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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



May 1963

The Gordon Lish Controversy
Pirandello and Offenbach
Arts versus “Promotion”
A Cultural Cornucopia
A Century of Restraint
The Privilege of Community
An Appeal for Bay Area Cultural Coordination
A New Human Revolution
Two Civil Rights Events




The Gordon Lish Controversy

It was Sunday and my younger daughter Katherine had just been christened and we were having a party and sitting about talking. The subject of conversation was urban versus suburban living. I was saying that I’d like to live in the suburbs but since they had become the hot juvenile delinquent areas of northern California I thought maybe the Western Addition, where I do live, was a better place to bring up kids.

You get what you pay for, and what you don’t get in most suburbs is adequate civic services in health, education, recreation, welfare, parks, cultural activities generally.

The phone rang. It was the youngsters at Mills High School in Burlingame, who wanted to see me about the rumpus down there over their teacher, Gordon Lish.* I told them to come up.

The minute I laid eyes on them I was impressed. They were mature, calm, assured, modest, and withal, ironically amused at the follies of their elders. They presented their case quietly and succinctly, apologized for taking up my time, thanked me for giving it, and left. If they were products of Gordon Lish’s teaching, I hope he teaches my kids when they get to high school.

Reading over all the newspaper clips, the drily witty manifesto signed by about 75 students, the excellent literary magazine they put out before the brass stopped it, I found it is only too obvious what went wrong. Most school rumbles involve sex or politics or both. They have nothing to do with this case.

Mr. Lish is patently a dynamic, stimulating, unconventional teacher. His superiors simply don’t want anybody around that makes waves, any kind of waves. Charges against him are that he let the kids change their seating order at will, get in arguments and raise their voices, laugh so loudly they could be heard in the hallway, write verse that didn’t rhyme — like the Beatniks at S.F. State. “A quiet classroom is a learning classroom.”

Oy vey! I though this stuff stopped back in the days of Sinclair Lewis. I thought the white collar exurbanites wanted their kids to have as stimulating teachers as could be found. Some do — but none of the protesting parents wants to be quoted. They fear reprisals when it comes time for their children to apply to colleges.

Nice, huh? But 75 kids have dared to sign their names to a masterfully composed protest that says, among other things, “Bernard Shaw said that democracy was a device that insures we shall be no better governed than we deserve.”

I thought we were all trying to get a dog, or maybe a baboon, on the moon before anybody else does. How are we going to if we don’t have fearless, original, dynamic teachers who help kids do that terribly troublesome thing called thinking for themselves?

Sloth, ignorance, indifference, not the so merchandisable impurities of flesh and politics, are the besetting evils of our people, and they are only washed away by making lots of waves.

[May 1, 1963]


*Gordon Lish was denied tenure at Mills High School. He later became a renowned writer, editor and creative writing teacher.



Pirandello and Offenbach

A couple of years ago I was accused by a lady I greatly respect of linking things together artificially in this column, stringing them on a columnist’s gimmick. This time I’m going to do it again.

In the last week I’ve been to three most disparate shows — Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at San Francisco State College, A Jest of Cards at the San Francisco Ballet, Tales of Hoffman at the Opera. It so happens that they all have something very much in common, they are director’s shows — productions. They are made or marred by staging, design, direction, choreography, by the establishment of tone and mood.

This is of course obvious in the case of the ballet, for the simple reason that it is true of any ballet, in this instance only more so. Any faltering in the overall conception, any lapse of cohesion, and Jest of Cards would fall apart. It certainly doesn’t. It comes across with maximum impact.

Six Characters demands very careful design and very clearly defined style. It doesn’t matter much what style. It was originally produced as an Italianate Expressionist play, with “futurist” sets and costumes. It’s been done in the idiom of Stravinsky, Meyerhold, the Method, Gordon Craig, Von Stroheim. But it must have a consistent idiom throughout because it depends on the director’s ability to establish a relentless mood, an inescapable tone.

The trouble with the first half of the State College production was that it didn’t have any special style at all unless it was that of the poorer Italian realist movies. Once it took on the tone of an old-fashioned Italian stock company, it gained impact, but never quite enough to put across Pirandello’s special uncanniness.

Pirandello is a great playwright. Krenek’s music for Jest of Cards is substantial and impressive. Offenbach’s music for Tales of Hoffman is close to nonexistent. It’s got bits of everybody up to 1881 in it, but they all cancel each other out and add up to a large zero. It is one of the few operas with more interesting plot than score. That doesn’t mean the plot is deep or even very good. It is a golden opportunity for imaginative directors and designers and down the years some of them have made the most of it.

