Last week, on a trip to the Czech Republic, I had the pleasure of meeting Josef Jařab , one of the most important Czech scholars of American literature. Jařab is a leading Czech authority on American poetry, and he has translated and written about many American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, who he had the chance to interview in 1989. In reading Jařab’s wonderful conversation with Ginsberg, which is collected in Spontaneous Mind, I came across a passage in which Ginsberg discusses the remarkable confluence of writers, artists, and musicians that could be found at the parties regularly hosted by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and his wife Hettie Jones, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The story of Baraka’s role as a crucial catalyst for a far-flung avant-garde community has been often told (including by me, in various places) — but I don’t think I’d ever seen this particular reminiscence before, which neatly sums up the incredible range and diversity of the crowd one could find hanging out together at Baraka’s in, say, 1959.
AG: LeRoi Jones had the grand ‘salon.’ Literary salon in the late ’50s at which you could find all the contributors to Yugen. Three blocks away from here on 14th Street, I saw at one party, in one room, at one time Langston Hughes, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Franz Kline, Kerouac, myself, Orlovsky, Corso, A.B. Spellman, other blacks that I didn’t know at the time; Frank O’Hara, maybe Frank’s friends, Larry Rivers and Arnold Weinstein; maybe intersecting with Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and others; Robert Creeley, Charles Olson; Olson wasn’t there until Creeley was around New York.
JJ: This was an amazing combination.
AG: It was a real mad combination — “All American.” The later jazz all based on spontaneous wisdom. The abstract expressionism, free jazz, open form poetry; or spontaneous mind poetry … There were some parties where we were all together, some beautiful moments. That was the cultural cresting of the Beat Generation. It was also a joining culturally of black and white.
It’s amazing to picture the scene — New York School poets (O’Hara, Koch, Ashbery) alongside Beat poets (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso) rubbing shoulders with and listening to radical free-jazz musicians (Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman), while Black Mountain poets (Creeley and Olson) drink side by side with Abstract Expressionist painters (Franz Kline) and the elder statesman of the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes).
Ginsberg also talks in more detail about meeting Langston Hughes at one of Baraka’s parties:
I met Langston Hughes at LeRoi Jones’s party one night when Ornette Coleman was playing music and everyone was dancing. That’s the only time I met Langston Hughes. In ’59 or ’60. A great touching moment in history. When Black Mountain poets and painters, Beatniks, the Abstract Expressionists, the free-form jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, all met together in one room.
Ginsberg’s description of this real, mad, “All-American” combination provides a vivid snapshot of an amazing, short-lived moment of inter-arts and inter-racial dialogue that characterized the postwar avant-garde, especially in New York.