Growing up in Salt Lake City, Norm Rosenblatt never wanted for music. He took piano lessons from a neighborhood woman. Later, at age 12, he took jazz lessons from renowned Salt Lake City swing-band leader Wally Williams.
But it took decades before the power of music hit the now-81-year-old Rosenblatt. When it did, it was largely through poetry.
"I started memorizing verse as an exercise in memory," Rosenblatt said by phone from his home in San Francisco. "Then one day I just put it to music. The first song was pretty bad. The second song was also pretty bad. But by the time I got to the fifth song, it was all right."
So "all right," in fact, that Rosenblatt proceeded to compose 18 songs set to poems both famous and semi-famous a program sizable enough for a small jazz ensemble, plus vocalist. "Jazz Voices of Poetry" hosted its first concert performances in 2011 at San Francisco's Rrazz Room for his 80th birthday. Now Rosenblatt, who does not perform on piano himself but will oversee each performance, will take the show on the road and back to his Salt Lake City home for two concerts at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Dumke Auditorium.
The ensemble includes pianist and music director Ken French and prominent jazz vocalists Nicolas Bearde and Clairdee.
Rosenblatt hails from the same family that donated its Federal Heights home to the University of Utah as the school president's residence. The family also established the university's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence.
Norm Rosenblatt published Salt Lake City's 1960s-era newspaper The Rocky Mountain Review, closing it to move to San Francisco in 1973.
The idea of setting music to poetry isn't entirely original. Beatniks and impromptu percussionists did just that decades ago, but their verse was largely improvised. Rosenblatt said composing music specific to another person's verse is far more difficult, because it demands respect for the verse that can be attempted, but perhaps never quite achieved.
"My prime objective is to honor the poem 100 percent," he said. "I might repeat a phrase or two to provide balance, but it's always with an eye to preserve the poem. … Hopefully, we're getting poetry to an audience that may not read poetry so much."
Lending her voice to verse set to jazz was no long stretch, vocalist Clairdee states on the band's promotional online video.
"As a vocalist, the most appealing element for me is vocal content," she said. "And you can't get more lyrical than a beautiful poem."
"Jazz Voices of Poetry" includes compositions set to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" and an excerpt from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" as well as Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Lesser-known poems set to music include Denise Duhamel's "Buddhist Barbie" and Li-Young Lee's "Nativity."
Rosenblatt deemed William Butler Yeats' "Cloths of Heaven" so rich in musical possibility that he composed two versionsone soft tango, the other fast and jazzyto accompany Ireland's most famous poet.
He said he sometimes studies poems for days, in some cases memorizing them, before he can feel wise enough about their meaning, both subliminal and at the surface, to compose music around them.
There are a few poets he's never felt the urge to compose for, including John Donne, John Milton, William Blake and, the most modern of all, T.S. Eliot.
"Someday I may tackle him," Rosenblatt said. "But, quite frankly, his approach to life was too downbeat for me. I like life on the upbeat."
Norm Rosenblatt's 'Jazz Voices of Poetry'
When • Saturday, March 23, 8 p.m.; Sunday, March 24, 2 p.m.
Where • Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium at Utah Museum of Fine Arts inside The Marcia and John Price Museum Building, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $25. Call 801-467-8499 or visit www.jazzvoice.net/home.cfm for more information.