Meyerhold was a serious individual, out to totally revolutionize the theater, yet this concoction of flaccid froth was his greatest achievement, and reproductions of his sets are still to be found in current histories of the theater.

Tales of Hoffman can be overdeveloped to the point where it scares the audience out of their seats. I’ve seen it so done. (This is not an opera one ever speaks of “hearing” — just of seeing.) Since it is so flimsy, I think such treatment is a little dishonest.

The trick is to manage just the right blend of Saturday matinee horror movie, operetta and subtly hidden genuine madness — something like one of the better movies of Lon Chaney Sr. and Tod Browning. This is no mean stunt to pull off, and when it is successful, it is vastly entertaining, and so, in spite of its vacuity, Tales of Hoffman holds the boards.

The Spring Opera company’s production, it seemed to me, was just such a successful job. The thread of lunacy was always there. When the chorus came in to view the dancing doll they moved with the akimbo gestures of the monthly dance for the disturbed wards. Roderick Ristow, who doubled, or rather quadrupled, all the bad guys in the fine old Opéra Comique tradition, was a superlative Purple People Eater, comparable to, but less dramatic than Lawrence Tibbett in what was one of his most famous roles. Moulson’s Hoffman was just a great big boy to whom awful things just happen all the time.

The girls were all satisfactory, most of all Beverly Wolff’s Giulietta, a thoroughly disagreeable arrogant Venetian courtesan. I felt she must have spent some time studying there at the little café facing the Rialto bridge, where they go when not working back of Piazza San Marco.

But the belle of the evening was Nancy Williams as Hoffman’s manservant. She was so attractive, dressed in pants and cutaway when all the others were in ultra-sexy costumes. She was having such a ball doing the part, really enjoying her work. And, unbelievably, she and Beverly Wolff made “Barcarolle” an authentic musical experience.

In the intermission I asked a friend, “Who is Nancy Williams?” She said, “She won a Ford Award last year.” Me, I’d give her a Thunderbird or a Lincoln Continental if I had plenty to give.

[May 5, 1963]



Arts versus “Promotion

It has always amazed me that the proceeds of the hotel tax have so far been distributed without rioting in the streets. I could name cities where the embattled interest groups would fight to the death, screaming “Fascists!” and “Reds!” at each other. I could name two very large American metropolises where most of the money would simply vanish.

At least we have a committee to advise on how to spend it. But this time the committee has not justified its existence, certainly not in proposing to cut off the Chamber Music Society and to reduce dramatically the allotment to the San Francisco Ballet.

The primary question is not which cultural activity should get which allotment. To make a very original remark, it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing. Money spent on tangible goods, things that people can see, hear, touch, enjoy, is a hundred times better spent than on “promotion.” You’ve got to have something to sell before you can make a pitch.

Of course, I am only too well aware that the bright-eyed boys in their feverish bow ties believe that promotion is for promotion is for promotion. If the product would just go away they would be happy just to promote promotion. The more San Francisco has to sell, the easier it will be to sell it and the less it will cost.

Cultural activities are the Cinderellas of our society — nothing, value for value, costs less money. The thought of what a promotion campaign would cost that would reach as many people as the San Francisco Ballet, hold them in their seats for as long, send them away wanting more, convince them that San Francisco was a world capital, and so on indefinitely, well, such a thought is staggering.

Total the audiences locally and on the Ballet’s national and world tours. Total the hours of “exposure.” Analyze the economic and professional makeup of that audience. Then try to match that impact on that target with any PR scheme and figure the cost. It’s that simple.

As for the Chamber Music Society’s concerts — it is difficult to understand how opera and symphony can be favored and chamber music be discriminated against. Of course the Chamber Music Society’s concerts have been conspicuously unattended by Society, nor have I ever seen any of the gentlemen involved in these recommendations in the audience.

As a matter of fact, we have been living through a most unhappy period for instrumental music in San Francisco. If it had not been for the Oakland Symphony and the Chamber Music Society, all our most devoted music lovers might have migrated to New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago. No group has presented programs of higher quality to more enthusiastic audiences. True, they have not been numbered in the millions — but neither is the money.

The amount of money is less than the salary of a third-rate PR man. The target? The kind of people who have the most to give a community, and are the hardest to reach.

