In an enlightening essay found in Kathy Sloane’s entertaining history of Keystone Korner, the famed ‘70’s – 80’s North Beach San Francisco jazz club, the poet Jack Hirschman writes that “post-World War [II] jazz, abstract expressionism, and what I call field composition in poetry represent for me the trinity of essential American idioms that really are the foundation of not merely my work, but the work of virtually a whole generation of writers and musicians.” Hirschman writes that he found inspiration for his poetry in the music of Monk (“he was like a poet writing in musical notes”), Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor (“also a writing poet [who] fills the plane up and all the spaces”) and produced what he called “rifficals,” countless improvisations inspired by jazz that he passed out to the audience at the Keystone.
Like many of us, Hirschman believes jazz is a centerpiece of our cultural history. “The African American dimension has been a major influence on virtually all the artists in this country,” he writes, “even if people don’t want to admit it. It is the basis, the musical basis, at the level of popular creation. Jazz is the musical foundation of our contemporary lives. I don’t mean simply that it is part of everyone’s life in America, but it’s a part within ourselves. I know, for example, as a creator, as a poet, that all I have to do is tap into something in myself, something that I do with my own breath, that opens me to the African American dimension and therefrom unfolds words or sounds or even paint.”
Hirschman, now 83 years old, has published over 50 volumes of poems and essays, and was named San Francisco’s poet laureate in 2006. If you have an interest in the connections between jazz and literature, as well as reading his memories of Keystone, his 2012 essay “Rifficals” — excerpted from Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club, by Kathy Sloane — is a terrific read.
“Rifficals” by Jack Hirschman
I was inspired by Monk because quintessentially he was like a poet writing in notes, in musical notes.
I didn’t have any dough to go to Keystone. I absolutely did not. None at all. I was here in ’73, ’74, but if [friends of mine] mentioned Keystone Korner, I would say, “Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t have…” – what was it, six or seven bucks to go in? I just didn’t have that money. But I was very lucky that [years later], my girl [Kristen Wetterhahn] worked at Keystone Korner. I’m talking about the period 1977 or ’78, because I knew Keystone from that period to ’83, when it closed. Kristen got the job at Keystone and, like I say, I was pleased because I love jazz. And as it turned out, in that period my son, David, was down in Santa Cruz, and he was broadcasting jazz on the Santa Cruz station. Jazz was very much a part of my life.
Because of our jobs, we were really night people. We wouldn’t eat supper, Kristen and I, ‘til 2:30 in the morning. So what would happen is, I would come out of our apartment on Kearny Street [and go] to Spec’s Café, which is where I was drinking and reading poetry; I’d be with the poets, or the folk, workers, and we’d be reading poetry, yabbering. At about a quarter to twelve [at night], I’d walk down to Coit Liquors, before they closed, and get a bottle of wine for our dinner. And then I’d walk over to Keystone, and because Kristen was working there, I was able to get in free. This was an incredible gift indeed because here were some of the great jazz musicians of the time, and I was able to hear them.
Keystone had a very big part for me in that period from ’77 to ’83. I used to do these Russian-American posters and give them away. They were really communist; they were communist propaganda. It was sort of like my daily jazz, and they were done almost entirely in a crazy, improvising state. I did between about thirty and fifty a day in the apartment that we lived in, and there was a big influence of the jazz world on that.
I would take a piece of paper, let’s say eight-by-eleven – although I must tell you that I would use all kinds of papers that I would find in the dumpsters, and some beautiful cardboards and all – and I would make several gestures on the paper. The first gesture would be sort of a graphic gesture; it could be out of Zen or something oriental. Then, I would write a Russian word, like Iskra, the name of the revolutionary newspaper, which means “spark.” And on top of the word “spark,” in Russian Cyrillic, I would write “ameruss,” a word I made up – a combination from America and Russia, a pun on amorous. And then, underneath it, I would write “communist” in Cyrillic. Then I would write on the side of the paper, “a solidarity.” It could be a solidarity Haiti, or it could a solidarity ULW, which is the Union of Left Writers. And then, underneath, I would say something like, “no class.” On the other side of the paper: “no Klan” or “no Nazis” or “no nukes.” It would be like a slogan.
