Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Eighty-Eight Keys to Barry Harris


Eighty-Eight Keys to Barry Harris

By Justin Desmangles

The sudden get-down-boogie-stop-shuffle-bounce-back-beat-bump breaking hearts echoing back to the wrong side of the tracks is Barry Harris’s right hand. His left is doing something different, its chanting the changes to Charlie Parker’s Be-Bop hallelujah, “Ah-Leu-Cha”! Both hands are talking about it and telling it like it is, as only true Jazz piano masters can, with the Blues all up in it. That right hand is weaving patterns through the many-colored threads adorning the tune’s harmony. The left hand though, it ain’t letting go of that church shout. There’s still a moaner’s bench in Harris’s modus operandi. Both hands are exalting Bird’s emanation of divinity. It is a song of praise, the highest vibration, and therefore challenging to play, demanding virtuosity. Harris could make the complexities of this music come together with wit. A graceful navigation of the stars, finding new constellations of meaning in Parker’s ecstatic logic.

Harris came up in Detroit alongside a generation under the genius of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell actively composing, performing, touring, and recording. Fellow Detroit pianists Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones (brother of Elvin and Thad), alongside Harris became among the foremost interpreters of Powell and Monk’s music. All three continued to perform its repertoire to the end of their lives. Harris outlived them all, dying recently at the age of 91.

As a late-night jazz disc jockey, you learn to come to work armed and equipped with the essential. I held this job for seven years at San Francisco’s fabled radio station KPOO. This was where Ntozake Shange hosted a program called The Original Aboriginal Dancing Girl at the time she was writing for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Harris’s Riverside album Newer Than New became not only essential, but a record that could get you out of trouble. In a live situation like this one (I never did a prerecorded broadcast, ever), the sequencing of record albums is an art form in itself. It is easy to get lost out there if you don’t keep a silent sun at the center of things. With this music, you are narrating the history of the New World, not just the United States. That multicultural encounter attributed at the very origin story of New Orleans remains in the story of all Jazz music. Jazz piano is complicated, and the piano is among the few instruments through which the entire genealogy of the music can be traced. If Jazz had a Genesis chapter it could very well read “In the beginning was the piano, and it was good.”

Harris’s Newer Than New got me out of a lot of jams because of its vivid emotional directness and immediate harmonic depth, a quality Toni Morrison hints at in an interview shortly after winning the Nobel Prize. “[Jazz] has the characteristic of being sensual and illegal. And its sensuality and its illegality may prevent people from seeing how sophisticated it is. Now, that to me says something about the culture in which I live and about my work.” Something illegal, a fugitive in elegant finery, buying freedom with gold buried beneath the sea. The sophistication is evident and there is so much joy in its simple call to our intuitions. Listening to it is an art as well. But that is just the thing, you see, to get out of any traps you might lay as a disc jockey, by accident or oversight. What is the next song if the first one either went too far, or more mysteriously, set a more vivaciously demanding mood? Mixing at the turntables at 3 in the morning, been came on at midnight, now is the time! Where can you go into the ebb and flow? No matter where you are at Newer Than New brings you back home, intimately with assurance.

After all, as all listening is an intimacy between worlds inner and outer, Harris has the glue to the fourth dimension on this album. He is holding the Be-Bop universe in place.

Joining Harris is the frontline of the Charles Mingus organization of the day, “those Be-Bop kids from Detroit” Mingus called them. Charles McPherson and Lonnie Hillyer, alto saxophone and trumpet respectively, burn this mother down! The sudden shifts of nuance and timbre, even in the most subtle degree, are given fullness and contour. They get down on things like “Anthropology” but also their own Bop bag “Make Haste” with its index of quotes, accelerating tempos, and strategic imagination. Hillyer really takes hearts away with the beautiful “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” in balladeer stylings. Not a dry eye in the house, I’m telling you. The breadth of his tone is wide, dark, glowing. You can tell Hillyer knows the poetry to this classic by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

What Harris is probably best known for is his contributions to Lee Morgan’s break-out album The Sidewinder. I was always most impressed by Harris on “Totem Pole” where he almost steals the show. It begins with a piano introduction, giving him something of a head-start. Once we get to his solo, he has already been bright, glistening in the undercurrent of the tune. Harris comes out so elegantly, such buoyant images swing out, he sounds as if he is dancing. But this dancer has multiple partners, and is so deft in his rhythm and grace, he can keep them all satisfied. They are all at the club that night laughing and talking to each other. These folks got some moves, boy! There’s a story being told here, actually several stories, Harris is in full narrative mode. Great musicians can take on several voices and have a conversation of styles within a single performance. Consider the cast in a play, the musician as playwright, because Harris has real drama. Powell could do this practically better than anyone else. Monk was the greatest dramaturg of them all.

If you can understand the way Eugene O’Neil families might end up at Tennessee Williams’s one day, then you know that a lot the very best pianists came long before either Monk, or Powell. Men like Art Tatum, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and going back much further the man himself, Ferdinand La Menthe, popularly known as “Jelly Roll” Morton. Well, I will tell you, just as there is a bit of Aeschylus in Ishmael Reed, all those pianists above can be heard in Barry Harris, and that is saying something, brother! But you know what, that is the way it is with all the true masters of Jazz. They carry the entire history of the music and their instrument within them at all hours of the day. Whether they are touching a piano or not, the eighty-eight keys are within them.   

