A Riverboat in Cairo

Alexa Bahm got the sad news two Saturdays ago. Late that evening, she bought some sidewalk chalk at a drugstore and wrote "Ted Joans Lives" outside Victrola, Bauhaus, Caffe Vita, the Comet Tavern, and Padelford Hall (the stately, strangely shaped building that houses the UW's English department). Bahm's graffiti was a tribute in the form of a homage: When the legendary jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker died in 1955, it was Ted Joans who famously scrawled "Bird Lives" on New York City streets. Joans died on April 25 in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia, of complications arising from diabetes. (His body wasn't discovered until May 7 because friends--including his partner of 10 years, Laura Corsiglia--thought he was out of town.) He was 74.

Joans was born on a riverboat in Cairo, Illinois, on July 4, 1928, and by the 1950s had established himself as a major Beat poet (as well as a minor surrealist painter, an avant-garde filmmaker, and a jazz man). His friends included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and his "spiritual father," Langston Hughes--all of whom he outlived, none of whom he surpassed.

Like many other Beat writers, Joans' work is infused with a vibrant, bluesy tonality. "Jazz is my religion and surrealism is my point of view," he said. His poetry--published in more than 35 books throughout his lifetime (including Black Pow-Wow: Jazz Poems, published in 1969, and Teducation, published 30 years later, when he was dividing his time between Timbuktu, the Republic of Mali, and Seattle)--is comic, expressive, exuberantly crafted, often angry, highly stylized, and sometimes dazzlingly bizarre.

His discursive body of work includes permutations on certain themes ("Don't send me black mail/for I am black male/thus I black ball/WOMEN/not black sheep/and never black out"), allegorical absurdities ("The rhinos roam in the bedroom/where the lovely virgin wait/the owl eats a Baptist bat/and God almighty is too late"), expressions of historical anguish ("when he the Blackman smiles in jazz/look for the sadness in his eyes"), and scores of haunting, haunted humans (like the "liberated lesbians living in leisure/Disguised as lugubrious huggable housewives").

Last Wednesday, May 14, many who knew Joans gathered at Bukowski's Bar & Grill in Vancouver to celebrate the life of their late friend. (Memorials in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and Paris are also expected.) According to Bahm, Joans' longtime friend who lives in Seattle and did the chalk scrawlings, the evening at Bukowski's Bar & Grill included stirring readings of poems written by Joans about death and departure. The crowd also listened to a lot of jazz. Charlie Parker, mostly.


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