[May 8, 1963]



A Cultural Cornucopia

Presumably the San Francisco Season is in the fall, or rather the long Indian Summer that is characteristic of our climate. But it’s getting so the season never ends but just goes round and round through the year, straight through Lent and even through the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

This column is supposed to be genuinely personal — the whole man, as they say. Books, international affairs, music, theater, politics, social relations, ruminations of my own on faith and morals, God and man, as well as dollops of the lighter side, food, wine, women and song. In the course of a few weeks I try to circulate amongst all these subjects and more to boot.

As it is, there are more cultural events, to use a stuffy term, not that I can “cover,” but that I genuinely want to see or hear and write about. On the other hand, I don’t really enjoy being, much less projecting the image of, the civilized man about town, more correctly known as a tireless gadabout.

Sometimes it all catches up with me. Last week I went to the Lipchitz show at the San Francisco Museum, saw the Ballet’s revival of The Lady of Shalott, attended the opening of Shaw’s classic Major Barbara at the Actor’s Workshop. Sunday matinee I took the children to a revised Fantasma at the Ballet, Monday, a concert of Renaissance vocal and brass music at the Chamber Music Society, Tuesday, Rigoletto at the Spring Opera, Wednesday a testimonial dinner and musical tribute for Mrs. Hesselberg, Thursday the monthly dinner of our dining club, this time at Rocca’s.

Listing it all like this, it’s pretty frightening. Beneath the pile of programs and ticket stubs I hear the dulcet voice of the rainbow trout a-calling me. Soon it will be time to get away.

The last two items were of course “social,” but the rest were not just cultural events, but music, drama, art of the highest quality. Not only that, but they were a selection from a far wider offering. It would have been possible to go and look and see and listen every night all week and never be disappointed.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs for a town of less than a million. You certainly couldn’t duplicate such a first week in May in St. Louis or Cincinnati, and you’d be hard put to do it in Chicago at the height of the “season.” When we make comparisons of San Francisco’s cultural life, we make them with New York or London or Paris.

What happened last week? Lipchitz, since the death of Brancusi, is unquestionably the greatest living sculptor. A visit to the show, which is a comprehensive coverage of his life’s work, may make other contemporary sculpture seem pretty flimsy, but it is itself a profoundly moving experience. Like Brancusi, Lipchitz has pushed art to the very verge of the deepest religious experience. His late statues of the Blessed Virgin are mystical revelations of the Holy Woman of the Kabbalah and of the Hassidic saints of Polish Judaism from which he, Lipchitz, himself comes — the Shekinah, the Glory of God made manifest.

Again, Shaw in this 50 year old play makes chumps of most modern playwrights. Major Barbara is so skillful, so brilliantly theatrical, even when Shaw is gabbing away about his Life Force, the dialogue jumps. I’ve always been afraid that if I said Priscilla Pointer was made for the role of Major Barbara, she’d slap my face — but here goes, she certainly is. Altogether, it’s a sparkling show.

The Lady of Shalott is Lew Christiansen’s venture into the idiom of the Royal Ballet, and rather better than they are when they try to be as thoughtful. It, like Fantasma, is a perfect vehicle for Jocelyn Volmar’s special elegance and fairy tale pathos. Me, I want to see her do Ozma, not only that, I want to write the part.

Rigoletto was smooth as silk, a remarkably homogenous production of what is usually a star-heavy opera. The older I get, the more Verdi soaks into me. I love the music, and the Renaissance velvets and satins and daggers and cloaks always throw me — throw me back, in fact, to the nights of adolescence when I was understudy to a super in the Barrymore brothers’ The Jest. And last, the chamber music concert was one of their best, played to a full and enthusiastic house.

Want to know something? Every single one of these shows depends partly on city support from the hotel tax money. You can’t promote a lifeless city. This is what we have to sell. This is why people plan their vacations to coincide with the Spring Opera or the run of a play. This is the product — what people buy when they choose San Francisco.

If we just want crowds regardless, we don’t need any hotel tax or any music, art or theater. Just take off the lid. Look at Calumet City. The Jumpingest Little Town On Earth.

[May 12, 1963]



A Century of Restraint

On August 16 the Century of Negro Progress Exposition will open in Chicago, and the Post Office will issue a commemorative stamp. Pictures of the stamp have been sent out to all the papers with a story about how it is the first U.S. stamp designed by a Negro. They are too modest in their claims. It is the first U.S. stamp ever designed. The rest, I believe, are “uttered,” as they say of funny money, by some primitive automation device attached to an engraving machine.

The publicity, coming as it does in the midst of the turmoil in Birmingham, points an obvious moral. The American Balkans, as Mencken used to call the southern states, are one of the more barbarous historical backwaters of the world precisely because they have kept down or expelled to the North their most valuable citizens. George Olden, the designer of the stamp, is a vice president of the powerful and prestigious advertising firm of McCann-Erickson. I have met him in New York and a more gracious and intelligent young business man would be hard to find. If he could be transported to the top table at Birmingham’s most exclusive gentlemen’s club, he would be a blazing luminary in the somewhat dim galaxy of the city’s power elite. The unlikeliness of such a contingency is Birmingham’s loss and McCann-Erickson’s gain.

It sometimes seems that the only way white southerners can ever get in the papers is either by writing an obscene book or play about their sick society, or by clubbing, hosing, or police-dogging Negroes. The papers have all set up a great cry for “moderation on both sides.” What are they talking about? The pictures are of young brown men with gentle, sensitive faces, standing on chairs, routed from bed and hastily dressed, begging their fellows not to resist evil with violence and to forgive their persecutors, while in the background are the flames of Negro homes fired by — by whom? — hooligans? Or by the Ku Klux Klan? The Klan may seem to us to be a band of hooligans, but it is, let me remind you, a middle-class organization of eminently respectable citizens, dedicated to the preservation of Our Way of Life. Its opinions are shared by most of Alabama’s elected officials and guardians of order.

I have no idea of what may happen between now and the time this column comes out. But notice that no whites were injured in Sunday’s rioting except police and guardsmen. If it was a race riot, who were the Negroes rioting against? Themselves? It looks suspiciously like an invasion of the Negro section by their protectors.

Meanwhile, how many potential Ralph Bunches and Marian Andersons are in jail with the 7-year-old potential menaces to public safety? And how many illiterate sadists are posing, fire hose in hand, for pictures to be distributed to the newspapers of the world? What do they mean, moderates? It’s a hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Talk about moderation. Talk about long suffering. I for one am sure I would not be capable of such restraint. Not for a hundred years. Not for a minute. Would you?

[May 15, 1963]



The Privilege of Community

A couple of weeks ago I did a piece on Lieutenant Andreotti and the Police Department’s Community Relations project. I’ve intended to get back to this ever since, but all sorts of things have intervened. Tuesday night, sitting at the Spring Opera’s Magic Flute, I got to thinking about the closely knit community that patronizes such activities.

When I go to a performance of the symphony, the opera, chamber music, the opening of a show at one of the museums or better galleries, a play at the Workshop or the Playhouse or similar theater, even a first night at the Blackhawk or the Jazz Workshop with the Modern Jazz Quartet or Ornette Coleman, I am amongst a group of a few hundred people who not only know one another, but who have been on a first-name basis for years.

They smile and nod, argue and gossip, like the congregation of an old church in a Midwest country town. One of the nicest things about the Chamber Music Society is that it has, in the two years of its existence, acquired the folksiness, on a very well bred level of course, of an old-fashioned covered-dish supper in the church basement.

Wyndham Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Bernard Shaw all pointed out a generation ago that for the cultivated and well to do, as for the international rich of High Bohemia, the Revolution is over. They have, and have always had, what the radicals are always promising the working class. Not only that, but what they have does not, proportionately, cost very much money. Community is a privilege of the privileged classes, but it is not in fact an expensive one.

Obviously, too, it is this community that regulates the elite, that keeps it more or less wholesome and productive. Of course there are scandals amongst the denizens of opera boxes, but not as many as you might think. We have a picture of the Idle Rich as neurotic, alcoholic, promiscuous, but in actuality these are diseases of poverty, like tuberculosis. Even divorce, surprisingly enough, is more common amongst the poor. The well dressed and well educated are not commonly alienated, hostile, insecure. It’s not that they have money. It’s that they use the money to facilitate their own security, and in the last analysis, this means community.

Today, at least in North America, we have the means to democratize this kind of community and the only reason we don’t do it is slothful indifference. I’m not advocating a chamber music quartet in every block with folk dancing and Sunday painting for all — although that would be nice and something like it may come. What we must do, if we don’t want to fall apart into chaos, is to make it possible for people to know each other in mutually satisfactory activities, all through our society, at every level.

The churches did this once, or at least they assumed they did. Today we live in a secular society. We have to find secular sources and resources for community. “I belong to no one,” said the deranged little man who tried to kill Franklin Roosevelt, “and I suffer.”

