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Sean DesVignes

College: Brooklyn College
Awards: Beinecke Scholarship, 2015

Jazzing on the Black Experience

April 4, 2015. A South Carolina police officer shoots the fleeing Walter Scott in the back. Soon after, Brooklyn College junior Sean DesVignes, already nationally known for his poetry and 2015 recipient of a $34,000 Beinecke Scholarship for graduate study - an award given to 20 "young men and women of exceptional promise" - writes "Quittin' Time."

Music happens when change doesn't, it erupts
and boils over, and in these troubling times,
it's the only thing that makes me weep, all other
avenues of despair have been explored.

In 1960, with the struggle for civil rights aboil, drummer/composer Max Roach and a stellar band channeled the black experience, from Africa to the Americas, from slavery to reconstruction to African nationalism, in a landmark, explicitly political jazz album, "We Insist."

"I summoned the bones of Max Roach to reinterpret his album in the light of extrajudicial killings of black people," DesVignes says.

DesVignes mentions Albert Ayler, who a few years after Roach's album coerced his saxophone into atonal "humanlike screams and yells. That's something I gravitated toward, because how do you write screaming, how do you write frustration?" DesVignes manages in “Quittin’ Time:”

… I encouraged Roach
to use more accidentals, sharps and flats
that took the shape of takedowns
mutating into chokeholds, wallets mistaken
for pistols, a mildness of color,
as a part of Roach's band, one would enact
a loudness war against the officers' skin …

With Black and Trinidadian roots, DesVignes grew up in Brooklyn with a wide range of musical influences. His grandfather introduced him to jazz, particularly the avant garde, free jazz of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. "They wanted to translate the human experience," he says.

DesVignes also has a lighter touch. In "Roundtree," an evocation of Ayler's former girlfriend, Carrie Roundtree, he starts, "The horn was his/first girlfriend" and ends, "I knew we wouldn't last./He never played anything I could dance to."

DesVignes began writing poetry when he was 13 and attending New York City's public schools. At 18, he enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, near Urban Word NYC, which offers spoken word and poetry workshops to underprivileged youth. He entered the now-defunct New York Knicks Poetry Slam in 2011, winning second place and a $7,500 scholarship. He also performed 15-minute one-man poetry shows before transferring to Brooklyn College in 2012.

Brooklyn already had a poetry slam team, which he coached that year. In 2013 it competed at CUPSI, the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational, taking second place and best performance by a team, while DesVignes won as best new poet. At 2014's CUPSI, he won as best poet while Brooklyn won for best writing by a team.

In 2013, DesVignes won a scholarship to Cave Canem, the premier retreat for African-American poets. There, he workshopped poems that evolved into his first published work, a 2014 chapbook called "Take My Eyes to the Dry Cleaners." He is now working on "A Mighty Long Time," a collection anchored in the free jazz and calypso movements of the 1960s, "using music as a muse to comment on the black experience in today's world."

Meanwhile, he says, Brooklyn College provides him with "a strong foundation in the canon. Shakespeare, Chaucer and the romantic poets are my favorites."