Ted Joans, 1928-2003


On May 7, Ted Joans, extraordinary poet and world citizen, joined the ancestors. 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. Meeting Ted eight years ago, I learned to possess the power to pull the marvelous out of a pot or a champagne glass, a sliver of garlic or a tattered roll of paper, a memory, story, or song.

Born in Cairo, Illinois, Joans came into the world on July 4, 1928, but contrary to myth he was not born on a riverboat. He studied trumpet, sang bebop, and earned a B.A. in Fine Arts from Indiana University before moving to Greenwich Village in 1951 and becoming a true bohemian. He was one of the original Beat poets, though you wouldn’t know it from most Beat anthologies. He was the author of over 30 books of poetry, prose, and collage, including Black Pow-Wow, Beat Funky Jazz Poems, Afrodisia, Jazz is Our Religion, Double Trouble, Wow, and Teducation. Joans was the granddaddy of bringing jazz and “spoken word” together on the bandstand. 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.

A well-known black expatriate, Joans initially bypassed Europe and went straight to the Motherland in the early 1960s. Timbuktu became his home base, but he traveled around much of the world—a boho hobo and proud of it—doing poetry readings, writing jazz criticism, creating “happenings” as such events came to be called. He exchanged ideas with the leading figures of surrealism, hung out with Jack Kerouac, met an admiring Malcolm X, broke bread with Afro-Cuban painter Wifredo Lam and African American painter Bob Thompson, swapped bread tales with singer and hustler “Babs” Gonzalez, and played invisible man when the invites came with no bread. In recent years, he lived and traveled with his companion/compatriot, artist Laura Corsiglia Joans.

Joans’s mantra was “Jazz is my religion and surrealism is my point of view.” While Andre Breton acknowledged Joans as the only African-American surrealist he ever met, Joans’ main man was Langston Hughes. There are echoes of Hughes in Joans’s poems and his performance style. In his best known poem, “The Truth,” he warns us not to fear the poets among us, for they speak the truth; they are our seers, clairvoyants, and visionaries. Joans also knew that speaking truth is a dangerous thing—he called one series of poems “hand grenades” since they were intended to “explode on the enemy and the unhip.” While his topics ranged from love, poverty, and Africa to the blues and rhinos, all of his writing, like his life, was a relentless revolt.

In 1968, Joans dispatched his nearly-forgotten “Black Flower” statement, a surrealist manifesto that envisioned a movement of black people in the U.S. bringing down American imperialism from within with the weapon of poetic imagery, “black flowers” sprouting all over the land. While some of the poems explode like a bomb, others only spring up like a toy snake from a can. His imagery is rich with humor, joy, and sensuality, all evident in works like the “Flying Rats of Paris” or the darkly humorous “Deadnik.”

Joans died in his apartment in Vancouver, Canada. He and Laura had moved there after the acquittal of the officers who fatally shot Amadou Diallo; he vowed then not to reside in these United States ever again. When he left us, he had no money, suffered from diabetes, and was surviving by reading poetry and selling his personal papers to libraries. He had just completed his “Collaged Autobiography,” a remarkable memoir waiting for the right publisher. Although one of his favorite lines to admirers who proffered invitations was “no bread, no Ted,” money was never really his bag. He just wanted to get by so he could live life “surreally.” He lindy-hopped on the “American Dream” and its attendant industrial work ethic and chose a life of play.

“So in my rather sorrowful impecunious state,” he recently wrote, “I find myself filled to the beautiful brim with love and with this shared love I continue to live my poem-life.” A few poets in the know have already left chalked salutes in the streets. Let the Village know: “Ted Lives!”