We build vast “community developments” and give them magic names like Tudor Village and Lake Meadows — and what are they? Towers of illimitable loneliness.

Once I talked for a teenage group in a local suburb. The leader explained to me, “We just use this church. None of us are members but they let us use their facilities.” It’s pretty hard in a suburban town like this to find any teenage activity that is secular, wholesome, stimulating and noncommercial. “Maybe,” he added wishfully, “those qualifications add up to what they call subversive.”

He is right. They are subversive of the whole set and structure of our society, but in a far more important way than is the propaganda of the Kremlin. We make much of the pressing necessity for racial desegregation to rehabilitate our Image with the Underprivileged Nations. That’s not what is most important.

Someday the Cold War and the struggle for Africa and Asia will be over or we’ll all be dead. What is most important is that we have to get the moral garbage of racism out of our way so that we can get down to the real job that is facing us in the total change of life patterns that lie ahead of us. There is no reason, said one of the country’s leading engineers, why in 20 years, more than 20 percent of the population should “work” in the old sense of the word at all. To live in that kind of world we’ve got, first off, to desegregate ourselves.

[May 19, 1963]



An Appeal for Bay Area Cultural Coordination

I would like to add my voice, for what it’s worth, to recent proposals for a Bay Area or northern California cultural coordinating body of some sort. Ideally such a group should be independent of government entirely, and yet should have sufficient weight of prestige and authority to ensure that its recommendations be heeded. This of course is the problem. If you hand culture over to the government, you’ve given it into the hands of a very dubious foster parent indeed.

Yet today the very diagnostic sign of a liberal seems to be, “Let the state do it.” Since there is not in fact any inter-Bay Area civil authority which could undertake such responsibilities, maybe this is a good place to start nurturing genuine individual and community responsibility.

We need a small, permanent coordinating office which will keep track of upcoming local music, art, drama, lectures, dance, readings and so forth and inform all the participating organizations of their availability.

Sponsoring such an office would be a committee of the heads of the cultural organizations themselves, the museums, schools, little theaters and anybody else that wanted to join. This group would meet only occasionally, to keep track of what was going on and to make recommendations. The coordinating office, on the other hand, should be a full-time job and if properly handled need not require the work of more than two or three people. Money could come from a small assessment on the participating organizations.

The more modest such a thing starts out, the more likely it is to be successful and to grow towards a genuine planning commission, with the ability to initiate significant new departures and large-scale activities involving the entire Bay Area, and, very important, to lend its weight to long-term conservation and planning of our cultural resources.

Sooner or later we are going to have to establish, in all the Bay Area communities, city and intercity planning commissions with teeth. Eventually efforts to save the beauty of the Bay Area and its historic buildings and open spaces, and to augment and enhance the kind of life we enjoy here, and that brings people here to live and to invest their money, will have to acquire real authority, if not the force of law, at least something like it. But that’s another question. What we need first is to know what we are doing now.

This was forcibly impressed on me the other night watching the production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at State College. I have never seen better theater by any local group, however professional, from Maurice Browne to Jules Irving. Richard Rekow is one of the best young actors I’ve even seen. Yet now it’s all over, gone forever, when it might well have played a half dozen places from Vallejo to San Jose.

[May 22, 1963]



A New Human Revolution

The golf links lie so near the mill
    That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
    And see the men at play.

So said Sarah Cleghorn a generation or more ago. Today the astronauts fly so near the earth and yet so high that they can see the smoke of fires of Buddhists in Tibet and the glare of burning homes of ministers of Christ in Alabama. Times change. Child labor is no longer a problem in the advanced nations. Quite the opposite, the problem is to find something for them to do to keep them out of mischief.

Sweden has one of the three highest juvenile delinquent rates in the world. Denmark one of the lower. Sociologists racked their brains to account for this and finally discovered the obvious — Swedish law keeps adolescents from work, the Danes encourage them to find summer and part-time jobs.

Soon, in Western Europe, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, adult labor with be almost as uncommon as child labor is now. Everybody will have a chance to be a Beatnik, a Teddy Boy, a stilyagik, a hooligan, a hippie. We can all be juvenile delinquents together, from 5 to 75. Meanwhile in the vast belt of subtropical peasant cultures, life gets nastier, shorter, more brutal, for more and more and more and more people every minute.