One of Harris’s greatest recordings is the Live in Tokyo album released on Xanadu. The concert culminates with one of the most incandescent treatments of Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” ever. Time travel happens in the arc of this rainbow. Afro-Latin rhythms layer in as if they were a drum choir. People who know the original Bud Powell Trio recording with Curly Russell and Max Roach, May Day, 1951, know it as an unforgettable musical experience. The African retentions so evident in music from throughout the Americas is explosive in Harris’s trio performance here. A beat within the beat becomes the heart in another space and time in syncopation. The ancestors have come to dialog on this session, have their say loud and clear to all who agree to boogie your body. Just how Harris greets this space between worlds is as a glorious one. He gives over to it and lets the spirits do their work.

That was a real show-stopper, or an immediate tonic to pick me up on the late-night shift at KPOO. The Nightfly, the radio show was called, and I loved spinning that record. From a professional broadcasting point of view, I have over thirty years on-the-air as a jazz disc jockey, Barry Harris is one of the keys to the kingdom.

The study of Jazz requires much reading into the literature of Black writers who were contemporaries of the musicians. Just as a novelist can reveal and disclose the lives of people in ways that a journalist cannot, so Jazz musicians can stick closer to the facts of Black life in America. Writers who helped me understand this and more about the music of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, include Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes. Of particular interest is Hughes’s Montage of a Dream Deferred, a suite of poems comprising an entire book, one that is a direct response to Be-Bop in Harlem, New York at the time.

Jazz contains all the orality and folklore from which all great Black literature has come from. Barry Harris had it in spades.



Recordings by Barry Harris discussed in this article

“Ah-Leu-Cha” (Charlie Parker) Magnificent!, Prestige, 1970

"Anthropology" (Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker) Newer Than New, Riverside, 1961

“Make Haste” (Barry Harris) Newer Than New, Riverside, 1961

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (Rodgers - Hart) Newer Than New, Riverside, 1961

“Totem Pole” (Lee Morgan) The Sidewinder, Blue Note, 1964

“Un Poco Loco” (Bud Powell) Live in Tokyo, Xanadu, 1976


(photo of Barry Harris by Francis Wolff c. 1964)

This essay appeared in in Konch, Summer 2022 issue.

Monday, August 2, 2021

How Black Was My Reading List, How White Was My Statue? By Justin Desmangles


How Black Was My Reading List, How White Was My Statue?

By Justin Desmangles


“Any time you find the government involved in a conspiracy to violate the citizenship or the civil rights of a people, then you are wasting your time going to that government expecting redress. Instead, you have to take that government to the World Court and accuse it of genocide and all of the other crimes that it is guilty of today.”


Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, April 3, 1964


Republicans and Democrats agree on most things and the thing they agree on most is that they, and they alone, should run the country. The mesmerizing media machinery that churns amplifying their differences is a multi-billion-dollar industry. So persuasive is its affecting charisma, many Americans believe the two parties to be at each other’s throats most waking hours. This is especially true during an election year, which increasingly seems to be stretching its calendar thirty-six months. But when it comes to the social degradation, economic exploitation, pre-mature death, and mass murder of Black lives throughout the world, there is common ground. Much of that ground can be found in Africa, where the most radical expansion of U.S. military power on the continent was led by Barack Obama under the aegis of AFRICOM. There is not a car on the American road that has not filled its tank a hundred times over with Nigerian blood. A fact long true before the 21st century. Ask Ken Saro-Wiwa. More recently, the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over coltan — the essential ingredient in smart phones, laptop computers &c. — has left millions of Blacks dead in recent decades, with reporting stateside at a minimum as not to disrupt tech-heavy stock markets. The oil and mineral wealth of Africa is the burning that fuels Europe and America, without which there would be neither. This is also increasingly true of China, which of late has successfully usurped its Western competition in controlling extraction of these resources in numerous countries, leading to proxy wars and terror.

During the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, the American Left and what was left of it identified with anti-Imperialist revolutionary struggle in Africa, as well as in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia. In his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear and sharply focused on the necessity for this international approach when dealing with problems created by American imperialism at home.

"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, 'This is not just.' . . . This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."


Malcolm X had been making similar points upon his return to the U.S. after meeting with African presidents and prime ministers, months before his assassination. Following the deaths of these leaders, efforts to dissuade and distract American Blacks from this type of international strategic thinking have become pervasive in popular culture. Since then, the self-hating grotesqueries of Black images in Hollywood and the art world have been celebrated as breakthroughs and an ever-growing list of firsts. Firsts first held probably by someone passing for white or in-the-closet, so who’s zooming who? Nevertheless, for observers of geopolitics and globalization (read global warming), the facts both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X emphasized in their shared, mature, strategic vision remain the same. The treatment of Blacks in America at the hands of our own government, whether it be state, local, or federal, constitutes an international human rights crisis, one whose only solution lies in the solidarity of its Black victims throughout the African world and its diaspora. Ironically, it is a human rights crisis of such extraordinary dimensions, similar ones have been used as a pretext towards justifying sanctions against other countries, often leading to invasion and regime change by the U.S.

The generation of Black American artists, writers, and educators who heard the message calling for unity among all African people took it up as a vocation. Inspired by an earlier generation’s manifesto, “Blueprint for Negro Writing” by Richard Wright, and essays such as Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” this new generation sought to manifest the civic potential of the arts in Black political and economic life, as well as social. The use of oratory combined with music and dance was particularly effective, reaching its apotheosis in the work of Ntozake Shange. Organizations such as the New Federal Theater, Umbra, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Black Artists Group, Watts Writers Workshop, and Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School all sought to raise consciousness within Black America of its abiding ties to the continent and its struggle for self-determination.

