November 07, 2017

Bob Kaufman’s African Dream

Bob Kaufman, San Francisco, c. 1959. Photographer unknown.

Bob Kaufman, San Francisco, c. 1959. Photographer unknown.

Like jazz, the music he adored, Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Among the oldest cities in the New World, New Orleans finds itself at the heart of many disparate histories. The United States, Haiti, Portugal, Spain, France, and the African empires of Benin and Dahomey all trace part of their story to the metropolis at the mouth of the Mississippi.

Far more than a musical style or genre, jazz wove a vision of many cultures in unison from the common thread of the blues. Through the elaborate harmonies of European concert music and the complex polyrhythms of West Africa, New World identities were reflected in light and shadow, darkness and incandescent oblivion. Perhaps most importantly, jazz illuminated the unseen mysteries of African religion that permeated emerging social, political, and economic powers. All the while, the music would continue to embroider and adorn the more easily discernable elements and rituals of day-to-day life, offering solace, comfort, and the joys of the imagination.

In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, jazz appears as a mode of consciousness itself, expressing an abiding filiation with Africa as its source. The uniquely American landscape depicted by Kaufman in these poetics is frequently one of violent conflict and struggle, most often disclosed with incisive humor and historical irony. In the language of the blues tradition, “laughing to keep from crying.”

While Kaufman has attained considerable regard as a jazz poet, the role of Africa within that designation has been overlooked almost entirely. I suspect this has more to do with the intellectual numbness produced by racism than anything else. It is a numbness that is particularly problematic in scholarship surrounding the Beat Generation, a movement that drew deeply from the wellspring of African American music, jazz in particular. The failure to properly situate Kaufman’s massive contribution to the Beat Generation from its inception remains unconscionable.

To truly comprehend the measures employed by Kaufman to create his poetic cartography, one must examine the importance of colonial warfare. During the period when Kaufman was most actively being published, 1959 to 1967, Africa was very much on the world stage. Anti-colonial, revolutionary wars were being fought across the continent, and most were successful, the yoke of European imperialism being cast off by more than a dozen countries during this time. It is within this context that the many invocations of Africa by Kaufman in his poems must be understood. Without it, the potentials for discovering their meaning are all but lost.

This is especially true when one considers the growing embrace of African origins among African Americans during this same period. The arc connecting the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers is evident in this increasing awareness. The expanding outreach to the African diaspora by Black Power advocates, as an allied political constituency, is a vivid illustration of this phenomenon.

Some very explicit connections can be found in the poem “War Memoir,” a poem Kaufman would rework throughout his life, appearing variously as “O-Jazz-O: War Memoir,” and “O-Jazz-O War Memoir: Jazz, Don’t Listen to It at Your Own Risk.” Its earliest mass publication comes from the book Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, published by James Laughlin at his prestigious New Directions.

Jazz — listen to it at your own risk.
At the beginning, a warm dark place.

(Her screams were trumpet laughter,
Not quite blues, but almost sinful.)

Crying above the pain, we forgave ourselves;
Original sin seemed a broken record.
God played the blues to kill time, all the time.
Red-waved rivers floated us into life.

(So much laughter, concealed by blood and faith;
Life is a saxophone played by death.)

Greedy to please, we learned to cry;
Hungry to live, we learned to die.
The heart is a sad musician,
Forever playing the blues.

The blues blow life, as life blows fright;
Death begins, jazz blows soft in the night,
Too soft for men whose minds
Hear only the sound of death, of war,
Of flagwrapped cremation in bitter lands.

No chords of jazz as mud is shoveled
Into the mouths of men; even the blues shy
At cries of children dying on deserted street corners.
Jazz deserted, leaving us to our burning.

(Jazz is an African traitor.)

What one-hundred-percent redblooded savage
Wastes precious time listening to jazz
With so much important killing to do?

Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning
Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,
And remember the stereophonic screaming.

