Jazz is my religion, and Surrealism is my point of view. Ted Joans
Back in the early 80s, after the hullabaloo had settled down over my international hit single, Shaddap You Face, and I had stopped the relentless promotional trips overseas first in the UK, then France, then just about everywhere else, to insure those golden platters didn’t stop spinning too quickly, I finally relaxed, settled down again back in hometown Melbourne and began rediscovering my love for the written word. Poetry had been something I had been caught up in in since I was nineteen years old but it was shoved way onto the back-burner due to the unanticipated massive success of a little pop song that came from nowhere written out of a spirit of homesickness for the Italian family I had left behind in Ohio.
One of the poetry anthologies I had brought with me when I emigrated over from the States, in 1979, was The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1970, edited by Harlem renaissance poets, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps.
A very lyrical volume, as are most African-American anthologies, but a particular poem in this book stood out immediately to me as one that could work with music. Written by the jazz poet and surrealist, Ted Joans, who was born in the aptly, and surrealistically, named, Cairo, Illinois, the poem, Miles Delight, was a bright and explosive spacious and lean celebration of the music of jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis.
I adapted this poem in a free style to my own improvisational blues harmonica soloing and began to perform it now and then.
About a year later, I thought it prudent to obtain written permission from the poem’s publisher in the event that I had an opportunity to record it. From previous experience, I knew that the permission process could drag on for months and even though there was no recording on the horizon, I thought it couldn’t hurt to get this red tape out of the way early.
Little did I know that it would take me a solid year of wading through bureaucracy to find the publisher - and then almost a further decade of correspondence with the poet.
I knew very little about Ted Joans other that I liked his poem. I thought the best way to get started was by writing to the publisher of The Poetry of the Negro anthology.
In May of 1983, I wrote a short introductory letter to Jodie Landis in the Performance Rights division of Doubleday & Co, in New York; a simple enquiry as to whether she was the correct person to approach. I had in fact corresponded with Ms Landis a year earlier about another poem in this very same anthology and she had been very prompt and permission had been almost instantly forthcoming so I didn’t see any problem.
But two months went by and no reply. So I wrote a follow up letter, this time advising that I had received no response and was now including a performance of the poem in my live shows with a view to recording.
A month later, I got a reply from Cathy Fowler, of Doubleday, who apologized for the delay and informed me that responsibility for performing rights had changed a number of times in the past few months and in any case they no longer controlled the rights. I was informed a person named Max Lieber collected royalty payments but I should write to Harold Ober Associates, also based in New York.
A couple of weeks later, I wrote to Mr Ober outlining my request once again and mentioned I was 'looking forward to an early and positive reply.'
A month went by and a letter arrived from Wendy Schmaltz of Harold Ober thanking me for my enquiry, advising that while they represented the estate of Arna Bontemps, the editor of the anthology, they did not control rights to the individual poems. Some collections of Ted Joans' poems were published in New York by Hill & Wang and I might try writing them.
Two weeks later, in September, I sent off another attempt, this time addressing my letter: 'Dear Mr Hill OR Mr Wang'.
In October, I receive a reply from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I could see on the letterhead that Hill & Wang was one of their imprints. They assured me that they indeed published two of Mr Joans’ books (Afrodisia and Black Pow Wow) but the poem in question, Miles Delight appeared in neither of them. According to their files, Ted Joans' agent was Hy Shore, who lived in yet another part of New York and perhaps if I wrote him, he might be able to 'shed some light on who controls the rights.'
I decided to let an extra week go by this time just to break the pattern and three weeks later I wrote my by-now rote letter of yada-yada to Hy Shore, of Macdougal Street, in Greenwich Village. Once again I closed with that old familiar refrain, 'I look forward to and early and positive reply' although by now I had given up on both earliness and positiveness.
I received no further communications for the rest of year.
As we moved into Orwell’s 1984 with a whimper, I pretty much had given up on getting the permission but I decided to keep performing the poem and just take the risk as nobody seemed to care much so I thought why should I?
Then, in the second week of January, upon returning to Melbourne from a two-month sabbatical in the bush, away from phones and the mailman, I found buried in a mountain of mail I picked up from the post office, an large envelope with a wide map of Australia imprinted in faint grey across it bearing hundreds of small indigenous animals scattered showing the particular natives of each state. No return address.
'Dear Mr Dolce,' the letter began, 'I recently received your request in regards of your use of MY poem, Miles’ Delight…'
Hallelujia. The letter was from from the poet himself, Ted Joans, from Berlin, who went on to succinctly clarify for me that his poem was definitely not 'songlyrics' and if I was performing it this way, I should immediately 'do myself a favour' and send him a cassette recording to illustrate '…what you are doing with my poem . .' and then '…IF…' the poet was pleased with my recording '…then and only then will consider. . .' my proposal of recording and music publishing of it.
He closed his letter with: 'I look forward to an early and positive reply from YOU.'
There was also a postscript.
'This is a personal request: are there any books exclusively devoted to the platypus or the echidna in Australia? If so please let me know immediately!'
I immediately replied apologizing for my tardy response and included two cassette taped versions of myself performing his poem. I also tracked down, at his bequest, what little I could find on the echidna and the platypus in Australia. A rare bookshop in Prahran had a few titles including, The Paradoxical Platypus, by David Fleay. There were no books devoted to the echidna but there was a good substantial section, complete with photographs, in The Complete Book of Australian Mammals, by Charles Barrett. I included the price list and the address of the bookshop.