Today by comparison, many contemporaries are faking the funk with poems that don’t sweat or smell and talk only in polite company. The conservative individualism exemplified by Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray and their less talented progeny have taken root as nasty weeds choking a garden. Houston Baker laid it out with his American Book Award winning study Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era. A glut of MFAs can be counted on to declare themselves a renaissance every few years and nowadays corporate media is starting to underwrite their marketing. Appending the prefix Afro to just about everything you can think of in branding, rebranding, and consumer campaign hustle is now accepted. Tokens with two books are routinely gassed-up with bizarre and sometimes freakish comparisons to American literature’s pantheon of gods. Meaningless cartoon phrases like “instant classic” drip haphazardly from the mouths of people who damn well know better. Do we need an Afro-Futurist without so much as a glance at the future of Africa? For those writing and directing in the Marvel Comics Universe, the answer in dollars is yes. When former Secretary of State Tillerson made a diplomatic tour of Africa to ink long-term agreements with various governments across the continent, the big story that week here was Wakanda. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who as a journalist beat all with the skill, clarity, and prodigious research of pieces like “The Case for Reparations” (June 2014) and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (October 2015) now comes on like a detective whose been bought off the case. Writing for Time magazine this year, Ibram X. Kendi tells us Black artists today “got the Black Judge out of our heads. We refuse to carry the race on our shoulders.” Well, whose shoulders does Kendi think he’s standing on? Anyone want to mention Sisyphus to the author of “The Hill We Climb”?

Amiri Baraka’s last shot fired on the way out was a bullseye, taking down Charles Rowell’s anthology Angles of Ascent. Baraka’s skill at going upside many heads at once left his enemies bruised, battered and scarred. “A sharp class distinction has arisen, producing a mini-class of Blacks who benefited most by the civil rights and Black Liberation movements, thinking and acting as if our historic struggle has been won so that they can become as arrogant and ignorant as the worst examples of white America. It is obvious, as well, looking through this book, that it has been little touched by the last twenty years of Afro-American life, since it shows little evidence of the appearance of spoken word and rap.”

On May 26, 2020, America woke-up and discovered it was a monstrous vermin. A familiar story, it needed to recapture what was human about itself. Without time to read Kafka, new book lists would have to do. Ones that would please the public while remaining unread. Corporate America jousted with itself, trying to outdo the outdone reading trendy bromides on how to placate Blacks. Pay-walls were taken down and social media prompted people to educate themselves. Victors of the colonial wars feigned shock and dismay at the details of the battles they had won, the missing and mutilated they themselves had murdered. There was a lot of talk about forgiveness and its ugly cousin forget. Some folks started singing and saying we were all sinners, others shouted to turn that record over. But what did not come up in the near endless stream of lynching postcards turned video clips, the humiliation as entertainment, the noble guilt as torture, was that the rites and rituals of murdering Blacks with impunity are inexorable from the American global empire.


Sacramento, CA., March 21, 2021

This essay was composed for A Gathering of the Tribes magazine, issue number 16, edited by Ishmael Reed and Danny Simmons, to be published Winter 2021-2022  

Photo image of Element Statue by artist Erwan Vaquet



Tuesday, February 9, 2021

John Giorno Wants Your Body



John Giorno Wants Your Body

by Justin Desmangles


Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment

By John Giorno

351 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00



Some people make their own luck. In the right place and at the right time because they are on their own clock. “Now Is the Time.” John Giorno was just such a person. Anointed by the sweat of Dylan Thomas, to hear him tell it in his newly published posthumous memoir Great Demon Kings, he followed a path to the ancients. The lyric poet as someone scooping out their insides and telling you how sensitive they are had mercifully been killed-off by Modernism. And it’s a good thing too, because otherwise a book of this kind, containing this kind of history would never have been written. The American running-style of literature — a style rooted in Blues, Ragtime and stride piano — conveys images of everything seemingly happening at once. Stories turn topsy-turvy in rapid succession and collide. Anecdotes cascade one into the other, tales interweave and spool like a movie projectionist slipping in an extra reel without explanation. The rhythmic tension in this style is taut yet supple, bending and snapping-back, never breaking. As James Brown would say, “Moving, grooving, doing it, you know, like a sex machine.” The left hand of James P. Johnson. It’s in Dos Passos U.S.A. and other Lost Generation writers influenced by the new thing in poetry. “Make it new” meant imitate the musical phrase and the new music was Jazz. West African polyrhythms on a Celtic tongue in Tennessee. Gatsby is a syncopated piano overheard where someone got killed. Satchmo’s grace notes falling like stars — flashing, flaring before a midnight sun.

Giorno adopts this running-style all throughout the pages of this book. He acquired it by way of the Beat Generation. They who had grafted it from Jack Kerouac’s masters Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Charlie Parker. Moving from one thing to another with no respite, no let up, not taking a breath. Running you out to get to know your breathing and just how many breaths you take. Leaving you duly exhausted from their intensity of purpose, “exhilerausted” in Bob Kaufman’s language.

