San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



February 1961

Night Clubs and Jazz
Pacifica Radio KPFA
The Assassination of Lumumba
The Chicago Opera Ballet



Night Clubs and Jazz

What makes the police so improbable? They do do the darndest things. Every columnist in town has spoken his piece on the Black Hawk imbroglio and it seems to be unanimous that the club was about as far from contributing to the delinquency of minors as could be imagined. In fact, it was engaged in an activity fully as commendable as any of the YMCA’s!

Somehow, I suspect that this is all going to blow over. It may even result in opening up more jazz spots for teenagers. Any step in this direction is greatly to be desired.

What is wrong with jazz is the whole nightclub entertainment pattern. The customer sees slatternly waitresses, nude ones, or both, pushing drinks with 1-percent alcoholic content. He sees dirty joints, brutal and ignorant owners, noisy and foolish customers.

But he doesn’t see behind the scenes. Unless you’ve been in the business, you can form no conception of the brutal, petty larceny, exploitation of customers, waitresses and musicians in the majority of the clubs around the country, and all but a tiny minority in New York City.

I must say that San Francisco is singularly free of this sort of thing. Even the toughest joints in town are wholesome compared with the New York average. As an entertainment city, San Francisco is both clean and, compared with New York, ridiculously cheap.

Furthermore, it is the point of origin of the revolution in taste which is slowly spreading through all show business. The hungry i, the Black Hawk, a few other places, and the Crystal Palace in St. Louis, were first in the field with the new style — modern jazz, commentators who have something vital and biting to say about the contemporary scene, singers who sing songs that make sense to grownups, and who hit the right notes while so doing.

Pretty soon we’ll have strippers who recite Kafka and T.S. Eliot while undressing.

One aspect of the game the layman can never know, and would have difficulty understanding if it were explained to him, is the financial rat race of the entertainment business. Club owners, booking agents, managers, smart guys who buy a bit of a promising boy early and ride him like the Old Man of the Sea for years. You’ve read exposés of rackets in boxing and wrestling — it’s just the same with many musicians and entertainers.

Admittedly narcotics addiction is a serious problem with some jazz musicians, especially in Harlem. It is most significant that there are certainly proportionately fewer narcotics addicts amongst musicians in San Francisco than in any other city. People don’t go on dope because they are “fiends,” they go on it because they can’t cope with life and because they are pushed. It is very significant that the word for a narcotics dealer is “pusher.”

What makes life unbearable for a Harlem musician is what unions call “working conditions” as well of course as living conditions in that little urban paradise. If I had to work in the average sleazy gangster-run club and live in Harlem, I wouldn’t take heroin, I’d take prussic acid.

All this is just to say that any club owner who makes an honest effort to lift jazz out of the underworld in which it so often has to function, any club owner who tries to give civilized musicians a chance to play civilized music to a civilized audience, this is the fellow the police should be helping in every way possible.

My ideal night club is one which revives as far as can be the atmosphere of the old-fashioned cabaret, plenty of room, good food as well as drinks, waitresses who see that you get what you want and no more, relaxation rather than strained artificial perpetual New Year’s Eve gaiety, entertainers and management you would not be ashamed to know socially, good music and literate songs and gags.

This is what Variety calls “the freak gig, Frisco style.” So be it. Two hundred places like this in America would do more to stop narcotics addiction amongst musicians than all the efforts of the Treasury Department. As Charles Mingus says, “My idea of a good club is one where my family would come to listen to me play.”

The other night I was in the Arenae and was amazed to discover that it just about fills this bill of particulars. I had often eaten in there because I liked the food and I am a hard man to please with vittles, but I had never stayed for the show. I don’t know just how they do it, but everybody projects an innocent, highly talented non-professionalism.

Maybe they all are beginners, anxious to please on their first real date. It is as though a lot of very clever and friendly customers were entertaining each other. Remember once I said that what I liked about the Stereo Club is that it was neighborly, a word nobody would ever think of applying to a jazz room? Well, the show at the Arenae gives off the same feeling — like if you lived in a real good neighborhood.