On March 19th, 1984, I received a eggshell blue Luftpostleichtbrief airmail envelope from Berlin addressed: 'To His Hipness Joe DOLCE.' I was excited and tore open the envelope.
'Dear Joe Dolce, this is a late reply to your taped cassette castration of my Miles Davis poem!'
The poet outlined in methodical fashion how I had neglected to tell him that I had left part of the poem out, omitting the fifth and sixth stanzas, asking why didn’t I ask for permission to use only part of the poem, enquiring as to where I saw the poem published in this way (and to send him a photocopy), and wanting to know when I was planning to put out my version of his poem. Finally he concluded: 'Who but I, Ted Joans, being a surrealist would grant you permission to use your version of my poem on your album that you, of course, must pay for its use by sending to be before the recording is released, The Complete Book of Australian Mammals, by Charles Barrett…' to his current address, in Paris, France.
Two postscripts followed this time:
P.S. 'If a platypus or echidna does anything that makes the newspapers, please photocopy that action and send fast airmail!!'
P.P.S. 'I really dig the way you delivered the poem. Almost exactly like I read it, but I do not sing it… I merely swing it!!'
I was definitely down the rabbit hole now without a bunny, so I purchased and posted the mammoth book of Australian mammals, which cost me fifty dollars in 1980 money plus a further one hundred dollars in postage off to Paris, along with a photocopy of the pages of my apparently edited version of his poem from The Poetry of the Negro. I assured him that I did not make a practice of vivisecting poetry and I insisted he send me the complete version so I could insert the missing verses. I also promised him I would send him a complimentary CD when and if I ever recorded the poem.
In April, I received another airmail letter, but this time from Paris:
'Thanks for that big fat heavyweight and intelligent book!!'
Joans said he would send me copies of his books and the unabridged version of Miles Delight. I also said he understood why I used the version of his poem I had found in the anthology that had been edited by ‘the late poet Arna Bontemps who was very prudish and old fashioned in his taste of poetry.’ He said he understood now and accepted my presentation and that he played my cassette because ‘…it amuses me and my listeners at lectures.’
He went on to advise me that he would be sending me some advance publicity of his planned trip to Australia and Papua New Guinea soon and that the Surrealist Movement there had been '… awaiting my arrival for more than five years.'
But I didn’t hear back from him for another three years. I occasionally would send him clippings on the animals he loved or thematic postcards to the French address but never received a reply. In 1987, he wrote me again from Paris thanking me for an Australian stamp with an echidna on it I had sent him. He told me that there were seven totemic animals that gave him inspiration: the echidna, the okapi, the aardvark, the rhinoceros, the platypus, the pangolin and the tapir. He was continuing to live his surreal-life poem via 'Tedification' and 'Teducation' via the 'very best food, sex and art'. He reminded me once again that surrealism for him was not on an art gallery wall but a point-of-view built on the swinging sounds of jazz which was actually his religion. He also gave me the name of his publisher in Paris who would send me a copy of his Duckbutter poems if I sent him a large self-addressed stamped envelope.
I sent the envelope plus a recently acquired echidna t-shirt I had found at the Melbourne zoo and received a cassette tape and a completely different book than the one I asked for.
In September, I received a letter in a plain envelope from Joans from New York City. He said he was now wearing the echidna t-shirt I had sent him and asked if there was a platypus one? On the back of his letter was one of his drawings of a single composite animal made up of his seven totem animals. I think he was hinting for me to send him the 'collected set' of t-shirts! He said he still hoped to visit Australian one day and that until 'we someday somehow or some second see each other as all human brothers, I remain simply tedjoans of teducation.'
That was the last I heard from him.
For seven years.
I wrote a few more times now and then requesting the missing verses – the 'castrated' verses – to Miles Delight as he promised. All unanswered letters.
Then in 1994, once again, after I had totally forgotten about him, I received a final communication. It was from Paris and this time it was on a postcard that he had made by cutting out the end of a shoebox and putting a stamp on it. There were ten words on it:
'You have all of Miles and there is no more.'
I felt that that was a final conclusion to the matter of the poem. I saw an obituary some years later that he had passed away in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 25, 2003, from complications relating to diabetes. He had ten children and even named one of his daughters, in true surrealist fashion, Daline, after the painter, Salvador Dali.
said he would like a little boy
with a black face
of no certain race
said he would like this little boy
to have red hair
whose religion does he dig?
Miles don't care!
said he would like this little boy
to have green eyes
and be hip and laugh loud
and tell no lies
said he would like this little boy
to play piano
in a style with lots of space
and blow good jazz
and be a credit to the human race
So I being a good god almighty with a brush
created for Miles Davis in a rush
a little boy with red hair
with green eyes and for Miles Davis
it had a black face
and blows good jazz
for the entire
~ Ted Joans ~
Joe Dolce Bio Note:
Known internationally for the most successful song in Australian music history, Shaddap You Face. Winner of the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. Over 100 poems and songlyrics published by Les Murray; poetry and essays also appear in Monthly, Island, Southerly, Australian Love Poems, Canberra Times, Going Down Swinging, PEN Melbourne, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Contrappasso and Antipodes.
An early version of Joe Dolce's live audio performance of 'Miles Delight' can be accessed here.