The hero of the Blues comes up against adversity and uses verbal charms and linguistic talismans to get around the trouble. Shuts his mouth wide open and wonders will a match box hold his clothes. Employing a symmetry of what seems absurd to his enemy, an unseen window opens in time and the hero of the Blues slips away. Giorno makes his a continuous get away, careening through and laying down with a cultural Olympus of American art demi-gods and yes, demons. The demonic spew a venom that is ambrosia to his muse and he drinks it down with gusto. He in turn becomes lover and muse to the demons themselves. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the king of Hell himself William S. Burroughs.

Had Giorno never written a poem, published a book, or recorded an album, he would still be enshrined in the primers of artist’s history. He was Warhol’s first superstar, appearing in the movie Sleep. Warhol’s early films marked a dramatic, some would say traumatic break. Not only in the direction his own work would take, but the whole of cinema internationally. Opportunities to see this film today presented as a film are scant. Even the ethereal hustle of the internet has a tough time with this one. Six hours of a man sleeping. Step back MFA grads, the check is in the mail. But in the hey-day of New York’s cinema avatar Jonas Mekas and his Filmmakers' Cinematheque, this movie could be shown almost any night of the week. Right alongside Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,  Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, or classics such as Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Warhol knew what was popping and he had an eye for talent. When he turned on the camera from the first, it was John Giorno he was focused on.

Warhol liked to stare, he liked to watch, to evaporate and observe without presence. A kind of forensic detective. What he discovered he harvested to a precise vision, images of America’s true religion. Money bleeding through. It was a vampirism that Giorno found toothsome, a quality later tasted in his relationship with Burroughs. If these guys needed their tanks filled-up, Giorno had the gas. If they needed their engine tuned, he supplied the tool. Warhol’s mother had religion and the religious iconography he grew up around sharpened the wit of his eye. That which a culture worships, that which a culture adores, image counterpoints of sin and salvation. Even more money, even more blood.

The writing about Warhol in this book is tender, playful, romantic and above all revealing in its candor. Giorno was not afraid to learn from his mistakes and he made lots of them. Yearning for wisdom, Giorno made new ones, always learning. Always moving forward. The time spent with Warhol is some of the most touching and humorous in the book, the two young lovers teaching each other how to live. Buoyant like a game of tag, a lot of names float through and quick. There is no effacing it’s a game, this art world business, where people come as equipped with roles to play. The size of these personalities is so big that even the background players are all-stars nowadays. Asked in an early local television interview at the Leo Castelli gallery how he responded to his detractors, Warhol answered “They’re right.” It takes an awfully bright person to create the illusion that they are dim. A lot of people thought Warhol was running on about two watts. He was in fact running on incredible amounts of speed, as were a great many people that surrounded him. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana burn, flow, waft, pour and otherwise guide the reader through much of this book. Later mushrooms and LSD. In this mix it is how things get done. The original party people from way back, here to funk your head up. And it certainly took its toll with early deaths and suicides. There is much meditation on death and its meaning throughout this book. It is here that Giorno’s breath gets hot and he starts getting into his own thing. Purely his own current. That same electric pulse you feel in his best performances. He’s got an ear on the lost chord in these moments and the writing is his.

Hagiographers of Warhol will want to pay careful attention to the sensitive portrait drawn of his mother. Giorno’s acknowledgement of their unique ethnic heritage and its language is rendered with insights into their private world. She lived in the back you see, with her son taking up the front of the house. These were the days before the life of fortune and fame and flashy names. Warhol always brought home the bacon. It was partially his work ethic that allowed him to burn through people as he did. They were lazy as far as he could see. That drive is on display seeing him cast aside onlookers out his path to greet Marcel Duchamp arriving at Americans 1963, a breakthrough exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Giorno literally hanging by his sleeve. Out one night at a poetry reading, Warhol quietly asked “Why are they so boring?” The poets were Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, the question echoed in Giorno’s mind. Why were they so boring? It was a question that he was driven to answer for the rest of his life in fresh, sometimes astounding ways. Giorno writes “It was clear that poetry was seventy-five years behind painting, sculpture, music, and dance. The golden age of poetry was just about to begin.” And begin it did.

Years later Giorno would say “When a poet is performing in front of an audience, he's talking to the audience, and every single word has to grab them. And most often, poets completely do not understand that. They have this great, wonderful, magnificent work, and they read it in front of an audience, and it's like showing radio over television or something.”

Giorno Poetry Systems was soon founded as a non-profit cultural organization and later became one of the most innovative record labels in America. The Black Arts movement had created Jihad Records, an attempt to amplify the role poetry could play in civic life, bringing about constructive change. The legendary Caedmon Records, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s tour of the United States, sought to deepen listeners aesthetic sensibilities. Giorno Poetry Systems found a way to braid together these two directions, these two impulses simultaneously. The record label would produce, record, and distribute albums featuring Miguel Algarín, Glenn Branca, Jayne Cortez, Jessica Hagedorn, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Lydia Lunch, Psychic TV, and many others who would otherwise not have been available to audiences off-of-the-page. Albums were given titles such as Better an Old Demon Than a New God, and A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse. Giorno himself was both activist-organizer and poet-performer, willing to go to extremes on stage and off to get his message across. And not be boring.

As things wound-down with Warhol, and after an Tangierian interlude with Brion Gysin, a new romance, this time with Robert Rauschenberg, bloomed in the incestuous gardens of his art circle. Rauschenberg, unlike Warhol, was not out in the sense of how we might think of that today. There was a front of being straight, so to speak, and the parameters of the social life the two would lead were much different. Rauschenberg further cultivated Giorno’s involvement in theatrical performance, experimental theater, dance, Happenings, and hybrid’s of poetry and music. He introduced him to Bob Moog whose then new invention, the synthesizer, became a part of Giorno’s growing arsenal. Rauschenberg also created original art for the cover of Giorno’s first book, Poems.

