Poet, musician, artist and avowed “surrealist” Ted Joans was, along with LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), one of the few people of color associated with the Beat Generation. But, like Baraka, Ted Joans had much more going for him than his Beat incarnation. A prolific writer, raconteur, jazzman, one-time roommate of Charlie Parker and public figure, he was a veritable Johnny Appleseed for poetry and an apostle of the free spirit.
Poet, musician, painter, and Beat impresario Ted Joans (1928-2003) was, according to legend, born on a Mississippi riverboat (though more than likely in Cairo, Illinois), on which his father was an entertainer. After graduating University of Indiana in 1951, he moved to Greenwich Village to pursue a dream of becoming a bohemian painter. Instead, he became the public face of Village bohemianism.
As Robin D. G. Kelley, the African American historian and biographer (Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original) put it in his obituary for Joans in the Village Voice, May 2003: “If you didn’t know Ted, then you couldn’t really dig how the Village became hip in the 1950s. The truly ‘teducated’ knew Mr. Joans as a tornado of a man, slight in stature, copper in tone with big dancing eyes, who spoke in up-tempo cadences, as if he swallowed a horn and had a rhythm section under his hat.”
Though part of the Beat circle in New York, Joans was not literarily inclined, not at first at any rate. He was a struggling painter (a REAL starving artist) who jointed the Beats as a kindred spirit. As quoted by Ann Charters in The Beat Reader, he recalled, “I’m not really a poet except for Allen Ginsberg who grabbed me one November day in 1958 and said he was bored stiff with reading in the coffee shop and why didn’t I do it because I was great. He insisted I go with him and try. I tell you I was scared silly at first but it all worked out…”
To say the least.
Joans, in fact, became famous for hosting readings in Greenwich Village venues like Café Rienzi (above which he lived for a time), Café Bizarre, and the Gaslight. At these, he often recited “The Sermon,” a “jazz poem” that offered advice to the young women flooding into the Village and opened, “So you want to be hip little girls / You want to learn to swing / And you want to be able to dig and take in everything?” and contained lines like “You must not let squares bug you / Have missionary eyes for them because / They know how what they do” and “Go to all parties alone and dance like mad with everyone / Dig all the old movies / Applaud in the wrong places at the new ones…”
He is featured in Greenwich Village Sunday (1961), a 12-minute film reading his poem “The Sermon” (starting at the 11:00 mark). Narrated by Jean Shepard, the film is a cool blast from the past, with scenes shot in Washington Square Park, on the streets and in the clubs, featuring folksingers, bongo drums, chess players, espresso, Abstract paintings, the good, the bad and the ugly. In short, this is Greenwich Village at its peak, before the franchises and fashion labels ruined everything.
As a trumpet player, Joans had an intuitive feel for improvisation, and he coined many new phrases that made the rounds of the hip. He created what he called “giggly labels” like chicklets (younger than chicks), hipnicks, flipnicks, touristniks, jivey leaguers, creepnik, A-Trainer (Black men who took the A-Train from Harlem to Greenwich Village), Bronx Bagel Babies, and the ultimate, the hipstressnik.
“Jazz Is My Religion,” live performance from 1967. Ted Joans on voice, Jimmy Garrison on bass:
Part tongue-in-cheek but part business venture, Joans and photographer Fred McDarrah created a “Rent-A-Beatnik” gimmick. They would provide a real bonafide Beatnik to attend and perform at parties thrown by curious New Yorkers. Usually the rented Beatnik was Joans, who would perform “The Sermon,” and mingle with the guests as though he were a long lost friend. Fred McDarrah said that “His ubiquitous presence at poetry readings from New York to Paris to Timbuktu had given him guru status” as “the quintessential Beatnik.”
However, there was much more to Joans than his relatively brief Beatnik interlude. He went on to become a prolific author with more than 30 books to his credit, such as Black Pow-Wow, Beat Funky Jazz Poems, Afrodisia, Jazz is Our Religion, Double Trouble, Wow, and Teducation. He was a forerunner of poetry performance (often to jazz backing) and an early proponent of group readings (though he reportedly loathed the competitiveness of poetry “slams”). And he was a world traveler, making his home in Timbuktu for many years and then, toward the end of his life, moving to Canada, refusing to return to the U.S. out of disgust over the 1999 murder by New York City cops of Amadou Diallo.
In his obit, ,Robin Kelley wrote that Joans “was one of the original Beat poets, though you wouldn’t know it from most Beat anthologies…When his former roommate, the great saxophonist Charlie Parker, passed away in 1955, it was Joans who began scrawling ‘Bird Lives!’ all over Lower Manhattan.”
Ted Joans and David Amram blew away the crowd at a 1994 Beat Conference at NYU with their scat poetry improvisation: