San Francisco Fifty Years Ago
(Kenneth Rexroths complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)
Jazz and Longhair
I am a lousy guide to a varied nightlife in San Francisco. The town isnt all that big, and I am getting old and fat anyway. I tend to just keep doing the same things once I have found things to do I like.
Ate in La Strada again and left replete with that extraordinary food and lulled into quiet postprandial bliss by the dulcet tones of the cembalo altogether we felt like the Duke and Duchess of Spoleto, and got as far as the Jazz Workshop.
Chico Hamilton is a remarkable fellow. He is the only survivor of the revolution that began as Pacific Jazz. The others with their heads together on that memorable album cover have fallen by the wayside. Unless they are lucky to catch a very good writer or arranger, what their music lacks is brains. They seem to have been capable of originality only once and to have been content to coast along in stereotypes of themselves forever after.
The fact is, most jazz musicians do this, even the biggest big shots. There are never enough Dave Toughs and Mary Lou Williamses to go around. Perhaps its just as well, it might be more than the public could stand understand anyway.
This is the best group Chico has had in a long time. Theyre all young fellows, new to the big time. The bass, Albert Stinson, is a real discovery, a most subtle and agile musician. The saxophone, Charles Lloyd, is listed as musical director, but what holds the group together and gives its musical expression shape is undoubtedly Chico Hamilton. When he is away for a long solo, things fall apart. When he is there the only word for the music is svelte. I suppose that is a term beyond smooth or cool or hot.
Last Sunday night was the Longhair Jazz concert at the Jewish Center, with Lee Smit on the piano and Margot Blum singing. The place was more than full. It was a social event and a musical event. But the people interested in jazz were very conspicuous by their absence. It just was not a jazz event.
In the first place, the piano pieces by Tansman, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Hindemith, Copland, are not jazz at all. They were not even derived, however remotely, from jazz, but from ragtime, which is very much something else.
There is only one composition by a longhair composer I know of which resembles jazz. This is La Création du Monde by Darius Milhaud. Not only is it jazz, but it sounds like Billy Strayhorn and it was written when Billy Strayhorn was a small boy and Duke Ellington had yet to even think of the full-dress suites of his middle period. So apparently it can be done if a smart enough man wants to do it.
Copland has a tin ear. He has been around both folk music and jazz all my days. He thinks of himself as a bit of a buff in both fields. Alas, when he goes to the folk for inspiration somehow he finds only some more Copland.
The other numbers were nowhere, jazzwize. However, anything can be swung. Put a seven-voice atonal fugue by Toch in front of Brubeck or Thelonius Monk and say swing it, and theyll swing it, each in his own way.
Leo Smit played brilliantly, but like a concert virtuoso. Since most of the pieces are inferior products of their respective composers and really exercises, it might just as well have been Czerny. Of course you can swing Czerny if youve a mind to.
Margot Blum, on the other hand, is missing a lucrative career. George Gershwin isnt jazz either and he sure isnt longhair. But he did write lovely show tunes in a semi-Negroid idiom. (Actually, Porgy and Bess always sounded more like plainsong to me.) Once she had managed to push her accompanist into the beat, Margot swung. In fact, some of it sounded a bit like the Miles Davis Porgy and Bess album, which is jazz.
I wouldnt wish the life on anybody, but maybe Margot Blum would be better off in the hungry i or the Blue Angel than struggling with an opera company that doesnt seem to know how to make the best use of her.
Rugged as it is, the entertainment business has compensations. Its wonderful to feel the audience right out there in the very grip of your hand. If she had them there in the Jewish Center with George Gershwin, what would she do in oh, well, its just an idea.
[February 4, 1962]
Back to Big Sur
Along in the summer of 1928 or 29 I was up on the ridge trail along the Santa Lucias [the California coastal range near Big Sur] with a fishing rod, some books, a zebra dun and a Spanish jennet. (She carried the pack.) The country was as it will never be again until after the Bomb profoundly empty like deep dreamless sleep, out of time, out of the world, out of all that was or was not. If a leather-clad Spanish vaquero had come riding up from the San Simeon way looking for strays, I wouldnt have been at all surprised.