The cross-pollination of disciplines in the arts in New York during the sixties produced an incandescent atmosphere. As the Jazz capitol of the world, the city was already steeped in exploring the theatrical possibilities of dance movement with poetry and improvised sound for at least three generations. Now with poets and writers getting into the act, holding their own festivals, building their own off-off-Broadway theaters, things were getting heated where before they had been left for dead cold. The inferno generated by all this activity became so caustic that wave after wave began to flee and by the next decade much of this activity had migrated to either the San Francisco Bay Area or Europe. Giorno remained very much a New Yorker and expanded his experimentation to one of the most successful conceptual pieces combining poetry and new technology. Dial-a-Poem! A massive phone bank of pre-recorded works by a veritable who’s-who of the American avant-garde. Callers who dialed in would be treated to a recording of an original work, calling back as much as they liked. The project became so popular that the machinery broke down more than once. The basic idea made its way into general consciousness so fast that soon there was a dial-a-just-about-everything-you-can-think-of industry. Horoscopes, advice to lovelorn, legal help, amateur pornography, but unlike Giorno’s art installation, all charged a fee.

Those wishing to make a quick study of just what sort of high-weirdness and serious fun Giorno was having in creating these experiments with sound poetry, music, and performance are hereby directed to “Everyone Is a Complete Disappointment” from the album John Giorno & Anne Waldman, released in 1977. It’s the kind of gleeful, mischievous nihilism that disguises a much more willful desire to create one’s own meanings for existence. The occasionally sardonic barbs are really just pushing the buttons on the joy-spring. If you can get with this, great; and if you can’t, so what, it seems to say with a sly grin. Daring you to talk back.

Giorno doesn’t pull any punches in this book and he lands more than a few that will put some readers on the floor. The first T.K.O. is bound to be sex. Graphic sex and lots of it. Not everyone will care to see their art heroes depicted burbling a mouth full of sperm, but the sperm being his, Giorno wants you to know. The dimensions of a canonical novelist’s penis or the favored anal penetration of one of the world’s greatest painters is not for everyone, to be sure. But let it be known at the outset that none of these passages are rendered with vulgarity, but rather as any other creative act in Giorno’s quest. In fact, rather than a sheerly pornographic language, the sex is given empathy and it is the trust between the men having it that comes through more than any other element. Including, remarkably enough, an orgy in a subway bathroom at Prince street station with the young Keith Haring. He also lands a few jabs and an upper-cut to Allen Ginsberg, reprinting portions of a then controversial interview from the magazine Gay Sunshine, 1974, criticizing Ginsberg’s public relations politics, manipulations and tactics. “Allen uses mantra to support ego.” This coincided with Ginsberg’s winning the National Book Award for The Fall of America, an honor he shared that year with Adrienne Rich’s masterpiece Diving into the Wreck. Giorno’s relationship with Ginsberg remained a fertile one throughout their lifetime, though he felt unjustly excluded from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, now part of Naropa University, a school founded by Ginsberg along with poet Anne Waldman also in 1974.

But it is Giorno’s lifelong and nurturing relationship with his close friend, the writer William S. Burroughs that really distinguishes this book. The least commercially popular of the Beat triumvirate completed by Ginsberg and Kerouac, likely because in the last analysis his message is so anti-White. Burroughs’s routine evisceration of all things holy to the so-called White American doesn’t end with a blunt dismissal of bourgeois consumer values or the military-industrial complex or his revulsion towards Christianity. Not by any means. The whole European-American Western civilization is regarded as a rancid, decaying putrid corpse to be torched and soon before it spreads anymore of its pestilence. To do that Burroughs cuts-up and cuts into just about every existing genre of American fiction, high and low, turning them out anew in the running-style adopted by the early Modernists from their affinity with Jazz and Blues. His most widely read book Naked Lunch, oscillates from the sounds of “metallic cocaine bebop” to Ellington’s early composition “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and back again. The ultimate concerns are with the life of the mind and changing it to resemble a utopian ideal, one populated by gay, often drug addicted, pirates, cowboys, private detectives and doctors on the make. But that is another matter.  As far as Burroughs was concerned, literature as ritual magic and self-defense was the only answer to fighting back this morally debauched, sickly society of barking advertising men, pimps, pushers, and private-eyes up to no good. Giorno agreed whole heartedly. He may have found a different means in performance poetry and new technologies for casting off the yoke that intended to strangle them, true, but their critical perspective shared mostly common ground.

There are few people who had as positive and life-sustaining an effect on Burroughs as Giorno did. They were sexual intimates, yes, but much closer friends. The tenderness that emerges from a deep and abiding respect between human beings who trust one another with their lives is a strength beyond words. Nevertheless, Giorno finds those words when talking about his years living alongside side each other in the Bowery, where Burroughs rented his famous Bunker in the same building as Giorno’s apartment, traveling the world performing and recording albums together, or just visiting the ageing writer at his final home in Lawrence, Kansas.