Jazz, something we listen to at our own risk, is later revealed as an African traitor. Who or what is being betrayed here is a tantalizing proposition. We do know there is a lot of important killing to do, killing that will not happen if you listen to this African traitor, jazz. Just exactly where these loyalties align is something religious, as it is God himself who plays the blues, life that is a saxophone played by death, and original sin a broken record. The killing machines and their victims are obscured by those who capitulate and refuse to listen to the fear, the cries, and the screams. A music too soft to be heard “by men whose minds hear only the sound of death, of war, of flagwrapped cremation in bitter lands.”

The street corner here is surely the same as the one where the young die in Kenneth Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” an enormously influential poem at the time “War Memoir” was composed. It was far more influential in the immediate poetry and art circles of San Francisco at this time than Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” according to my own interviews with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the late David Meltzer. Silencing the drums, of course, has been a centuries-old means of oppressing Africans and maintaining order in the New World. Here in that silence it is the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki we listen to, whose death is now rebroadcast to be enjoyed in stereophonic Technicolor (both new consumer technologies at the time).

Barbara Christian’s pioneering article for Black World in September of 1972, “Whatever Happened to Bob Kaufman?,” evolves critical tools for identifying Kaufman’s prescient critique of consumer technology. Grouping what she calls his Media Poems, “Teevee People,” “Hollywood,” and “Abomnewscast,” Christian highlights Kaufman’s neologisms, like telemothervisionfather, as well as his black humor (“Cubans seize Cuba, outraged US threatens to cut-off tourist quota”).

As Kaufman would rewrite “War Memoir” through the years, the line warning “Jazz — listen to it at your own risk,” would later become “Jazz — don’t listen to it at your own risk.” A change not unlike Hölderlin’s more famous rewrite: the substitution of God’s absence, rather than presence, that finally inspires us in the last line of “The Poet’s Vocation.”

Charlie Parker in a photo booth, Kansas City, 1940.

Charlie Parker in a photo booth, Kansas City, 1940.

Hymn the Bird

A militant description of the consciousness carried in the message jazz brings continues in the poem “Battle Report,” also published in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness.

One thousand saxophones infiltrate the city,
Each with a man inside,
Hidden in ordinary cases,
Labeled FRAGILE.

A fleet of trumpets drop their hooks,
Inside at the outside.

Ten waves of trombones approach the city
Under blue cover
Of late autumn’s neoclassical clouds.

Five hundred bassmen, all string feet tall,
Beating it back to the bass.

One hundred drummers, each a stick in each hand,
The delicate rumble of pianos, moving in.

The secret agent, an innocent bystander,
Drops a note in the wail box.

Five generals, gathered in the gallery,
Blowing plans.

At last, the secret code is flashed:
Now is the time, now is the time.

Attack: The sound of jazz.

The city falls.

An elegant and beautiful poem; beguiling, playful, and dead serious all at the same time. As with “War Memoir,” a theme of espionage arises yet again. Here it seems jazz, our “African traitor,” has assembled a hidden traveling orchestra, taking up strategic positions throughout an oppressive city. The code that unifies them, indeed, finally organizes their decisive actions, and is both an ancient aphorism and the title to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.”

The same sly allusion can be found in William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Orchestra” from his 1954 collection The Desert Music and Other Poems, a poem to which “Battle Report” pays a peculiar debt. Williams also guides his reader to Charlie Parker and his bebop anthem “Now’s the Time,” where the sound of birds at sunrise interplay with the music of a creation myth. Love, Williams instructs, arrives “in spite of the ‘wrong note.’” The idea of the wrong note, of course, being the most infamous axis around which arguments against jazz, bebop in particular, revolved at mid-century.

That the force to which “the city falls” is “the sound of jazz” is a mirror image of Frantz Fanon’s theories regarding full voice. For Fanon, the colonial subject — made object by colonialism — is silenced in order to give that system its structure. The system of oppression relies on this abject, mute countenance to retain its exploitative integrity. The moment the colonized subject speaks with full voice, the structure of the oppressors’ system is shattered and destroyed. But as with both Williams and Kaufman, this end of the world is not the cataclysm anticipated, but a wholly new beginning, fully embracing love. An urgent and necessary new beginning, as embodied by Charlie Parker’s ecstatic anthem “Now’s the Time,” imploring us to embody the present.

Langston Hughes, c. 1954. Photographer unknown.

