influence. A former student of Harper, Antonucci spoke as a panelist in an earlier event in the symposium.
“I studied with (Harper) from my sophomore year through my senior year, but the course never ends,” Antonucci said.
After Antonucci graduated, Harper kept in contact with him via postcards and emails. Harper continues talking to thousands of students after their time at Brown, Antonucci said.
Harper had such a great impact on the professors’ lives that they wanted to show him their appreciation through this symposium, graduate student Monica Hand said. Hand, a research assistant working for Eady, helped organize the symposium as the primary assignment for her research-assistant position.
“I am so happy that some of us were able to give back to Michael S. Harper, a little bit of what he has given to us,” Hand said.