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Obituaries

Ted Joans, 74; Beat Poet's Work Reflected Jazz and African Culture

May 13, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ted Joans, an expatriate Beat generation poet whose work reflected a strong black consciousness, a surrealistic sense of humor and the rhythms of avant-garde jazz, has died. He was 74.

Joans, who for many years divided his time between Paris and Timbuktu, a city in the West African nation of Mali, was found dead Wednesday in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. Police in Vancouver, where Joans made his home in recent years, determined that he died April 25 of complications of diabetes, said his daughter, Daline Jones-Weber.

The self-described "jazz poet" came of literary age in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, the heyday of fellow beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Joans' "irreverent writings" are characterized by "celebrations of sexuality, jazz music, African culture and social revolution," according to "Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955."

"I think he's got a place in several genres," said Gerald Nicosia, author of the Kerouac biography "Memory Babe," who edited "Teducation," a 1999 collection of Joans' poems.

"He was absolutely an important member of the beat generation and the Surrealist group," Nicosia said.

"The French Surrealists always considered him an absolute peer."

Indeed, Andre Breton, a French poet known as the leader of the modern movement in literature that attempts to portray the workings of the unconscious mind, once hailed Joans as "the only Afro-American Surrealist."

Joans is also considered an important writer of the black experience, Nicosia said.

"A lot of his poems deal with racism, the problems of being black in a white society," he said.

"Ted very consciously made an effort to connect the dots between the African experience itself with the African American experience."

Nicosia said that poet Langston Hughes, Joans' Greenwich Village mentor, "was a great encourager not only in his personal life, but Hughes' poetry gave him encouragement in terms of writing about the dignity of being black and also being able to mine the richness of his black heritage."

Joans was born Theodore Jones on July 4, 1928, in Cairo, Ill. According to some biographical accounts, his father, a riverboat musician, gave him a trumpet at age 12 and let him off the boat in Memphis to go on his own.

An amused Jones-Weber said Monday she had never heard that story before her father died, and, if true, she wondered how long he could have been on his own because he graduated from high school and went on to college.

Joans -- he changed the spelling of his last name in the 1950s to set himself apart -- earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Indiana University in 1951. Then he moved to Greenwich Village.

At one point, Village Voice photographer Fred McDarrah ran a Rent a Beatnik ad as a joke and found himself getting requests for the service. So, McDarrah recruited his friend Joans, who earned rent money reading his poems at parties.

After his friend, jazz legend Charlie "Bird" Parker, died in 1955, Joans took credit for scrawling "Bird Lives" graffiti around the city.

Though best known for his poetry, Joans' abstract portrait of Parker, "Bird Lives," hangs in the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

Joans explained his decision to leave the United States in his 1961 book "All of Ted Joans and No More": "I hate cold weather, and they will not let me live democratically in the warm states of the United States, so I'm splitting and letting America perish."

Joans had about 30 books published by small presses, including "Jazz Poems" (1959), "The Hipsters" (1961), "Afrodisia: New Poems" (1970), "A Black Manifesto in Jazz Poetry and Prose" (1971), "Black Pow-Wow: Jazz Poems" (1969) and "Our Thang" (2001), a collection of his poems and paintings by his longtime companion Laura Corsiglia.

But most of his published works were chapbooks, small, inexpensively produced books of 20 to 30 pages.

Joans was never interested in submitting his poems to major magazines and publishing houses.

"As a poet, I cannot cash in on the system because I'm not interested in being a part of the system," he told the Seattle Times in 1990.

In 1998, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley purchased the first batch of Joans' papers: 24 boxes of manuscripts, correspondence, notes and clippings.

The income was welcomed by Joans, who supported himself primarily with his writing.

To describe it even as a modest living, his daughter said, is a stretch.

"He lived a Bohemian life," Jones-Weber said. "He was never destitute; he always had a place to live, although some of what he called his nests [in Paris] were truly nests: tiny, tiny places -- 200 square feet -- but filled to the brim with nothing but books, old jazz albums, paintings and some artifacts and things he collected on his travels.

"He didn't own furniture or material things other than his clothing. But he was rich in other ways. That sounds corny, but he was blessed with many friends and fans all over the world."

In addition to Jones-Weber of San Leandro, he is survived by nine other children: Ted Jones of Santa Monica; Teresa Jordan of Whittier; Jeanne Marie Jones of Rialto; Robert Jones of Long Beach; Lars Jones and Tor Jones of Oslo, Norway; Russell Jones of Scotland; Sylvia Jones-Johnson of Louisville, Ky., and Yvette Jones-Johnson of Stafford, Va.; and 12 grandchildren.

At Joans' request, there will be no memorial service.

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