The speaker is an accompanist, and they spend the lines of the poem calling on their own experience in the jazz world to share what they know. Matthews chose to use rather simple and direct language throughout this poem. This means that readers can appreciate ‘The Accompanist’ and its meaning without struggling with syntax.
Explore The Accompanist
‘The Accompanist’ by William Matthews is a thoughtful poem about a jazz musician’s life.
The poem starts out with the speaker, an accompanist, addressing another accompanist. The speaker is explaining the way that someone has to dull their music down and pay attention to the cues that “she” gives. It’s important to remember that you’re an accompanist, the speaker says, and not part of a duet.
As the poem progresses, the speaker also acknowledges the sexuality that can sometimes feel present within jazz music. This is something that many people will call out but which rarely exists. This is especially true in the accompanist/singer relationship as it is “partly sexual” rather than “wholly.” The poem ends with the speaker noting what music can, in the best of time, accomplish.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘The Accompanist’ by William Matthews is a forty-four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not use a specific rhyme scheme. This means that there is no pattern that unifies the end words of each line. Despite this, it is possible to find a few examples of rhyme throughout the poem. For example, “play” and “melody” are an example of a half-rhyme. The poem also uses a loose metrical pattern. The majority of the lines conform either to trimeter or tetrameter. This means they either have three sets of two beats per line or they have five sets of two beats.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines five and six.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “both, night after night, the blue.”
- Repetition: can be seen in the first few lines when the poet repeats “Don’t play” three times.
- Allusion: throughout this piece, there are a few examples of allusions. These are references to subjects that are not fully explained by the text. It requires prior knowledge to know who Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong are.
Lines 1- 12
Don’t play too much, don’t play
too loud, don’t play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
of what I might. I don’t like
to complain, though I notice
that I get around to it somehow.
We made a living and good music,
In the first lines of ‘The Accompanist,’ the speaker begins by giving directions to the accompanist. This person needs to “anticipate her,” the person they are playing with. They have to keep from playing “too much” or “too loud.” Subduing their own music is the best way to go.
It’s at this point that the narration shifts the speaker, who also appears to be an accompanist, uses first-person pronouns to describe their experience with “her.” They remember how this person they played with would look at them a certain way and they knew to play “on tip- / toe.” They complained sometimes about this work and the fact that they had to dull down their own music. But, they made a “living and good music” together.
both, night after night, the blue
curlicues of smoke rubbing their
staling and wispy backs
against the ceilings, the flat
drinks and scarce taxis, the jazz life
we bitch about the way Army pals
complain about the food and then
re-up. Some people like to say
with smut in their voices how playing
the way we did at our best is partly
sexual. OK, I could tell them
a tale or two, and I’ve heard
the records Lester cut with Lady Day
and all that rap, and it’s partly
sexual but it’s mostly practice
and music. As for partly sexual,
I’ll take wholly sexual any day,
In the next part of the poem, the speaker goes on to say how “night after night” the same thing repeated itself. They played in clubs where “curlicues of smoke rubbing their / staling and wispy backs / against the ceilings.” They had drinks, the rare taxi, and other complaints that those in the “jazz life” know very well.
There are some listeners, the speaker says, who found something sexual in the way they played together. But, it’s not all like that. They know that some jazz music sounds sexual, like the “records Lester cut with Lady Day.” This is a reference to Lester Young and Billie Holiday. It’s part sex, but it’s also all for “music.”
but that’s a duet and we’re talking
accompaniment. Remember “Restless
Blues”? Bessie Smith sings out “Daddy”
and Louis Armstrong plays back “Daddy”
to the night, to the way you judge
and pardon yourself, to all that goes
not unsung, but unrecorded.
The situation the speaker is in is not suited to “wholly sexual,” they note. Instead, they are only the accompanist, not part of a duet. The speaker specifically mentions one song in which Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong play together. There is a conversation between the two, but it’s Smith’s story, the speaker notes. This is the way that music works. When you play it, you take part in it in your own way, but it can still be someone else’s story.
Part of the point of songs like it, to the extent music can accomplish it, is how you share the “pain and joy” with someone else. But, most of the time, you’re just playing to drunks and to the songs that have been “unrecorded.”
The tone is descriptive and passionate. It’s clear the speaker feels a passion for the subject matter they’re describing. They know the jazz world and understand the role an accompanist has to play.
The purpose is to celebrate what music can accomplish in its best moments and the way that an accompanist is part of a musician’s work.
The major theme at work in this poem is the power of music. The speaker notes that sometimes it doesn’t work this way, but at its best moments, it can help one share their “joy” and “pain” with another.
The speaker is an accompanist. They are someone who knows the music world well and is explaining to another accompanist what it’s like to work alongside “her.” They go off on a slight tangent, explaining the nature of a jazz musician’s life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Accompanist’ by William Matthews should consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Myth of Music’ by Rachel M. Harper – describes the mythical power of music to convey one’s generational, personal, and familial relationships.
- ‘Music I Heard’ by Conrad Aiken – describes the irreparably changed world of a speaker who has lost his lover but not the most poignant of his memories.
- ‘My Mother’s Music’ by Emilie Buchwald – a dedication to childhood happiness, touching on nostalgia for the inability to return to that bliss.