I’ve been digging Ted Joans’ jazz poetry for a very long time. He was a beat poet and a surrealist, he loved jazz and travelled a lot through America, through Europe, and through Africa. Though I’ve never met him personally, his unbelievable life fascinates me. If you don’t know him, I’m sure you’ll appreciate his swing. Ted Joans’ famous sentence “Jazz is my religion and surrealism is my point of view” sums him up well, but we shall see that these are not his only artistic dimensions.
Passing away two months before his 75th birthday Ted Joans had lived several lives:
He was born in 1928 on American Independence Day, on a boat where his father was an entertainer, and had lived in several towns, notably New York for 9 years, between 1951 and 1960. He exiled himself to Europe – specifically to Paris where he resided for quite some time. In parallel he travelled a lot in Africa, his point of attachment being Mali where he kept a house at Timbuktu, more or less up to his death. And he was one of the numerous artists at Festac 77, a festival of African Arts held in Lagos (Nigeria). He also travelled regularly throughout Central America, and Mexico was not unknown to him. He died in Canada.
As a teenager his first loves as a reader were surrealist, and upon his arrival in France he wrote to André Breton, who welcomed Joans to his movement. Previously Ted Joans had also invested in the Beat movement: amongst others he knew Jack Kerouac in New York and he frequented the famous Beat Hotel, located at 9, rue Gît-le Cœur in Paris with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
In music Ted Joans was rarely mistaken, he admired and knew (some very closely) all the greatest jazzmen, from Louis Armstrong to Albert Ayler, from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane, from Charlie Parker to Archie Shepp, from Charlie Mingus to Ornette Coleman. He had in some way intersected with the whole history of jazz.
But Ted Joans was one of the first Jazz Poets after the most important promoter of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, 30 years his elder. It was in this genre that he excelled: his jazzastic slams, we say today, opened up the way for The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the 70’s and Saul Williams from 2000 on.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most striking episodes in his life. So, it’s on July 4th, 1928 that Theodore Jones saw the light of day, on a boat, where his parents worked. From his birth the passion of travel would inhabit him. You will have noticed that, if Ted is the diminutive of Theodore, he changed his name from Jones to Joans. This change was said to have happened following one of his many marriages, one of which was to a woman called Joan.
In an article for Jazz Hot,In JAZZ HOT #252. Le griot surréaliste. (p.21-25). he said he had started to play the flugelhorn at five, but it seems more likely at 12 or 13, as he later told other journalists. Around the age of 14, his aunt, who worked as a domestic for intellectuals returned from Europe, bringing him surrealist books, this was a revelation: he literally fell into this movement, as I did 40 years later.I remember when I was in my teens my French professor read us a poem by Paul Eluard, the first eponym verse is La terre est bleue comme une orange [The earth is blue like an orange]. I was rather at ease in maths but here It was the second verse that struck me: Jamais, les mots ne mentent |words never lie]. It seems to be a contradiction of the previous one…
In 1951 at 23, newly graduated in Fine Arts from the University of Indiana, Ted Joans left for New York to continue his studies. It was in this town that he made his most important musical encounters, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro and above all Charlie Parker. The bop revolution was in full swing, he was at the forefront! He was even one of the actors: in 1954, Ted Joans had organized a dada-surreal party and Charlie Parker was one of the guests! A famous photograph of Bird, taken by Arthur Fellig, better known under the pseudonym of Weegee, showed him disguised as Mau Mau. This evening also saw a lecture by André Breton and Benjamin Péret reading his poems.
In 1959 Rhino Review published Ted Joans’ second book Beat Funky Jazz Poems.
A year later he left for Paris. Once in the french capital he immediately wrote to André Breton:
Who am I? I am Afro-American and my name is Ted Joans (…) I was born in 1928, the year of Nadja [André Breton], Treatise on Style [Louis Aragon] and The Spirit Against Reason [René Crevel]
The extract of a letter to the “pope of surrealism” is reproduced in La Brèche #5 which came out in October 1965.
Joans wrote a poem, Nadja Rendezvous, in memory of André Breton. These verses refer to his different writings (Nadja, Les Champs Magnétiques) and the meeting with Joyce Mansour at the Promenade de Vénus cafe.