Langston Hughes, c. 1954. Photographer unknown.

Keep it Simple to Be Complex

Bebop, above and beyond other styles within jazz, was the animating force inside much of Kaufman’s poetry. The message that it carries, one that enlightens the listener to an unforeseen comprehension of circumstances, is an enlightenment that comes with no small amount of danger. This oscillation between the beauty of truth and the potential trepidation that beautiful truth brings is vividly expressed by Langston Hughes’s immortal creation, Jesse B. Semple, in the short story “Bop,” originally published as a column in The Chicago Defender.

“It all sounds like pure nonsense syllables to me.”

“Nonsense, nothing!” cried Simple. “Bop makes plenty of sense.”

“What kind of sense?”

“You must not know where Bop comes from,” said Simple, astonished at my ignorance.

“I do not know,” I said. “Where?”

“From the police,” said Simple.

“What do you mean, from the police?”

“From the police beating Negroes’ heads,” said Simple. “Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP! . . . BEBOP! . . . MOP! . . . BOP!’ And that Negro hollers, ‘Ooool-ya-koo! Ou-o-o-!’ Old cop just keeps on, ‘MOP! MOP! . . . BE-BOP! . . . MOP!’ That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it. Do you call that nonsense?”

“If it’s true, I do not,” I said.

Simple later instructs.

“Folks who ain’t suffered much cannot play Bop, neither appreciate it. They think Bop is nonsense — like you. They think it is just crazy crazy. They do not know Bop is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY — beat out somebody’s head! That’s what Bop is. Them young colored kids that started it, they know what Bop is.”

Hughes’s idea that the meaning of the music is best understood by those who have suffered violence, and that they are more than one kind of crazy, is critical to both Kaufman’s poetry as well as his life story. Kaufman was a frequent target of police violence throughout his life, whether through his work as an organizer in the National Maritime Union and  Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign, or, more infamously, living in San Francisco’s North Beach as the father of an interracial family. Like piano genius Bud Powell, Kaufman was also a target of abuse in psychiatric hospitals in both New York and San Francisco.

As evidenced by the earlier “War Memoir,” the music for Kaufman is evocative of an awareness not entirely unknown to the listener, but nevertheless submerged in memories not always embraced and sometimes even shunned. In short, it is a forbidden ancestral past, one that is seemingly beyond this world.

This stark connection is illustrated further in Kaufman’s poem “African Dream,” also from Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness.

In the black core of night, it explodes
Silver thunder, rolling back my brain,
Bursting copper screens, memory worlds
Deep in star-fed beds of time,
Seducing my soul to diamond fires of night.
Faint outline, a ship — momentary fright
Lifted on waves of color,
Sunk in pits of light,
Drummed back through time,
Hummed back through mind,
Drumming, cracking the night.
Strange forest sounds, skin sounds
Crashing through, no longer strange.
Incestuous yellow flowers tearing
Magic from the earth.
Moon-dipped rituals, led
By a scarlet god,
Caressed by ebony maidens
With daylight eyes,
Purple garments,
Noses that twitch,
Singing young girl songs
Of ancient love
In dark, sunless places
Where memories are sealed,
Burned in the eyes of tigers.

Suddenly wise, I fight the dream:
Green screams enfold my night.

The vertiginous momentum of the poem’s rhythmic propulsion is staggering. Left to its own devices, one wonders how the poet survives the ordeal with his mind intact. The most fecund resources are clearly internal, or at least are accessed internally through the dream. The dream is a portal into a ritual space, one that is happening in another world, a world recalling a past that the poet fights against being conscious of, only to be enfolded in “green screams.”

The struggle is uncannily in tune with current scientific concepts of genetic memory. In this case, memories of an African past too excruciating to recall. Or was it the journey here, perhaps the arrival in the New World? The poem does not answer.

Those same screams return again in the poem “Unanimity Has Been Achieved, Not a Dot Less for Its Accidentalness,” from the collection The Ancient Rain, also from New Directions.

Raga of sadness, of madness, of green screamed dreams, mile-deep eyes.

Kaufman returns to the poem again much later in “Darkwalking Endlessly,” a poem also collected in The Ancient Rain.


