Poet Lisa Brimmer explores jazz

I reported this piece for a series called Minnesota Mix, a Minnesota Public Radio News project that examines how youth and ethnic diversity are influencing Minnesota arts. - David Cazares


As poet Lisa Brimmer prepares for a reading, she knows that her audience often comes with preconceived notions.

Perhaps because she is a young black woman, some expect her to draw heavily on hip-hop, the sound of her generation. Others might listen for a voice of defiance or anger.

Instead, they'll find a 26-year-old whose poetry explores the complexity of modern life: loneliness and isolation -- and sometimes, love.

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But she does so in a jazz setting, encouraged by agile musicians who help her poetry leap from the page. She found them in Lulu's Playground ,an improvisational band led by trumpeter Adam Meckler.

Brimmer doesn't want to dwell on the past. She simply wants to draw on a rich African-American experience that isn't defined by one moment in time.

Her focus on jazz springs from her immersion into black American culture as a young adult.

The adopted child of white parents, Brimmer grew up in largely white Lodi, Wis., where she was a drummer and drum major in high school. Since then, she's had a lot of catching up to do, something she's discussed with her father.

"He said that while he regretted that he didn't teach me a lot about African American culture and he regretted the fact that I had to do a lot of catching up he felt like I was a smart kid and a good kid and I would get there eventually," Brimmer said. "And he didn't want to try to reach me a about a culture that wasn't his own because he felt like it would be unfair. And in that moment I think I became a lot closer to my father in a lot of ways because he has always accepted a lot of my personal journey and my artistic journey."

She came to the Twin Cities to study at the University of Saint Thomas and found a creative home in writing. She later won a Givens Foundation Fellowship for African-American literature.

Welcomed by local jazz musicians who encouraged her to use music in her work, she's dismayed that younger audiences don't embrace the genre, despite its crucial role in shaping modern sounds.

"It's incredibly frustrating. It shouldn't be pulling teeth to get some of my lady friends to come to a jazz gig, you know," she said. "It shouldn't be as difficult as it is."

Brimmer is heartened by the innovation in the jazz world, experiments that fuse jazz with hip-hop and soul.

Hearing such music and working with Lulu's Playground inspired her to create a new project called High Society with an acclaimed group of local musicians. They'll perform tonight at the Black Dog Café in St. Paul.

Brimmer now thinks of herself as another instrument in the band, able to adapt her poems on the spot.

"It's very exciting because I think the poem, it changes in front of the audience and then they're almost involved in the creative process," she said. " No matter how in sync the different guys are, how well they know each other's tendencies, there's still that possibility that anything could happen."

Brimmer's poetry speaks to the isolation of contemporary life. She laments the loss of community and how people don't see each other.

She hopes to restore those connections from the stage.

See a longer look at Lisa Brimmer here.