However, I had a terrible cold which promised to turn into pneumonia. The topographical sheet said Slades Hot Springs down on the coast, so down I went, mile after mile of dusty switchbacks and forested canyons.
When I got there I found a little shelf where there had been 2000 years or more of Indian camps, where theyd baked abalones until there was a 10-foot deposit of black oily soil filled with fragments of shell. On this the grass grew so high the stock vanished into it when I turned them loose.
Out on the cliff were two old tubs hung on the rock by rusty wire cables. There was a narrow board catwalk out to them, but it was broken and I had to rebuild it before I could get a bath.
The severity of my cold could be measured by the fact that the water seemed perfectly odorless and tasteless to me until I had been there for three days. I drank and soaked and stayed about a week until I ran out of grub. . . . out of time, out of the world.
Years ago Marie and I went there again the year before the road went through, the last chance to see the country as it had always been. I never stopped again until last weekend when I took my two daughters down for a short outing and myself for a conference with Mike Murphy, grandson of the first owner, who has now taken the place under his own management and has all sorts of ideas about developing it.
I must say, Big Sur is not longer out of the world.
Nowadays, in the espresso bars of Reykjavik, Jakarta, Tel Aviv and Montevideo, when they discover youre from northern California and write books, sloe-eyed maidens in black stockings, sweatshirts and B.B. hairdos cuddle up to you murmuring softly, Connais-tu le pays où fleurit Henri Millair parmi ses mômes?
As might be expected, the International Public Image is considerably more outrageous than the facts. Up from the road the Santa Lucias are still lonely and wild. Its still lovely to soak in the hot water.
But little did I think, a young boy, staring out to sea and pondering the fate of man, that some day I would be sitting at the same spot, planning to conduct a seminar called The Restatement of Religious Values in a Time of Faithlessness while a beautiful waitress in black stockings poured me coffee.
The world turns and time does pass. Cheer up. Theres a better time coming.
[February 7, 1962]
One of the best things about living in America is the tremendous richness of the diverse cultures that still survive amongst us. With a little persistence you can still ferret them out, even though the immigrant groups that brought them here are now far more assimilated than they were a generation ago.
There is a congregation of Falasha, black Abyssinian Jews, in New York. The Polynesian colony in San Francisco still get together for pig roasts and hulas. On Burns Day you can stuff yourself with haggis and usquebaugh while the pipes skirl. You can learn to sit down with a mouthful of flaming daggers and flip your legs out with bona fide Cossacks. You can take up tumbling in a Czech Sokoj.
You can even, in an aggressively Low Church diocese like San Francisco, go to garden parties where ladies in flowered prints pour and children curtsey and the new vicar propounds slightly fast conundrums or takes eggs out of his ears.
In fact, be it ever so weird, if its a national custom, you can find it somewhere.
I have always been a tireless world traveler in the foreign quarters of Americas great cities. I learned to do that funny wiggle with my head and neck from a Cambodian girl I met in a Chicago speakeasy. Speaking of speakeasies l also found that the safest drink during prohibition was oozo, moustike, or arak the anise flavor grappa served in Levantine coffee shops while the fiddles whined, the belly dancers wiggled and ululated, and the menfolk held handkerchiefs and bounded about on the dance floor like bears.
For me at least, this is the worst thing about living in a monolithic culture say in Italy. After awhile you get tired of the 570 varieties of pasta and Ciao, Ciao, Bambino on the radio. There are only two public collections of Far Eastern art in all Italy, in Venice and in the Vatican, and they are pointless collections of bijouterie. No Swedes dance the hambo in the Pincio. Only more little beggar boys with trained sparrows.
And you remember how the Hasidim of Williamsburg on Long Island come out in the park and dance their unearthly akimbo dance, welcoming the new moon and showing her her own stigmata the lunes on their fingernails.