I first read his works in June 1942
I met him in June 1960
I last saw him in June 1966
I was going to see him again in 1967 June
But the Glass of Water in the Storm (1713)
of 4-2 rue Fontaine kept an almost forgotten
rendezvous with Nadja in the Magnetic Fields…
As soon as he arrived in Paris Ted Joans also contacted William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, exiled at the famous Beat Hotel, at 9, rue Gît-le-Cœur, a hotel managed by Madame Rachou, If this patronymic didn’t exist it would have to be invented! The link is still available on the 10th of May 2021. here there was an intense cultural activity.
Here’s an extract of David Brun-Lambert and Guillaume Baldy’s Beat Hôtel (a documentary-fiction programmed 8th April 2010, 55m)
On the 15th of October 1957, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky turned up at the reception of a nameless hotel, 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, close to the Latin Quarter, they were greeted by Madame Rachou, widowed, she’d lost her husband in a car accident a year earlier, she managed a shabby establishment, known to be infested by rodents. Several months earlier she had welcomed an author Chester Himes, who was in disagreement with the racism in America.
William Burroughs newly arrived from Tangiers (he was still marked by his use of heroin) took up residence in room 23 on the 16th January, it was here that he finished The Naked Lunch ; at the same time Gregory Corso was writing The Bomb, and Ted Joans was elaborating the fresco The Chick Who Fell off a Rhino. As mentioned earlier not only was the hotel a place of important artistic agitation, but also of (distinct or specific) morals, Madame Rachou saw on a daily basis her ragged lodgers write an episode of one of the most feverish artistic adventures of the XXth century
In 1965 Jean-Jacques Lebel organized the second edition of the festival de libre expression, called Déchirex. Ted Joans was one of the guests on May 20th. Several hundred people attended this eight day festival, notably Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Jean-Luc Godard. This was the only time that Ted Joans and Marcel Duchamp met.
There are five photographs in this work, the subject being Ted Joans. Jean-Jacques Lebel points out his taking part (p.28):
Adept of unorthodox surrealism, mingled with the Harlem Renaissance and negritude, in the image of both the great Césaire (a jazz-poetry fanatic) and Langston Hughes, living in New York, Timbuktu and Paris he takes part, ironically in this evening and improvises on (from) the back seat of a 4CV, with a makeshift companion, a hard version of Love Story.
In 1966 Ted Joans joins Langston Hughes at the Shakespeare & Company book store, run at the time by the eccentric George Whitman. On the site of the famous English-Speaking bookstore (Shakespeare & Company), situated on the left bank near Notre Dame de Paris, the owner revealed that his only fashion concession was a dirty cashmere jacket that he had worn for years, and no longer in it’s prime, when, Ted Joans in 1974 declared that « it had never been washed ». After the owner’s death his daughter Sylvia took over the store. Here Ted Joans’ elder insists that he plays the trumpet, which he does: it should be pointed out that he had given up this instrument when he moved to New York, impressed by Fats Navarro.
Ted Joans recorded his Jazz poems (The Truth, Jazz Is My Religion, Faces) accompanied by double bassist Jimmy Garrison. It was a concert with Archie Shepp’s quintet (Beaver Harris on drums and Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III on trombone). It was recorded on an Italian bootleg cd (Jazz Music Yesterday) in Paris the 15th December 1967. The concert was running late, Ted Joans was on stage urging the audience to be patient.
It is more than likely that the poet recited Jazz Must Be A woman after the three poems featured on the cd Freedom. The latter is the last one on the tape I Giganti del Jazz #96. He’s accompanied by Jimmy Garrison on the double bass (credited) and joined by Beaver Harris on drums (not credited). Also the recording date (1961) is obviously false: this is quite usual for a bootleg recording.
The following year, 1968 saw Ted Joans’s only exhibition in Paris. It took place at the gallery Maya, Mazarine road, a gallery specialized in African Arts, the preview was on the 23rd April. In La Rivière Noire [The Black River] I thank Pierre Crépon for drawing my attention to this book published in 1985 by Lieu Commun. , subtitled De Harlem à la Seine [From Harlem to Seine], by Michel Fabre we can read the invitation:
« Ted Joans, griot surréaliste – Afroamerican Fetishes – Invitation au vernissage – Black power, black power, black power… ».