Even the best old pros in show business get that hard empty surface — they are all a bit like burlesque candy butchers and paddle wheel men at county fairs. People like this may be good material for short stories, but they are dull to know. Everybody at the Arenae is as friendly and accessible as a six-months pup. And besides, they sing and tell funny stories, which few six-months pups can do, and they’re pretty good at it, too.

[February 5, 1961]



Pacific Radio KPFA

This morning, after hearing the Budapest String Quartet, I have been playing over some old 78’s, records by them and by other groups of the same things. By and large I am not interested in musical performers as such, still less am I an admirer of virtuosity. If they just play it off the way the man wrote it, keep time and hit the right notes, I’m satisfied. The more highly skilled, and especially the more famous the performer, the more he is likely to foul up the composer’s intentions.

There are very few who transcend the status of “performing artist” altogether. They have the genius for finding and developing every hidden nuance of a musical composition. At the same time, they put across the sense of absolute conviction that this is the way it ought to be — this is what the composer meant.

The best example of course is Pablo Casals. Here is a man who plays an instrument of secondary importance, with a limited literature, which his own good taste limits still further, yet, for me at least, he is the greatest living artist in any medium.

The Budapest String Quartet is not Casals. You need only to think of Casals while listening to Mischa Schneider, their cellist, to realize that singly, or as a group, they occupy an artistic region somewhere considerably below his, Casals’s, unearthly heights. Still, they do carry the same sense of fitness, of being right, that he does.

Certain things they lack. I agree with Alexander Fried that the Mozart was not altogether satisfactory. I wonder if the Budapest has at all that crystalline classical purity that brings out the most profound meanings of Mozart. I like them best at Beethoven, Bartok, Bach.

Anyway, this morning, playing the great quartet of years gone by, the Flonzaleys, and the Budapest with the same Beethoven immediately afterwards — the Flonzaleys just sound that they were doing it wrong — like they weren’t reading the score correctly. This is what is meant by the term “musical mastery." Artur Schnabel had it with Beethoven.

At the opposite pole, amongst the interpreters of my generation, was Leopold Stokowski, where after a few notes of revamped Bach, you wanted to rise up, like a crank at a public meeting, and heckle. “I say there, this isn’t right, you know. You fellows really ought to stop right now.”

* * *

Now to change the subject completely. Radio KPFA is in the midst of its annual fund drive.

Years ago a friend of mine, publicity man for Columbia University Press, and for a while out here with Stanford University Press, once said, “I honestly believe that KPFA is the most remarkable single cultural institution in the United States, and that includes any single university, museum, or any other such body.” Possibly that was overenthusiasm, but KPFA is certainly remarkable.

It is a noncommercial educational FM station, owned and operated by Pacifica Foundation, a democratically run, more or less cooperative, board of local leaders of every variety, united largely by their sense of community responsibility. It has no other income than the subscriptions and donations of its listeners.

From 7:00 in the morning until midnight, KPFA’s transmitters pour out a steady stream of the finest classical music, readings and discussions of literature, commentaries, panels, lectures, on every variety of questions of public concern and current events, lectures and discussions of all the sciences — both general popularization and the up-to-date presentation of new developments, résumés of the news and opinion of the press of the world, full length plays and opera, children’s programs, book reviews, poetry readings, imports from the BBC Third Programme and from similar things in other countries — and so on and on — modern jazz, traditional jazz, ethnic music, folk songs, a program “Music of the Italian Masters” which is far better than anything on the air in Italy.

Many people say, “Oh yes, KPFA. Like the British Third Programme, isn’t it?” It is not. It is far better. I have lived in England and listened to the Third Programme for months at a time. The best word for BBC programming is “unexciting.” Some of it is just dull. Once in a great while you get an outstanding program, but by and large it’s highbrow Yorkshire pudding. Furthermore, British musical taste at its most advanced is far narrower, more provincial and conventional.

KPFA is not only exciting to listen to (it becomes a religion almost with many of its subscribers), it is stimulating in the literal sense of the word. Its programs move people to go out and do things, to assume social responsibilities, to explore further avenues of learning or music first opened to them by a KPFA program. More than any other factor, it is KPFA which has set the character of San Francisco culture in the postwar period. It has been the most powerful single stimulus for the San Francisco Renaissance, in the arts and sciences but most especially in our own 1961 San Francisco way of looking at life.