For a time it looked as though all this cultural diversity would die out. The second generation was ashamed of the ways of their parents. But now the third and fourth generations have come along, and they are all for a return to their traditions.
We are all aware of this in the Jewish community and are inclined to put it down to the shock of the Nazi persecutions and the establishment of Israel. I think it would have happened anyway. It is happening amongst people of the most diverse ancestry Greeks, Chinese, Armenians, Japanese.
This is all a preface to the news that Chinese opera is playing at the Great Star Theater on Jackson St. between Grant and Kearny. They will be there through the 22nd of February, the longest continuous run in years.
Most of the troupe are from Hong Kong, actors and actresses of first quality. The repertory is stunning, and includes many of the greatest classics of the Chinese theater. There will be a whole series of military plays, which means the most spectacular costumes and most acrobatic pantomime to be found on the stage anywhere on earth.
Going to the Chinese theater is my favorite indoor sport. I used to go at least once a week, back in the days when it cost only 35 cents after 10 oclock. (Prices are now the same as other theaters.) I learned more about dramatic technique, playwriting, audience communication, than I have from all the Western plays I have ever seen. If these plays were put on under the auspices of a foundation, in a downtown theater, the audience would be full of enraptured highbrows and sensation shoppers. Here it is in its natural habitat, with an audience in total communication.
Go. Youll get used to the noise in a few minutes. Much of the action is self-explanatory and youll find somebody near you only too glad to interpret.
Tonight, Sunday, there will be one of Mei Lan Fangs favorite plays, The Legend of the White Serpent. On the 14th, 17th, 18th, and 21st, there will be a series of Three Kingdoms plays. The drowning army scene in the one on the 21st is one of the greatest moments in all theater. The 15th and 16th will be the two parts of the classic romance, Lady Precious Stream. On the 20th will be the episode of the cake peddler and his wicked wife Golden Lotus, from the novel of that name. Thursday will be another romance, The West Chamber.
This is the very cream of the Chinese repertory. See at least one. Im going to everything, myself. And do my children love it!
[February 11, 1962]
A Wise Proclamation from Oregon
They say southern California is the post-modern world, already come to life. Then theres Texas. The only competition is the complex of cities, all now merged into each other, centered on Tokyo, where lives the largest conglomeration of humans the world has ever known.
None of these places is very nice to contemplate. As they say, I wouldnt want my daughters to marry one of them. For one thing, jammed with empty, frustrated lives, they are all hotbeds of irrational violence.
Oregon to the north of us, on the other hand, is the last outpost of an old-time Americanism. It may be liberal but historically speaking it is intensely conservative. Wayne Morse, the Neubergers, even Douglas McKay, all are survivors from an older and better day. It was the day of Senators Norris, La Follette Sr., Borah, Bryan, Wheeler, Hiram Johnson.
These men were not all in agreement. They were not by any means all liberals in current definition. They too were intensely conservative. They were guardians of the free, popular democracy, based on the farms and small towns of 1776 New England, where every man knew his neighbor and every man spoke his own mind.
Just before Christmas last year the Mayor of Eugene, Oregon, issued a proclamation which concluded: Now, therefore, I declare the week of December 24 through 30, 1961, to be dedicated to the proposition that we must turn toward peace, that we must strengthen the United Nations, that we must develop world law, that we must establish constructive nonmilitary solutions for international conflict, and that the United States must take the initiative for peace. Signed, Edwin E. Cone, Mayor.
True, these sentiments are indistinguishable from those expressed at the same time by Pope John. But Popes are expected to say things like that at Christmas and Easter. This proclamation comes from the undeniable grass roots of America, and from all accounts it is a bona fide expression of community sentiment, ministers and saloonkeepers, bankers and sawmill workers, professors and merchants.
This was at a time when California found itself ever more deeply embroiled with the mischief-making organizations of the lunatic right . . . and when two liberal clergymen in southern California had their homes bombed for daring to speak out against the social poisons that seem perpetually to be on the brew in southern California and Texas.