And then, there would be a presente, someone who was a reveloutionary figure like Che, or Lenin, or poets, using also a lot of jazz, you know. Like it would be Charlie Parker presente, or one of the other jazz guys who no longer was with us, but was with us. It could be anyone in that realm. And then I would write a little poem, like a haiku poem, just a very short improvisation. I gave many, many thousands to the people coming to the club [Keystone Korner].
I was inspired by Monk because quintessentially he was like a poet writing in notes, in musical notes. The most fecund evening I ever had in my poetic life was one evening [when] I was going through a break with my first wife. I was down in a place in Echo Park [in Los Angeles], I put on a Monk record, and I wrote that night eighty-one what I call “rifficals,” jazz improvisations using whatever arsenal I had – which goes back to James Joyce as well as what was opened up by jazz. But these are actually jazz poems. There is another poem that I wrote called “Schnapps’ Son,” which is also inspired by Monk. [Charlie] Parker’s really involved in it. And it’s a poem that’s been published, and some of the rifficals have been, too. I was literally inspired by listening to “Blue Monk” on the disk [LP]. He was very close to me, just as someone who uses words. It’s like he is using words because he is speaking in notes, more than, I believe, any other pianist that I have heard. Cecil Taylor, who also is a writing poet, fills the plane up and all [the] spaces, while Monk is made of breaths. He’s closer to some of the things that were going on in American writing from Charles Olson – the use of breath on the line and all. That’s very close to things that Monk [was] involved in.
Post-World War [II], jazz, abstract expressionism, and what I call field composition in poetry represent for me the trinity of essential American idioms that really are the foundation of not merely my work, but the work of virtually a whole generation of writers and musicians. What Parker enunciated. What Jackson Pollock enunciated. Jackson Pollock really did break open the world of art and made New York the center – not Paris any longer – but it was the idiom, [although] not merely the idiom of dripping. What Jackson did, and in a certain sense Parker did the same thing in music, was completely revolutionize the line. The line, l-i-n-e, the line was revolutionized by him in terms of what he did. And that line, the revolution was so deep, that literally today, we’re talking 2006, in the hotels around this place, people are lifting up brushes and doing it, resonating to the incredible shift of line that Jackson created in the ‘40s and early ‘50s.
Once [at Keystone], we were talking and someone – it was Dexter, or it may have been Dewey Redman – was talking about Charlie Parker: what was the nature of his genius? He said that musicians in those days, even in ’81, ’82, could not fully understand how Parker did it. It was such a rapid grooving the way he slid, not just in tempo, from one level of the music to the other. Still to that day, people were incapable of doing it. That was one of the real essences of his genius – that he was able to move through the jazz dimensions of a particular piece with an incredible grooved rapidity.
The African American dimension has been a major influence on virtually all the artists in this country, even if people don’t want to admit it. It is the basis, the musical basis, at the level of popular creation. Jazz is the musical foundation of our contemporary lives. I don’t mean simply that it is part of everyone’s life in America, but it’s a part within ourselves. I know, for example, as a creator, as a poet, that all I have to do is tap into something in myself, something that I do with my own breath, that opens me to the African American dimension and therefrom unfolds words or sounds or even paint. So it’s a very important part. Why shouldn’t it be? Because this, politically speaking, is a country which has always claimed itself to be democratic, but we know that that was bullshit. There was, in fact, slavery in the country. If you have slavery in a whole portion of the country, you’re not a democratic country. And the liberation of that slavery is, creatively speaking, the most important thing that probably has occurred in the American last century. And it’s understood that way in other countries. In other words, if you go to Europe, Europe understands that. Jazz is the language of a liberation into democracy.
The Russians were very hip to early American jazz modes. I remember translating [Vladimir] Mayakovsky with a friend one day, and he came upon a word, ki-ka-poo. And he didn’t know what it was in Russian. And I didn’t know what it was in American. And three days later, he checked it and said, “Well, you know, there was a dance in 1915 from America called the kickapoo, named after the Kickapoo Indians.” But it was a jazz dance, like a foxtrot or something. An American jazz dance tune! Just a little craze that went on.