Try it. Tune in today, 94.1 megacycles, FM.

[February 12, 1961]

NOTE: Rexroth’s own book review program on KPFA ran every week for some twenty years.



The Assassination of Lumumba

Years ago I wrote an article for New American Writing called “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation.” It was, I hoped, a sober, although slightly partisan, analysis of the plight of my juniors who had come of age in the period of the Korean War. Unfortunately, it and a somewhat similar article in the Times by Clellon Holmes, launched a vulgar fad, now burnt out. The Beats are gone, but the young artists and writers of permanent worth, never Beat in the first place, are still with us. Some have matured into important writers indeed.

I just thought of this similarity — really only a verbal one — as I sat down to write. Would God I could launch another fad this time, even if only a fad, something might be gained. I am afraid that in this case the odds are too great. This time I want to talk about a far more important kind of disengagement.

As I sit writing this, the papers are full of the news of the assassination of Lumumba. By the time it appears, who knows into what shambles the Congo may have fallen.

For almost a year now, through, as they say, no fault of their own, the USA and the USSR have been maneuvering, seeking to outwit each other in the Congo. The sudden, totally unprepared “liberation” of the Congo was another, unrelated maneuver — a trick of Belgian internal politics that miscarried. It created a so-called power vacuum into which the Big Two Powers were immediately drawn, neither of them prepared to cope with the situation, and neither with any life or death interest in the country.

True, there are immense uranium deposits in Katanga, but there is plenty more uranium in both Russia and America, and all over the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Anyway, we’ve both got ample stockpiles of bombs, quite sufficient already to wipe out both civilizations and everybody else too. The issue is a political one, in the widest and vaguest sense of that word, and in the most dangerous sense.

Russia and America have been playing a chess game on a board not of their own choosing and with pieces which are not, by any manner of means, obedient to the will of either the State Department or the Kremlin. The native leaders of the Congo may be estimable men. It is only too obvious that behind them do not stand the ghosts of Machiavelli, Talleyrand, Ben Franklin — or even Maxim Litvinov.

You can’t play chess with pawns that move hither and yon over the board on their own volition, ignoring all rules and clobbering one another without warning. You can’t play chess when the pieces constantly threaten to set fire to the board, especially when the board is attached to fuses which lead straight to two arsenals of nuclear weapons.

In a barroom brawl, the innocent bystanders first of all try to separate the combatants. The great service which the neutralist nations like India, or the Afro-Asian bloc, can perform, is to help along the process of systematic disengagement wherever possible, of the Big Two of the Cold War. The less we have to quarrel about, the less likely we are to quarrel. The further we are held apart, the less we will be able to get at each other.

What we most need at this juncture is a secretariat for peace, a whole diplomatic and technical cadre devoted to the one-upmanship of systematic disengagement. There exist, all over the world, and in all departments of life, points and areas where, if we can take the initiative in breaking free, we will have gained more than if we were to continue the struggle. There are steps to be taken in well-publicized unilateral disarmament, in the terms of atomic agreements, in aid to the underdeveloped nations, in countless other fields, where the moral advantage, and in the long run, the physical advantage lies entirely with the power that takes the initiative.

Such moves must be carefully prepared and well explained to the world. Of course they cannot represent the unretrievable abandonment of a so-called position of strength, either. But certainly, if we applied some of the skill of our Machiavellian heritage to this kind of disengagement, we could, through the pressure of world opinion, force the Russians to reciprocate in kind. In the course of time, large neutralized areas would begin to open up, on the map and in the minds of men.

It is a strategy like this, applied as a matter of general policy, which in fact will win over the “uncommitted” peoples. At the present moment, the Russians have been allowed to pose, at least in their propaganda, as being against sin. Verbally, they have seized the initiative. We have the resources to take the initiative in fact. But just saying “Yah, yah, yah, you don’t mean it!” doesn’t do any good. We have to act.

That brings up the Russian Venus probe, “peaceful competition” and what William James call the moral substitute for war. Here, too, we have in actual unpublicized fact, or have the resources, to take or regain the initiative, but that is the subject of another column.