I think its a losing battle, but anyway thank God for Oregon.
[February 14, 1962]
Some Racial Progress
It has been some time since Ive written anything about the problems of the Negro in America. Many people, Im sure, think I write about this subject altogether too much. Certainly the only rabidly abusive mail I get is from Unreconstructed Rebs.
The shoe is actually rather on the other foot. The Negro has become very fashionable in America of late especially amongst Negroes. Singers no darker than I am, with heavy Hunter College accents, suddenly stop straightening their hair (the Madison Avenue word for this has become hair relaxing) and turn militant Pan-Africanists.
The fact is, the reason I write so much about this subject is that this is the area in which the most profound and enduring changes are taking place.
Most Americans who speak of France and the French mean, in fact, the international world of Paris, that vast market of fashion, art, and objects of vice and vertu, in one sense or another, all of it a demi-monde. Similarly, white people mostly know about Negroes solely through those whose livelihood brings them into contact with the other race.
The southern belle is free with the wise saws of her cook and gardener. The sociology major at Swarthmore knows other sociology majors at Swarthmore. Race relations professionals know each other. Hipsters know jazz musicians or think they do.
There is a small band of miscegenation prowlers who all have the highly flattering delusion that the other race is endowed with fabulous sexual potency. Would they were, but alas, theyre all Americans when you get to know them, on both sides of the last barrier. How many ordinary people, black and white, know each other at all well?
A book came to me recently for review: The Angry Black South, Corinth Books, $1.25, paperback. This is a collection of essays by six young professional men, ministers, lawyers, teachers, most of them at one time or another associated with Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. The title is a serious misnomer. It is one of the least angry books Ive ever read. But it is an excellent inside introduction to a group of leaders of the responsible, educated southern Negro community. These men are speaking out of and for that community. They are not soapboxing in the No Mans Land between the races.
The January issue of Ebony carried an article, Negro Progress in 1961, summing up the gains in civil rights, education, government, the ballet, employment, the Armed Forces, sports, entertainment, and last, adventure the first Negro over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The last is a somewhat dubious gain.
Prompted by the desire to find a better, I tried to discover if there have been any Negroes on the various Antarctic expeditions. It seems to me this would be a real test of desegregated adventure. Of all the people locally who might know, nobody knows the answer.
The most impressive thing about the book and article is the magnitude of gain, the quiet with which most gains have been achieved, the snowball effect each advance generates a dozen others, and most important, the fact that once won, each gain stays put. A week after a lunch counter is desegregated in the Deep South, everybody is eating there regardless.
When action takes place we tend to speak of it, at least in headlines, as race conflict. Step by step, the advances in the South have been steps toward race peace, not toward conflict at all.
Writers like the contributors in The Angry Black South often quote Arnold Toynbees remark that the American Negro might well give our Western society the spiritual and moral leadership it so sorely needs. One thing for sure, this period of awakened responsibility has introduced something new into American life, something not usually considered an American characteristic nonviolence.
The ability to love and respect ones opponents is not easily come by anywhere at any time. It is certain an achievement for a whole community to function on this level in the face of mob violence and crooked politics. Lets hope this is another gain that will stay put and snowball at the same time an imperishable and increasing moral benefit to all American society.
If so, maybe the long history of slave ships and lynch mobs and hourly cruel snubs will not have been in vain.
[February 18, 1962]
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor has just completed an exhibition of Eskimo prints and carvings that is not only very interesting in itself, but that raises a lot of speculation about what has happened to our own civilized art.
A few years back a visiting Canadian artist taught the Eskimos of Cape Dorset in far off Baffin Land to cut prints on soft stone and to make stencils of sealskin both techniques unheard of before and apparently invented on the spot. Since then this tiny community has produced an amazing output of fresh and living work, sought for by collectors all over the world.
It is hard to think of any contemporary civilized graphic work to compare with these things. Jean Arp and a couple of modern Japanese woodblock artists and the early Miró come to mind. They are civilized, too much so, and so obviously at the end of long traditions, so overrefined as to be near the point of no return. These prints stand at the beginning of all the adventure of expression. And they are expressions of an acuteness of seeing that hardly exists in the confusion of Paris or Tokyo.