Like Burroughs, Giorno was a descendant of America’s upper-middle class, and both were stabilized financially well into their adult lives by the considerable wealth of their parents. Otherwise lethal situations were neatly avoided with a monthly allowance, keeping them off the streets unless they really wanted to be there. Often, it was Burroughs who really did want to be there. Giorno is upfront about his access to wealth throughout this book. No shame in his game. Whatever material similarities they may have shared in their upbringing, their connection to each other was essentially spiritual. In fact, fundamentally so. Burroughs performance persona, beloved by international audiences throughout the last decades of his life, was as much Giorno’s cultivation as it was his own. Appearing as a duo on countless bills around the world and in the United States, Giorno helped Burroughs craft a stage presence that in time became distinctly his own. In the end that was what paid the bills and the constant touring took a toll.

The picture of Burroughs that emerges is one that both harmonizes and contradicts the literary mask the world saw on stage and heard on record. His boyish delights in handling the heavy metal phallus of weapons is certainly familiar. The soft, yearning desire for shared love, a need that is finally fulfilled by his gentle relationships with an extended family of cats and kittens, is less well known. The last words the revolutionary novelist would write in his journal stated any resolution to the violent conflict of his life was found in the experience of mutual love and affection with his cats and kittens.  “Like I felt for Fletch and Ruski, Spooner and Calico. Pure love. What I feel for my cats, present and past. Love? What is it? Most natural painkiller there is. LOVE.”

The chapters surrounding Burroughs death are the most harrowing in the book. Graciously, Giorno’s intuitive response to the situation is miraculously balanced throughout. After the reader had earlier been treated to the arc and panorama of Giorno’s religious devotions in Tibet and India, the wisdom gained there now reaches its full flower. There is considerable ugliness, especially with one or two of Burroughs hangers-on, but Giorno navigates the necessary and the needful with skill. Applying mystic beliefs and practices acquired through his own Buddhist discipline, Giorno guides the now dead Burroughs at the inception of the deceased’s journey into The Western Lands. Though much of this will certainly be regarded as occult by some readers, I see no reason to doubt the veracity of what Giorno says in regards to these events (or any others in the book for that matter). It is the kind of denouement that suggests all roads were leading here, every moment however infinitesimal, was leading us here. A climax gathering of all themes, all motifs, great and small.

Any serious student of American art and literature in the late 20th century will want to read this book. If you don’t you got a hole in your bucket.

[originally published in Konch, Winter Issue, 2021]




Saturday, October 17, 2020

Quincy Troupe on Black Renaissance Noire departing NYU, controversial jazz critic Stanley Crouch


Quincy Troupe in Conversation with Justin Desmangles, Sept. 26, 2020 

Quincy Troupe has been among the most frequent guests on my radio show over  the past twenty years. The following transcription is excerpted from a two-hour  conversation covering a vast array of topics, largely focusing on his body of work  as a poet and his forthcoming collection Duende: Poems, 1966-Now (Seven Stories  Press). For this issue of Konch, the editors and I have chosen to focus on two  points of great interest in the recent history of American art, the departure of  Black Renaissance Noire from New York University and the death of controversial  jazz critic Stanley Crouch. 

On the departure of Black Renaissance Noire from New York University 

Justin Desmangles: When I was describing your poetry as creating the vision for  the possibility of real freedom, I was thinking of it as integral to all of these other  traditions that inform your writing. Because if you’re listening to a Quincy Troupe  poem, or you’re reading a Quincy Troupe poem, and you’re not moving your  body, if you don’t have some boogie or some stomp or some shuffle or some  bounce, you’re not hearing the poem! In order to really hear the Quincy Troupe  poem, you have to boogie your body. You have to be able to step lively. The music  that is in the poetry is the practical form of real freedom. The possibility of that  imagination moving the body.  

That wellspring of wisdom is also what informed the way that you shaped and  moved and created the very supple Black Renaissance Noire, which under your  leadership as editor expanded the range into all these other sensuous  presentations of art.  

You recently announced to your friends and colleagues that there was a  departure of ways coming between you and NYU [New York University] and Black  Renaissance Noire. Could you speak to us about that?  

Quincy Troupe: Sure. This is the way it was explained to me. You know, I have an  office down there that I never go to, so I said, let somebody else have it. I can  work really well at my place, I have everything at my disposal. I got everything. So 

I said, just give it to somebody else. I think that rubbed some people the wrong  way. “This guy, he ain’t even going to take the office.” You never know what rubs  people the wrong way, but somebody told me that.  

Anyway, Manthia Diawara hired me because of the fact that he loved Code magazine so much.  

JD: Oh yes. 

QT: He was my contributing editor. He’s from Mali. He used to provide stuff for  Code, so when Code stopped, when I moved back to New York, he said “Why  don’t you take over Black Renaissance Noire?”. And that’s what I did, I took it over  and I said, “Well you know, I am going to change it. I just want to let you know  that.” He was one of the one’s who started it, he and Walter Mosley and Clyde  Taylor. He said, “That’s what I want you to do, that’s why I am hiring you, because  I know you’re going to change it.” [laughter] “I know it’s going to make a lot of  people mad, but I think it needs to be changed.” I said, “I am going to bring in  some white people and everybody else.” He said, “Do it, I am giving you free  reign.” So that’s what I did, I felt empowered at Black Renaissance Noire, I could  do what I wanted. He said, “I trust your judgement, your editorial judgement and  what you will do. I really do, I think it’s going to be remarkable.” So I said, “O.K.,  man!”  