[February 19, 1961]



The Chicago Opera Ballet

The most mysterious things about the appearance of the Chicago Opera Ballet last week is how it could possibly get into town, put on only one moderately attended matinee, get out the same night, and not lose a pot of money. I suppose some foundation must pick up the losses.

However they managed, I was glad to see them, though most of the professionals in the audience with whom I talked during the intermission seemed less than thoroughly satisfied.

Certainly they have a style of their own — and certainly it is the style of Chicago, immensely competent, colorful, dramatic, but just a little brassy and sentimental.

How well these adjectives could be applied to Ben Hecht, or the best of Chicago’s modern painters! More than any other city, Chicago has had something very close to the spirit of Berlin between the wars. German art, literature, music, of those years have had more of an influence there than almost anywhere else. The reason of course is that the temper of the two cultures has been remarkably similar.

Not least to show such kinship is the Chicago Opera Ballet. I am particularly glad my little girls saw the show. In no other way could they ever get a glimpse of the sensibility of a bygone, far off epoch.

I am afraid I only liked one of the pieces very much. Die Fledermaus struck me as being incoherent. It was entertaining, sprightly is the word, but it was like a series of vaudeville turns. This was true of the costuming — cheerful, colorful, but without unity of color and design. Somehow nothing seemed to mesh.

Concertina Pour Trois was a perfect example of the ballet novelty that totally bugs me, by Agnes De Mille out of the Purdue rooting section. The music was awful. It sounded like a paperback manual bought in a music store, “How to Write Modern Music.” It may not have been “serialism” but it sure fell into small, discrete chunks. So did the dancing.

Camille was something else again. Melissa Hayden is a beautiful woman with a special grace of her own, and a highly individual dramatic sense. I thought the arrangement of the music of Verdi’s La Traviata exceptionally fluent, especially in contrast to the other numbers. The first act was not very meaningful, but the death scene was terrific. Here the German Expressionist flavor in the design and choreography gave a new note of horror to that hackneyed, sentimental, yet always moving, death. Masks, elevations, visions and nightmares — it was all pretty spooky. But when Melissa Hayden, in the grip of death, started wavering, back and forth, back and forth, clear across the stage each time, rigid, on points, in her filmy nightgown, she, like Mary Costa with her flesh shaking, had discovered a way to give a new shiver to a role that, you would think, four generations of actresses had long since milked dry.

A good word for the whole culture of either Chicago or prewar Berlin would be “over ripe.” At the opposite pole of artistic development, Ballets Africains is not ripe or green, it is not a fruit at all, but a very young first blossom.

If you expect me to fall for the publicity gimmick that has been attached to this show, you are going to be disappointed. The girls are really children, most of them. Two are little children, and cute they are, too. The sight of them is about as exciting, in the “vulgar” sense, as the sight of your little daughter taking a shower. That is the most surprising thing about the show. With all the wiggling and squirming, there is not an erotic moment in it. At least, if there is, it is a kind of eroticism that we are too corrupt to respond to.

Most people think of Negro dance as definitely “hot.” This is not a specialty of us, here in America. It is true of Haiti or Trinidad. It is even true of African clubs in Paris. Nothing against it — but who would deny that is the way it is? Not these boys and girls. Even the jungle orgy of the lions and the panthers looks like a bunch of overactive kids playing zoo. The short numbers in front of the curtain are naïve and charming imitations of French comic turns. The tone, the peasant humor, often the melodies, show strong French influence, although without exception the material is completely African.

The big numbers are all romps, even the one with a tragic subject. You always feel that you are not in a theater, but an unseen spectator at a festival in an African farm village. There is none of the precision, none of the tension of the imitation African dance of our highbrow groups directed by young lady anthropologists.

I don’t mean to be patronizing. There is plenty of great African art, I am sure there must be, in Guinea itself, dancing with a more developed style. This is pre-art. It offers, with great charm and good will, the material out of which style can grow. It’s easy to see — all you have to do is contrast the dancers and the accomplished musicians who play the lute and the nose flute — the music has obvious style, form, tradition. These are artists, moving in the same way, by the same means, as any concert performer. The dancers are a bunch of talented and vigorous youngsters who send you away feeling good.

How wholesome life seems to be amongst African peasants. Gives you hope for mankind.

[February 26, 1961]


“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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