What does New York or Paris or Tokyo cost? What has it all cost from Egypt and Babylon to date?
I am all for civilization. D.H. Lawrences Dark Gods have little appeal to me. But you have to admit that civilization does cost. It is not for free. We can never go back to the cave paintings of Stone Age man. Try as we can to learn, there is something we can never duplicate in the rock paintings of South African Bushmen.
Who said, Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? Haeckel? Hurley? It means that the development of the individual repeats the development of the race or group.
We can see the same thing happen to our children. Before they go to school, most of them are beautiful artists, with a sure sense of color and design. Once the Dewey eyed schoolmarms have permissively driven them into freely developing their little personalities strictly according to Spock and Gesell, they are just as vulgar and insensitive as anybody else. If they become artists they spend a lifetime recovering, and the hardest sort of work it is, too.
Something like this, alas, will doubtless happen to the Baffin Land Eskimos. The similar painting of the Pueblo Indians turned to the most horrible trash in about 15 years.
For now at least, the Eskimo things are beautiful, and for what they are, cheap. Mrs. Lily Jaffe, who brought them to San Francisco, will show them by appointment at her home. Her number is WAlnut 1-3222. She also has, at her home, a collection of soapstone sculptures of identical freshness and power . . . sort of Barlach or Brancusi for the thrifty, but with something still there they dont have. Of course they have other things to compensate. But I am afraid that what the Eskimos have soon will be going . . . going . . . gone.
P.S. Of all things. As this was finished, Dick Collins, trumpeter with Les Browns Band, came to call. Fresh from a gig in Baffin Land. Well? Or as they say, williwaw.
[February 21, 1962]
The San Francisco Mime Troupe
There are certain things, like mens garters, that once out of sight, are out of mind. Thats why it eventually became fashionable to do without garters altogether; it was too hard to remember to buy them and hence they were unprofitable merchandise. So I let those lovely Eskimo prints at the Legion go by until Wednesday, after the show had closed.
Unless I get a hump on me, Im liable to find myself in the same fix with Ronny Daviss Mime Theater. They show at the Encore, Fridays and Saturdays at midnight, and I for one have the most awful time remembering they are there.
Very little hereabouts in show business, local or visiting, is half as interesting. Almost nothing is as original or as imaginatively directed. The troupe has an astonishing pace and precision. In bounce and timing the only thing to compare them to would be an imaginary intellectual high wire act.
Back in the days of the Russian Futurist and Constructivist Theater the Russian director Meyerhold used to talk about the acrobatization of drama. This led to some exciting but, in the long perspective of 40 years, fundamentally silly capers. Hamlet might deliver his soliloquy from a trapeze or Orestes enter on a greased pole like a fireman, while colored disks revolved in the background.
The thing that Meyerhold was seeking, and tried to apply from the outside, like greasepaint, Ronny Davis seems to be able to build into the action itself and into the very bodies of the actors.
At present they are doing the ancient Commedia dell Arte scenario, The Dowry. Some of this dates back to the Roman dramatist Plautus, some was used by Molière, Goldoni, and the British playwright, Mrs. Aphra Behn. Much of it survives in American burlesque. It is the oldest humor in the world, but it has only improved with age.
A Commedia dell Arte play is probably the best introduction to the Mime Troupe. It is traditional and provides something for the spectator to latch on to. The things they do on their own are unique. Nobody has ever done anything like them and nobody is likely to be able to imitate them successfully. They are precious clowning pushed to its ultimate refinement, with the addition of a peculiar out-of-this-world humor that is Daviss very own specialty.
Since the Encore stage is not the size of a postage stamp, but about the size of a postage stamp album, there isnt any reason why the Mime Troupe shouldnt be taken up by a sophisticated nightclub like the hungry i, the Second City in Chicago or the Crystal Palace in St. Louis. This is where they really belong. They have the wacky humor that fits modern taste; they have the finish and snap of experts.