And so, I pissed-off a lot of people because I started to change a lot of stuff. I  remember this guy who was one of the old editors. We had a meeting early on,  maybe in the second year or so, and he came in, he was mad. He was mad with  me because of the fact that I had made some changes and had rejected  somebody that he had brought in. So we were sitting there . . . and I liked the guy,  I liked him a lot . . . he says “Why did you do that, why did you do that?” I said,  look at my title. He said, “Wha-wha-what?” I said, “Look at my title, it’s Editor-in Chief. Editor-in-Chief means I make the decisions.” I learned that when I was  doing Code with Larry Flynt. It’s my decision. “If I don’t like it, it’s going,” I said, “I  have no guilt.” I have no guilt about stuff like that. He said, “But I, I just . . .,” and I  said, “Look man, I just told you, I have no guilt so this is useless.” 

JD: Let me save you some time!

QT: Yeah! “Look, I’m not going to do it, man. I’m going to do what I want to do.”  “Well, I’m going to quit then.” I said, “Hey, man that is your choice. I like you,  man, but I am the Editor-in-Chief and you’re not.” [laughter] “You’re a  contributing editor, I am the Editor-in-Chief, O.K.? Manthia told me that’s what it  was and I take that stuff seriously.”  

In the end what I do is what’s going to come down on me. It’s not going to come  down on Manthia, it’s going to come down on me. And so anyway, that went on  for a while. Then Manthia left and he said “Quincy, I don’t want to be involved  with the magazine anymore. I am a university professor and I want to travel more.  You can call on me or Clyde or Walter when you want to, but Deborah Willis is  going to take my position.” I said, “Well, I know Deb,” and he said, “Well you  know she has a kind of different take on stuff.” O.K. I didn’t know what that was,  and so she took over his position.  

He had been telling me that there were some mysterious white professors in the  administration who were jealous. That is what he said. They admitted that it was  a great magazine but they were jealous, they were envious because they were  getting asked about me all the time and they didn’t like that. I understand that  kind of stuff so . . .  

JD: This is something that has happened a lot to you.  

QT: Yeah, it happens. So one day, Deb calls me up and says “We’re going to have  to make some changes with the magazine.” “What? What do you mean?” She  says, “Well, they think we ought to do things like this . . .” “I’m not doing it, what  do you mean?” She says, “Well, they think we should do things like this.” I said,  “I’m not going to do it. I am just not going to do it.” She said, “Well, maybe, I  guess we’ve reached a parting of the ways.”  

Hey, it was like that, it was just like that. You know what I mean? JD: Wow, this is Deb Willis talking?  

QT: Yeah, Deb Willis, but then I found out it wasn’t even her. She was told to do  that.  

JD: I see. 

QT: She said to me later, “Well, I didn’t want to do that, see, but the higher-ups,  they wanted to do it.” She says, “I teach here,” you know, “I got to get along with  these people.” I said, “Hey, it’s your decision. This is what I want to know,” I said,  

“since you’re going to cease publishing the magazine, can I take it with me at  some opportune time and take it off campus. Maybe get money and start it over  again with somebody else.” “Oh, yeah,” she said “You can do that, you can do  that.” 

Well, that’s what I am going to do. That’s what is going to happen. I am going to  own it. 

JD: That’s great.  

QT: I am going to have control of it. I am just going to let it go for a while and then  we are going to do it. I just have to get the money together first. I have some  people. I had NYU behind me. That is a lot of money, we were coming out three  times a year. It was costing some money to do that magazine like it was done. So  we’ll see. If not it will just have to be gone. Maybe we can do a big one every year.  

JD: Like an annual.  

QT: I can be a contributing editor and somebody else can be Editor-in-Chief if we  raise enough money. So that’s what happened. I know Deb is sorry now, she is  really sorry it happened because she is catching grief.  

JD: I’ll bet.  

QT: People call me, they call me up, “What happened, what happened to the  magazine?” I say, call Deb Willis, and I give them her number. And so she says to  me, “Quincy, could you please stop giving my . . .” I said, ”No, I am not going to  take the blame. I had nothing to do with it.”  

JD: Let me ask you this. In recent years the United States has openly embraced  fascism and a lot of the trends that have been taking place in so-called higher  education have reflected that. Some of the most far-right think tanks in the  United States have exerted extraordinary control over curriculum on America’s  college campuses and universities. Groups like the Manhattan Institute, the  Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institute out here in California. 

Do you suspect or do you know that the decision coming through NYU vis-à-vis  Black Renaissance Noire has illustrated part of that larger trend? Is that fair to  say? 

QT: I would think so. I don’t know. I had thought about it because it just came all  of a sudden. I don’t even know the people who pulled the trigger, I don’t even  know who they are. They’re shadowy people. I never met them. If I did meet  them, you know, they were very nice to me, you know what I mean?  

There was a provost there who loved the journal. A gay white guy and he was  married to a black gay guy. He was the provost, he loved the journal. He started  teaching again, he wanted more freedom, they said. And this woman took over.  She was the one who executed it, you know. Her name was Parker or something  like that. I never met her. I asked for meetings when I heard all this stuff was  about to happen. She would never meet with me. I don’t know what happened. I  just know the decision was by some higher-ups.  

Some of those people in the English Department, they were jealous and envious  of the journal because everybody was talking about it. They were talking about it  with great esteem. [The English Department] was pissed-off. Somebody said,  “Why he’s not even down here, he doesn’t even come to his office.” [laughter]  What does that have to do with the product? 

JD: Exactly. There was something about Black Renaissance Noire, especially for  younger readers who are not necessarily immersed in the culture, that opened up  worlds within worlds for them. In other words, it became a medicinal substance  for people who were otherwise in triage. I think that is part of the move that is  being made here by these shadowy higher-ups. They’re trying to cut off the flow  of medicine to people who need it.  

