- Bob Kaufman and the Limits of Jazz
In November 1959, Life magazine took on the Beat Movement in an article now infamous among those who write about the Beats: Paul O’Neil’s “The Only Rebellion Around.”1 The article opens with a contrived picture entitled “The Well-Equipped Pad,” an image that graphically demonstrates how present and yet invisible Bob Kaufman and other blacks associated with the movement were. The young couple in the picture is white, but ironically all the art in their “pad” is from African Americans. The young man, who reclines on a bare mattress, stares at a Charlie Parker record album while Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue leans against the bookcase. The poetry broadside beside the young man is not Allen Ginsberg’s signature beat poem Howl, but Bob Kaufman’s Abomunist Manifesto, the other poetry broadside from City Lights Books. Ironically, these days, most people have never heard of it. Despite the art that dominates the contrived picture, most of the article that follows focuses on white male beat writers, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and McClure, the usual suspects. The article mentions Kaufman once but includes no picture of him—but it pictures and quotes Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and others. Still, African Americans get this startling line early in the article: “The Negro … is a hero to the beats (as are the junkie and the jazz musician)… . But it seems doubtful that antisegregationists or many Negroes could take comfort in this fact. The thing the Beat treasures and envies in the Negro are the irresponsibility, cheerful promiscuity, and subterranean defiance which were once enforced on him during his years of bondage” (115). O’Neil estimates the number of black beats at ten percent.
The tendency of mainstream media to reduce the complex reality of people, events, and movements to one-dimensional caricatures surprises no one. But despite the contrivance and distortion, the picture from Life magazine is strangely illuminating. It demonstrates one of the great ironies of the Beat Movement. As many have noted, despite its mantras of egalitarianism, jazz, alienation, and liberation, the Beat Movement was largely a white male phenomenon.2 The few black poets who were associated with the movement, such as Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka, are silent seconds, thirds, or fourths to white males such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti in the way in which the movement is reconstructed and taught. But the picture also presents—albeit unwittingly—a proper context for reading and understanding Bob Kaufman’s work, and that is the African American tradition that produced Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and yes, Bob Kaufman too. In her 1981 essay “What Ever Happened to Bob Kaufman?,” Barbara Christian called for serious study of Kaufman’s work (114). Though thirty years later his work has attracted greater attention, it has not had the sustained scrutiny that it deserves. Perhaps part of the solution is in untangling Bob Kaufman from the Beat Movement, making a more complete understanding of his work and perhaps a more multidimensional view of the Beat Movement possible. My task here is to move toward the first of these objectives by examining Kaufman’s “War Memoir” poems. The other task I address only tangentially.
In his essay “Other: From Noun to Verb,” Nathaniel Mackey creates a context for reading writers such as Kaufman when he appropriates the chapter title “Swing—From Verb to Noun” from Amiri Baraka’s Blues People. Mackey argues that when the word “swing” moves from verb to noun, the music that caused a listener to [End Page 403] “swing” has been co-opted, commoditized. Mackey writes: “‘From verb to noun’ means, on the aesthetic level, a less dynamic, less improvisatory, less blues-infected music and, on the political level, a containment of black mobility, a containment of the economic and social advance that might accrue to black artistic innovation” (“Other” 77). But Mackey broadens Baraka’s concept, which focuses primarily on music, to include African American literary art, arguing, “My topic, then, is not so much otherness as othering, black linguistic and musical practices that accent variance, variability—what reggae musicians call ‘versioning’ “(77). I contend...