When you speak of the thumping in hip-hop, that, of course, has certain relations to the old jazz thing, but it also has to do with the [Russian] revolution. A lot of hip-hoppers don’t even know this. But someone like Mayakovsky, the Russian poet, was writing in those internal rhymes on the street level at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the drum – he even has a line, “Speed is our god, drum pumped aorta.” And in a certain sense, if you listen to him poppin’, the rapidity and the drum, it’s all there, too. So there were always bases of things.
Put it this way. In nineteenth-century European music and in America, you had the translation into what we call “light music” – theater, you know, dance, etc. But that was intercepted toward the eend of the century by the music that came out of the liberation from slavery. And when you get into the twentieth-century, when you get to Scott Joplin and all, and you get toward the foundations of jazz, you have a language that comes from the struggle of liberation. It has pervaded the entire twentieth century right up even to now [in the twenty-first century].
I was born in the United States. I’m not European. I was born in New York in ’36. I worked for four years as a copy boy for the Associated Press, on Fifty-First Street. On Fifty-Second Street, Charlie Parker was playing when I was working and I didn’t go. I could kick myself for this. I was just a young novice and I wanted to be, first, a reporter and then a novelist, a poet. I knew almost after the fact of that gang: Charlie and Miles playing on Fifty-Second Street. I was literally around the corner…
I came to southern California in ’61 and moved to San Francisco in late ’72, and then Kristen and I met in late ’74. We lived here in North Beach and Keystone became part of our life [starting] from about ’77 or ’78. You remember that time, after the Vietnam War, before the Sandanistas in ’79. I had already started to work with the Sandanista cultural group before the overthrow of Somoza. And then in ’80, Reagan came into power and he pulled that number with the air controllers, and then there was a lot of consolidation of the Left against him. [The year] ’82, of course, was very significant ‘cause my jazz-broadcasting son [David] had contracted leukemia, which developed into lymphoma, and he passed away in 1982. And at the time Keystone was folding, Kristen and I sort of folded. In fact, it was pretty synchronous.
There was also in ’82 a big conference of writers, the Left/Right Conference, and Todd Barkan was very generous with me in organizing particular events at Keystone Korner. We had political poetry readings, and they weren’t merely readings on a particular Sunday; we would [sometimes] have political events there before the place opened in the evening. I believe there was one against Reagan. Amiri Baraka came out; I read with Amiri. I mean, he was really the headlining poet, but I was the local one. And then, later one, we became really good friends. Last year, we had a marvelous time together in Naples where we read for my Italian publisher.
That Keystone opened itself to political events was very important because by that time the prices had gone up to seven, eight, maybe ten bucks, and here what you had were events in which people could hear something politically involved and, if they gave a bit of bread, it was really going to go to the cause. It wasn’t so much going to Keystone; Keystone just wanted the bar [income], which was perfectly fine.
It was a heady place on one level. In fact, given that the cop station was next door, it was screwball. I never understood it. Around the music world, there was lots of drinking [and] dopiness. But there were wonderful occasions.
Keystone became something very personal apart from the personal sense that I was living with Kristen and she was working there. On a sadder note: I mentioned my son, David, who died of lymphoma in 1982 in his home in Venice, [California]. He was twenty-five, so he was quite young but very involved in the jazz world. It wasn’t simply that he loved jazz; he was also a photographer of jazz. He did some wonderful, wonderful photographs of jazz musicians, and after he died, I exhibited the stuff that he did at a couple of local exhibitions. When he died, I wrote an arcane, one of my longer poems, an elegy for David, called “The David Arcane,” and it was published in a little edition, and the picture he took of Bobby Hutcherson playing at Keystone was used as the frontispiece of the book.
Backstage at the Keystone Korner in 1981, Jack Hirschman (center) with Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon
Keystone Korner: Portrait of a Jazz Club,
by Kathy Sloane