QT: Right! Right! That’s what it is. That’s why I am glad they are going to allow me  to take it and do something with it.  

JD: That’s the best news I’ve heard all day. 

On the late jazz critic Stanley Crouch 

QT: I was a Jayne Cortez’s house one day and Stanley [Crouch] was talking this  shit, man, and I said, “Shut the fuck up, Stanley.” 

JD: Serious.  

QT: He said, “What?” I said, “Shut up. If you don’t shut up I’m going to smack the  shit out of you.” 

JD: There you go.  

QT: Stanley used to always bully people.  

JD: That’s right.  

QT: He said, “You going to do what?” I said, “Say it again, say it again.” He said it  again. I knocked him out. I didn’t knock him out, I knocked him on the bed with a  right cross. Buh-ow! [laughter] On the bed. Jayne said, “Oh my god!” And Mel  Edwards started laughing. [Stanley] never said nothing to me ever again.  

He would bully people, Stanley.  

I’d say, “Stanley, Stanley.” He’d say “Yeah, Troupe what is it?” I’d say, “Don’t go  there, man, I might have to clock you again.” And Stanley and I got along to the  end. Because I used to tell him, that shit you talking about is stupid.  

You were talking about it earlier [the up-front, plain-spoken style of the Midwest].  K. Curtis Lyle and I moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles. He still lives there and I  told Curtis, “The difference between you and me, we are both intellectuals but  how you express yourself is kind of like California.” Now Curtis is a big guy, he will  knock you out, but he’s always trying to get around it. He told me one day, “Now I  understand how you are, since I lived in St. Louis so long.” They’ll just clock you,  they’ll shoot you, [laughter] they don’t think about it.  

JD: It’s that same Blues impulse that you hear in Richard Pryor, you can hear it in  Miles Davis. You can hear it in a lot of artists that come from that area.  

QT: That’s right, that’s it, man. Point blank.  

JD: Point blank and no filigree, no adornment, just right there.  QT: No filigree. [laughter] 

JD: Plain as moonlight in the forest and if you can’t dig it, fine.  QT: Fine.

JD: I am glad that you brought up Stanley though because I find him to be very  troubling. In as much as he seemed to spend a career just going which way the  wind blows, and he became a professional assassin for his bosses.  

QT: Yes.  

JD: In other words, the New York literary establishment would hire Stanley to  abuse and punish Black men whom they felt got out of line. I for one am very  confused at the praise that is being heaped on him in death because this was a  man who committed the most egregious of sins. Betrayal of the spiritual tradition  that brought him into existence. In fact, there are very few people that he didn’t  betray. Even his mentor Albert Murray, the man who co-signed for Stanley. He  betrayed him too.  

QT: Right. I don’t know if you saw it, but they had a notice of his death on  Facebook and I wrote a piece . . . everybody was, like, oh shit! I talked about it. I  said Stanley was brilliant. I knew Stanley from the time we didn’t have no money  in Watts. You know, we were running around together. He was out there with us,  the Watts Writers. He was going with Jayne Cortez.  

I watched him slide down that slope. I saw him just sell himself out. I said that in  that piece. He was avaricious, he was evil, you know what I mean? 

Let me tell you this one story. I remember when he loved Miles Davis, I mean  absolutely adored, loved. We go in to a club one night . . . I’m from St. Louis,  Miles is from East St. Louis . . . I saw Miles standing over there against the wall  with this woman. Beautiful woman. He always had beautiful women. Stanley said,  “Hey, man, that’s Miles Davis, I am going to go over and say something. We’re  going to go over and say hello.” I said, “I’m not going over there, Stanley. Miles  don’t want to talk to you, man.”  

JD: Exactly. 

QT: I said, “Miles don’t want to talk to you.” He said, “Well, I’m going over and  saying hello, man.” He went over there to talk to Miles Davis, saying, I’m so and so  and so and so, I’m Stanley Crouch. Miles said, “Fuck you motherfucker, get the  fuck out of my motherfucking face.” Just like that. Point blank, boom! 

Stanley, he was upset. Up until that point he had written nothing but real praise  about Miles. The next week in the Village Voice he wrote a piece putting-down  Miles Davis like a dog. Just because he got cursed out. I called him up, I said, “That  is some chicken shit stuff that you just did, man. You know goddamn well you love  Miles Davis. The reason you wrote that piece was because he cursed your ass out.  Talking about how he can’t play?” I said, “Are you a fool? Just because he cursed  you out, he can’t play, huh? You’re the only one who believes that, you and Albert  Murray. Don’t bring that shit to me, man, I know you. I know you. I’m not one of  these crazy people or them white boys that you hang-out with. They don’t know  you like I know you. You’re just chicken shit.” He would tiptoe around me after  that.  

All that stuff that he was writing, attacking all these writers, people, musicians  and everything. It’s just bullshit.  

JD: It is.  

QT: It’s just crazy.  

JD: He was remarkably in tune with the Reagan era. That is when he really rose to  position over there in New York. By following the new conservative trend of  Ronald Reagan. A lot of people don’t like my saying that, but it is true.  

QT: It’s true. It is absolutely true. I was there! I watched him make those moves.

Originally published in Konch, Fall Issue, October 14, 2020

(l-r, Calvin C. Hernton, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Quincy Troupe, photo by Eugene B. Redmond c. 1981)