Poetry and all that jazz... Simon Armitage verse is set to music for Yorkshire village festival

Simon Armitage.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Simon Armitage. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
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It is a poem about two clocks, one working, the other stopped, so as jazz anthems go, it’s a long way from the St Louis Blues.

But this is Yorkshire, not Missouri, and so it is Simon Armitage’s allegory about the timepiece under his bed that is being set to music, to be performed live by an 11-piece ensemble of horns, strings and percussion and broadcast to the nation on Radio 3.

Jonny Mansfield

Jonny Mansfield

But if the choice of source material is eccentric, it is rooted in local geography.

Armitage, an Oxford professor of poetry fancied by some as a future Poet Laureate, is a native of Marsden, near Huddersfield, whose annual jazz festival takes place next weekend.

Some of his verse is etched on to “stanza stones” on the moorland route to there from Ilkley. For Jonny Mansfield, a rising star of the jazz world and a local of nearby Shepley, scoring it for trumpet, violin and vibraphone was only a short leap of the imagination.

Two Clocks, Armitage’s metaphor for a relationship, is one of five of his poems set to music by Mansfield. His suite, On Marsden Moor, takes its name from another of the verses, while a third, Kid, is Armitage’s imagined monologue in the voice of Batman’s sidekick, Robin.

“I’m a fan of his, and he seemed keen on the idea when we approached his agent,” said Mr Mansfield, who, at 22 is more than 30 years younger than his subject, but who has been performing at the Marsden festival since he was 10.

His own jazz band, Elftet, will play what he calls a long-form composition of the works, three of them sung by vocalist Ella Hohnen Ford, two read. The band has just completed a 13-date tour, in advance of a debut album release next May.

The premiere of the Armitage suite, with the original author in attendance, will take place at the Marsden Mechanics’ Hall next Saturday, in the middle of the three-day festival.

Armitage, who has in the past written song lyrics that have earned him an Ivor Novello Award, was the source of “an endless supply of ideas”, said Mr Mansfield, who scored the pieces on a second-hand Hammond organ given him by at Christmas by his girlfriend.

“Sometimes the poetry is set as lyrics, sometimes spoken within the composition and sometimes read before the start of the composition. There are so many possibilities,” he said.

The challenge had been to translate Armitage’s iambic pentameter into duple and triple time meters, he noted.

The performance will be one of three to be recorded by Radio 3 for its Jazz Now series.

David Harris, a trustee of the festival, said: “Jonny is really well-known now, and becoming a very respected name in jazz, so we’re really delighted he’s been able to do this for us.

“The centre of Marsden is the perfect setting for it, because it was Simon’s home and Jonny has had a long association with the event. Like many of our artists, he comes back year after year.”

Armitage has described Marsden as somewhere whose “hills stand far taller than the architecture”. Nevertheless, the wooden clock tower on the 19th century hall that will host his work, is a familiar landmark ion the local skyline.

The festival, now in its 27th year, attracts thousands to Marsden but was reported to have lost money last year. In June, it was the subject of an “urgent appeal” to safeguard this year’s event.

A fundraising target of £12,000 was quickly met, Mr Harris said, with further finding coming from the council, Arts Council England and local firms.

“But we are still looking for a big business sponsor,” he said.

A pretty former mill community in the Pennines, Marsden is making a name for itself in poetry, as well as jazz.

Last year, it proclaimed itself Britain’s first “poetry village”, with the ambition of doing for verse what Hay-on-Wye, in the Welsh borders, had done for prose.

Armitage, who has declared himself a supporter of the initiative, is one of two famous poets to hail from the village. The first was Samuel Laycock, whose dialect verse about mill workers made him a local celebrity in the late 19th century.

A “poetry jam” is among the events at the jazz festival, and poetry evenings, aimed at promoting Marsden as a literary and cultural destination, have been staged in local pubs, with readings by local writers and poetry books placed on the shelves for browsing while drinking.