In all three poems, the fight to remember falls along similar techniques employed by Arthur Rimbaud and his “systematic derangement of the senses.” Color, light, and time all fall along a supple border that bends, twisting the illusory edges of inner and outer worlds. Worlds that eventually collide, destroying the illusion and freeing the imagination. Eventually perhaps the body in which that same imagination is contained. A body that we discover is many bodies at once across non-linear time and space. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness.

Romare Bearden, The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Photomechanical reproductions, paint, and graphite on board, 9 1/8 x 12 in.

Romare Bearden, The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Photomechanical reproductions, paint, and graphite on board, 9 1/8 x 12 in.

The Prevalence of Ritual

As with the mythical “Jes’ Grew” from Ishmael Reed’s masterpiece Mumbo Jumbo, for Kaufman the sound of jazz and the message that it brings animate the body into ritual action. The word is made flesh, or rather the meaning contained in the sound of the word, the consciousness expressed by its vibration, becomes physical veracity and free movement. This principle is central to African religion as it is understood in the New World. Attempts to remove it from respectful commentary on the origins of the New World have been frequent and have no doubt contributed to Kaufman’s conspicuous absence from the canon of American literature.

While the rituals involved in the above poems are clearly pronounced, observed, and enacted, their magical-religious flavor always intact, other Kaufman poems take their titles directly from rituals themselves: “Matriculation,” “Jazz Te Deum for Inhaling at Mexican Bonfires,” “Plea,” “Unholy Missions,” and the all too timely “Benediction.”

Pale brown Moses went down to Egypt land
To let somebody’s people go.
Keep him out of Florida, no UN there:
The poor governor is all alone,
With six hundred thousand illiterates.

America, I forgive you . . . I forgive you
Nailing black Jesus to an imported cross
Every six weeks in Dawson, Georgia.
America, I forgive you . . . I forgive you
Eating black children, I know your hunger.
America, I forgive you . . . I forgive you
Burning Japanese babies defensively —
I realize how necessary it was.
Your ancestor had beautiful thoughts in his brain.
His descendants are experts in real estate.
Your generals have mushrooming visions.
Everyday your people get more and more
Cars, televisions, sickness, death dreams.
You must have been great

Rigorous, inventive, powerfully deciphering, Kaufman’s reworking of the traditional spiritual “Go Down, Moses” applies methods common to jazz improvisation. By choosing a well-known work, deeply hewn to African American tradition, Kaufman freely extemporizes its essential harmony, both technically and socially, while displacing the original’s rhythmic accents. What is produced addresses the contemporary situation by way of aligning it with the ancient history in the original. All accomplished with the kind of black humor that can only tell it like it is by emphasizing the absurd and surreal.

Kaufman’s adherence to ritual again pronounces itself in “Bagel Shop Jazz,” his description of goings-on at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop in San Francisco’s North Beach. Located at the intersection of Grant Avenue and Green Street, the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, founded by Jay Hoppe (along with The Place, founded by Leo Krikorian, and the Coffee Gallery) was a center for poets, writers, dancers, painters, filmmakers, and dreamers of all stripes in Bay Area bohemia. The Place, famously, was the site of Blabbermouth Night, an early forerunner of today’s poetry slams, immortalized in the writings of Jack Kerouac and the poet Jack Spicer.

Shadow people, projected on coffee-shop walls.
Memory formed echoes of a generation past
Beating into now.

Nightfall creatures, eating each other
Over a noisy cup of coffee.

Mulberry-eyed girls in black stockings,
Smelling vaguely of mint jelly and last night’s bongo
Making profound remarks on the shapes of navels,
Wondering how the short Sunset week
Became the long Grant Avenue night,
Love tinted, beat angels,
Doomed to see their coffee dreams
Crushed on the floors of time,
As they fling their arrow legs
To the heavens,
Losing their doubts in the beat.

Turtle-neck angel guys, black-haired dungaree guys,
Caesar-jawed, with synagogue eyes,
World travelers on the forty-one bus,
Mixing jazz and paint talk,
High rent, Bartok, classical murders,
The pot shortage and last night’s bust.
Lost in a dream world,
Where time is told with a beat.

