Perspectives: Ralph J. Gleason, “Down Beat” Magazine, November 24, 1954, Issue 24

When this whole jazz and poetry hassle began last spring, Kenneth Rexroth said the was trying to start a fad, maliciously and foresaw the possibility that it might catch on like swallowing goldfish and become the rage. There seems a fair danger that he was right. At this point I firmly expect to see a press release announcing that Abe Saperstein has signed T. E. Elliot for a coast-to-coast tour with the Harlem Globetrotters and the proceeds of the World Series will go toward the fund to free Ezra Pound. At the present writing Kenneth Patchen, who has been ill to the point of danger more than once in recent years and the recipient of numerous collections from poetry, seems to be thriving on a hard, twice-a-night gig (three shows on the weekends) at the Black Hawk with the Chamber Jazz Sextet. Patchen went it whole hog, when he got it in the act, He appears in a wine colored tux, jacket white shirt and black string tie-there’s a white jacket to wear when the band wears red by the way. The group has written music expressly for his poems and the whole thing is dramatic and well presented. He says he sees hope for a new medium. The Black Hawk sees money and so, I suspect of the poets, because they are all clamoring to get into the act. In almost any alley in San Francisco these nights you can see a bearded bard reading his quatrains while a couple of cats like blow. I understand some of the rhymesters are even reading the trade papers these days hoping to see an ad that looks like this:

[ WANTED-Avant Guard poet, music have book, published. Needs tuxedo; read, fake plenty hot. Must travel. No boozers, no chasers. ]

Ralph J. Gleason

Whether this all will amount to anything more than a bubble in the wind is problematical. At the moment it has a sort of freak attraction in San Francisco. The Black Hawk is doing some business but it is all predicated on a dishonest premise, to my way of thinking. Most the poets are slumming. Jazz already has an audience and they don’t. They’re re cashing in on the jazz audience but they won’t learn anything about jazz or listen to it or try to allow the natural jazz rhythms they have to come out. Instead they are blithely wailing away with the same sort of thing that lost them their audience in the first place. “I’d rather read ‘em than hear ‘em” a well-known jazzman commented succinctly and this is a good point. Everybody is asking the poets what they think about jazz. Not what does the jazz man think about poetry. The entire thing is being done from a point of view, which places poetry above jazz in this situation, and I don’t believe its right for a minute.

The merger of jazz and poetry sets up and exciting prospect for everyone. Some of the things Lawrence Ferlinghetti did at The Cellar are a step towards this. Some of the things Bruce Lippincott stared to do at The Cellar were also in this direction. But as for the so-called nationally known poets, they are merely reading their own works  (written with no idea of being performed with jazz) while a band plays in the background. It won’t work. Not until a poet comes along who learns what jazz is all about and then writes poetry will there by any merger. What we have now is a freak, like a two-headed calf. That’s all.


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