No surprise! “Everything was given away, nothing sold”, said Ted Joans.
Still in 1968, he made a short appearance (less than a minute) in an underground film, Wheel of Ashes, filmed in Paris by Peter Emanuel Golman, he plays himself, a poet, probably at the Shakespeare & Company book shop. We can see, I am sure! Daevid Allen reading his poems at Shakespeare & Co.
A year later, in 1969 we find him in Algiers, taking part in the first pan-African festival of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) where he performed live with Archie Shepp on tenor sax and a large ensemble of Tuareg musicians. In the midst of the hullabaloo we can hear Ted Joans reciting this explosive poem:
We are still back,
and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus !
Jazz is a Black Power.
Jazz is an African Power.
Jazz is an African music!
It was 20 years later in 1979 that the second official recording of Ted Joans was released, a tape recorded in West Germany, entitled JAZZPOEMS. The musicians who, judging by their names, were German, are: Uli Espenlaub on keyboards, Ralf Falk on electric guitar, Andreas Leep on bass guitar and Dietrich Rauschenberger on the drums. Note that this is the only recording made under Ted Joans’ name.
Twelve poems were included, including seven from Black Pow-Wow, four from Afrodisia and one from Vergriffen: oder Blietzlieb Poems. Two of these poems, The Truth (recited at the beginning of both sets) and Jazz Is My Religion, are definitely confirmed as “must-haves”.
These are the liner notes to the cassette release:
Jazz is my religion and surrealism my point of view. Jazz is the most democratic art form on the face of earth, it’s a surreal music, a surreality. Surrealism like jazz is not a style, it’s not a dogmatic approach to the arts like cubism. Poetically I’m first of all concerned with sound and rhythm. It is not so much the word, but the wording itself because of the way we black people handle words. Duke Ellington said “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. It’s GOT to swing! I can write a jazzpoem about any subject, and most of my jazzpoems are written about things I love, and things I hate, and things I associate. But jazzpoetry is not lyrics: when you’ve built your poetry on a composition, then you have boxed yourself in, same with rehearsing, ‘cos each time I read a poem it will be different. I do not change the words, it will be the sound and the rhythm and the whole atmosphere.
This manifesto is a perfect example of what jazz is about!
In 1996 Ted Joans wrote his autobiography, Je me vois – I see myself, it’s dedicated to Joseph Cornell, “the first surrealist I ever met”. Note two elements in this autobiography: the seven mammal totems (rhino, okapi, tapir, aardvark, pangolin, echinda and platypus) and the delicious “femmemoiselle” bestowed by Ted Joans on his last partner Laura Corsiglia. It’s his love for her that led him to settle in Vancouver, Canada. As with Albert Ayler, we will never know the exact date of his death: he died alone in Laura Corsiglia’s flat between the 25th of April (date of his last work) and the 7th of May 2003 (the date his body was discovered). I prefer to choose the date of his last work, and to emphasize the incredible life that he led on earth.
|1.||In JAZZ HOT #252. Le griot surréaliste. (p.21-25).|
|2.||I remember when I was in my teens my French professor read us a poem by Paul Eluard, the first eponym verse is La terre est bleue comme une orange [The earth is blue like an orange]. I was rather at ease in maths but here It was the second verse that struck me: Jamais, les mots ne mentent |words never lie]. It seems to be a contradiction of the previous one…|
|3.||If this patronymic didn’t exist it would have to be invented! The link is still available on the 10th of May 2021.|
|4.||On the site of the famous English-Speaking bookstore (Shakespeare & Company), situated on the left bank near Notre Dame de Paris, the owner revealed that his only fashion concession was a dirty cashmere jacket that he had worn for years, and no longer in it’s prime, when, Ted Joans in 1974 declared that « it had never been washed ». After the owner’s death his daughter Sylvia took over the store.|
|5.||I thank Pierre Crépon for drawing my attention to this book published in 1985 by Lieu Commun.|
|6.||We can see, I am sure! Daevid Allen reading his poems at Shakespeare & Co.|