We are caught up in a revolution more subversive of all past ways than the Industrial Revolution of the last century, perhaps more even than the Neolithic Revolution of ten thousand or more years ago that changed man from a hunter and gatherer of roots, living in little family bands like the gorillas do still, to an agriculturalist, dweller in cities, specialist in his labor, a trader, king, priest, craftsman or soldier.

We made this revolution while we weren’t looking, with no ideology, no manifesto, no program at all. Even the scientists who were responsible for it had no intellectual consensus — they had only a method. From Faraday at the beginning, who was a Sandemanian, to Wittgenstein, who liked to call himself a Zen Buddhist, and a wide assortment of contemporary atheists, Thomists, Vedantists, Marxists, and followers of Bahaullah amongst contemporary scientists and engineers, the only thing that holds them, and us, all together is the discipline of the slide rule.

This revolution is all about us, buffeting us hither and yon like cyclones in the air or whirlpools in water, or the vortices in the ether they once thought made the universe go round. It is all-pervading and inescapable. We all feel it in our bones, just as though we’d all been caught in Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

Does Khrushchev notice that the rate of profit does not fall, that the working classes do not become progressively impoverished, that colonialism is unprofitable, and most startling of all, that state ownership of the means of production and distribution has no logical connection whatsoever with the cure of the contradictions postulated by Marx and his followers?

On the other side, the reactionaries, the counterrevolutionaries, are busy defending an imaginary system of free enterprise that never existed except in the books of a few British economists at the beginning of the nineteenth century, or they are defending the Southern Way of Life that was invented by a couple of provincial novelists imitating Sir Walter Scott, or some other notion with no relevance whatever against an equally irrelevant attack.

We are in a revolution and we badly need a new “revolutionary movement,” an emotional commitment to the problems and possibilities of a humanity that already has within its hands all the means of solving its economic problems, but which has yet to even define its spiritual and psychological problems, its problems of living meaningfully, creatively together.

Instead, all over the world there is a crisis of confidence. People opt out, great artists or scientists or plain Teddy Boys, they opt out of Russian Socialism as well as out of the American Way. They cease to believe in the Cooperative Movement in Scandinavia or in Indonesian Nationalism at the opposite end of the earth. In Iceland or the Argentine more and more people feel that the official life of modern man is no longer relevant.

This is the great problem — we must restore to man his conviction of relevance. “Granted,” said the King of the Mice as he approached the cat with a bell in his little hand, “but how?”

[May 26, 1963]



Two Civil Rights Events

Well Sunday was a great day for the race, as they say. What race? The human race. It’s about time it pulled itself together. Perhaps the immense crowds, the music of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the speeches, will generate a desire to do something personally, however small, in the individual lives of the thirty thousand participants in San Francisco.

Not “Have a Negro to Dinner Week,” but something simple, inconspicuous, just a token gesture of interracial direct action, human contact between two people in which color is no consideration at all. This goes for both races — in San Francisco it sometimes seems as though there is as much prejudice on one side as on the other. And then, too, it’s frightfully fashionable to be anti-white.

Maybe, too, we’ll see a dark face now and then amongst our most enlightened groups, at a KPFA party, or working in the office, or even on the stage of the Actor’s Workshop. “Where are they?” say both Blau and Trevor Thomas. “If they come around and can do the job, we’ll put them to work.” Maybe. Is it hidden prejudice, or ineptness, or inertia? Or is it memories of old hurts on the other side, or is it prejudice — and not so hidden?

It’s a baffling problem, race relations in a genuinely free city, as I never tire of pointing out — far more baffling than the simple issues in Birmingham. Where was the Musicians’ Union last Sunday? It certainly has plenty of Negro members, who you’d think would be vitally concerned, and plenty of white jazz musicians who are devoted Negrophiles.

Where were they? I guess it’s too much to expect that Pops Kennedy, the union leader, would have been on the platform — but only a handful of the rank and file showed up. That’s fine if the absentees can answer, “I don’t need to march in parades, my interracial relations are personal and natural and easy.” But how many can so answer?

As a matter of bitter fact, too many race relations in jazz, show business, entertainment, are just one step beyond the “sporting world,” atypical, to put it mildly.

Howsomever that may be, the local and visiting jazz community is speaking up, loud and clear: Sunday, June 2, at 1:30 p.m. at the ILWU Hall at 150 Golden Gate. For $3 admission you can hear Carmen McRae, Sonny Rollins, Ahmad Jamal, John Handy and an assortment of other jazz stars, the money to go to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. If last Sunday’s parade was any indication, you’d better come early. There should be quite a turnout.

[May 29, 1963]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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