I am a strong advocate of the developing café theater and am bored to tears by the routine bills of standard nightclubs. We need a change, and these people are sure a change, and in the right direction.
Way out in the heart of Perambulator Town, at 20th and Irving, there is a place called the Beehive, that purveys very modestly priced beer to, as far as I can make out, the Bohemia of S.F. State and City Colleges. Here, on an even smaller stage, a group of friends of mine, amongst them Marguerite Ray whom I mention altogether too often in this column, are doing something not like Davis, but more or less in the same field.
They are little satirical skits, of a mildly Dadaist humor-shaggy dog vaudeville. I first met this young man when I was myself playing the Five Spot in New York. He showed me a folder of typescript plays. They were adaptations of the basic plots of several Japanese Noh plays to the American scene and to presentation straight off the floor or bar out of the audience, that is and onto the bandstand of a night club. The Angel who had lost her feathered cloak and who dances for the poor fisherman in the Noh play becomes a stripper who had lost her G-string and who dances for a hung-up unemployed tenor man who is sitting at the bar. This sounds, I know, awful corny. The plays are not. The were wry, compact little twisters.
I tried to persuade Joe Termini to put a couple on at the Five Spot, but he wouldnt and so he lost the chance (which passed to the Landesman brothers in St. Louis) of pioneering the new café theater. In due course Martin Ingerson showed up here, played a couple of weeks at Opus One before it closed and now has moved to the Beehive.
There are still a lot of bugs in these things, and the actors badly need the timing, precision and projection of Daviss troupe. Nonetheless, they are worth visiting Wednesdays and Saturdays. Theyre a step in the right direction.
[February 25, 1962]
Did you read Claire Leedss story in the Sunday Examiner? Last Tuesday at the San Francisco General Hospital there was held a staff conference in pediatrics the subject, The Battered Child. On March 10 a pediatrics meeting at Childrens Hospital will devote an afternoon to the subject. All around the country medical people are having discussions on this question, following a nationwide conference held recently by the United States Childrens Bureau.
I do not know about other countries, but I do know that this is a serious problem in France, because they were discussing it in the papers when we lived there a couple of years back.
In America, to speak only of ourselves, there is a growing epidemic of violent, destructive, continuous child abuse I am not talking about abuse in drunken rages. As Claire Leeds points out, it is not confined to any stratum of society, nor to any racial or ethnic group. It appears amongst well-to-do educated families and amongst illiterate paupers.
I notice that I myself have just spoken of it as though it were a recognized disease entity. So it is, in a sense, a kind of social disease, the symptom of some sort of serious sickness in human relations. Certainly it has reached the point where it has emerged as a definite public health problem, like alcoholism, narcotics, venereal disease or suicide.
The other night at dinner a friend on the California Adult Authority got so carried away, talking about the grueling problems of her responsibility, that she told the story of a fatal child beating so gruesome, shocking and perverted that it left us all demoralized and hardly able to continue eating. It had occurred in a vine-covered tract house in the Los Angeles suburbs amongst typical representatives of the American Way of Life on a modest level.
In the week in which the conference was held at the county hospital, four such local cases, one fatal, showed up in the newspapers.
Something is going wrong when it is necessary to issue a blanket order to emergency hospitals and admissions desks: X-ray the entire body of a child that exhibits unexplained contusions or manifests any symptoms of concussion, mild shock, stupor or internal injury.
Where is this hatred of life coming from? In San Francisco and Kiev alike the morbid tissues of society are secreting deadly violence the way oysters secrete pearls. What is it? What is going wrong? Tortured Algerians, hydrogen bombs, battered babies these are visible coatings over a hidden irritant or infection. What is it?
Remember, these mothers have come to such an insensate rage against life that they have pummeled into oblivion what the Hebrew poet called the fruit of their wombs . . . life emerging from their own life. Why? I havent any answer.
[February 28, 1962]
“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.