Coffee-faced Ivy Leaguers, in Cambridge jackets,
Whose personal Harvard was a Fillmore district step,
Weighted down with conga drums,
The ancestral cross, the Othello-laid curse,
Talking Bird and Diz and Miles,
The secret terrible hurts,
Wrapped in cool hipster smiles,
Telling themselves, under the talk,
This shot must be the end,
Hoping the beat is really the truth.

The guilty police arrive.

Brief, beautiful shadows, burned on the walls of night.

“Losing their doubts in the beat, where time is told with a beat, hoping the beat is really the truth,” the people gathered are truly in a groove. The imagery of the poem is so vibrant, physical and rhythmic, it almost reads like a choreography, complete with dramatis personae. Nominated for the Guinness Poetry Prize in 1963, it is one of Kaufman’s last published poems before he took a vow of silence after witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television.

A month before that assassination, Kaufman had written a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, later published by City Lights in the collection Golden Sardine, edited by Claude Pelieu and Mary Beach.

The concluding paragraphs go much further into the nature of the beat we heard in “Bagel Shop Jazz.”

To answer that rarely asked question […] Why are all blacklists white? Perhaps because all light lists are black, the listing of all that is listed is done by one who is brown, the colors of an earthquake are black, brown & beige, on the Ellington scale, such sweet thunder, there is a silent beat between the drums.

That silent beat makes the drumbeat, it makes the drum, it makes the beat. Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. He is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the noise, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in beatween, its sound is

It must be noted to properly understand Kaufman’s intention, Duke Ellington’s first long form composition, “Black, Brown and Beige,” is an attempt to depict the history of African Americans in the New World. “Such Sweet Thunder,” also by Ellington, is a suite based on various sonnets and characters from plays by William Shakespeare.

Kaufman’s description of “the beat” is echoed over twenty-five years later by Miles Davis. Writing with Quincy Troupe in Miles: The Autobiography, Davis is clear about what the beat really means to getting the jazz message across.

[T]he drummer is always supposed to protect the rhythm, have a beat inside, protect the groove. The way you protect the groove is to have a beat in between a beat. Like “bang, bang, sha-bank, sha-bang.” The “sha” in between the “bang” is the beat in between the beat, and the little thing is the extra groove. When a drummer can’t do that, then the groove is off and there ain’t nothing worse in the world than to have a drummer in that no groove bag. Man, that shit is like death.

So yes, Kaufman was indeed (along with Ted Joans, another unjustly neglected Beat) the quintessential jazz poet. But perhaps now, with Africa in mind and the silent beat attuned, we must ask ourselves and answer honestly a very different question. If Kaufman is among the greatest jazz poets, what then is this music we call jazz? The answer, I suspect, is in that silence protecting the groove, the beat in between the beat.


Comments (5)

  • Any reference or comment or reminder about Bob Kaufman is a good thing. I discovered Bob Kaufman’s writing in a roundabout way. I remember meeting him in the late ’60s. He had been a good friend of my mom’s when she followed Jo Ann Low working at Vesuvio’s. He was wearing a poncho & although there physically, he was already gone. He stuttered & couldn’t make eye contact. When I grew old enough to read mom’s books of his books, Solitudes, Abomunist Manifesto, Golden Sardine, I realized the tragedy of losing a mind as brilliant as Bob’s. Like all great artists, he will be discovered by new generations for decades to come.

  • I’ve been reading Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness and glad to have found this insightful essay. Thank you.

  • Nancy McCampbell Grace says:

    This article was fascinating, but I’m concerned about the length of many of poems published here. The amount of text seems to exceed fair limits and thus should have acknowledged the permission of the copyright owner. Who owns the copyright to these texts? And is it fair to reproduce such materials without the copyright owner’s permission, even if the site is free to viewers?

  • I have never had any idea about what was behind Jazz and what Jazz is really about until today I read your essay. Great writing and also leaving a good room for readers to think about the beat in between the beat…

    What is BOP!

  • q.r.hand,jr. says:

    I enjoyed reading this and how you put things together through the fogs and the fog it self !! qr

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