Outside the Tin Palace: A photograph, 1976
This exploration of the 1970s started with a photograph—a way into memory or mystery. I can’t remember why we gathered. I do remember that I was still dating Victor so very handsome, my second Afro-Puerto Rican boyfriend. He introduced me to Salsa, and published my David Murray poem in The Grackle. But now I know he was already drifting away. David would write a song for me because he knew that Victor was two-timing me. But he said nothing. The jazz players were protective of me. I didn’t make scenes and I had seen a few—my favorite was the evening when David Murray had clearly set up dates with three different women all of whom arrived at The Tin Palace at the same time. They kicked his psychic ass and of course, he deserved it.
The Tin Palace was a bar restaurant run by Paul Pines, a poet and writer. The bartender was Harry Lewis, a poet. It was a haven for the experimental players, directly across 2nd street from CBGBs. This stretch of the Bowery was an odd mix of scene making and desolation. The Men’s Shelter was only a block or two away. I don’t know why I felt safe—maybe it was because the East Village was my part of town; I’d lived or hung out on almost every street between Third Avenue and Avenue D. At that time the Bowery was still more bums than punks or jazz heads. But things were starting to change.
So The Tin Palace was where the downtown jazz heads and their girlfriends and occasional actual wives could be found afternoons or evenings listening to music and sipping medium quality Chardonnay. When the World Saxophone Quartet composed of David Murray, Julius Hemphill, Hamiett Bluiett and Oliver Lake played The Tin Palace, I took money at the door. And depending on who was playing and or was it town, the mix could include Anthony Braxton, or European instrumentalists and Japanese tourists. That first event, there was a modest crowd that evening. And they got the thrill of a debut—four master reed players making sounds that went on to cover the globe.
When Rashaan Roland Kirk was being pursued by some wide-eyed fanatic he came into the Tin Palace, let people know what was going on, so they took him through the back and outside. When the fanatic came with full camera hanging around his bony neck asking if anyone had seen him, everyone said no. But my favorite Tin Palace moment was when Mamie Blythe, her dark round face shining, opened her mouth and said to Stanley Crouch please stop playing those drums. Crouch was the worst drummer I ever heard, but he was also, at that time, the major Black music critic who was starting his epic battle with all the white critics about the New Music and musicians can put up with a lot if they find their names in print. But that day, Mamie sort of spoke for we listeners who wanted to hear a drummer who could play, not a theoretician.
Could this photograph have been made for a celebration-a new group performing, someone’s birthday? Not mine, winter baby that I am. Or David Murray, another Aquarius. Could it have been Alice Norris, survivor of terrible traumas, her Virginia accent a cause for conversation, her beauty a cause for envy, where did she go after 1978? She was smitten with Carlos Figueroa, the diplomat’s son, sweet faced, even- tempered, an aficionado of the music’s riffing off the loft floor above the bar. It wasn’t Victor’s or he would have had some token of my affection in his lapel. We are all smiling.
Maybe it was Charles “Bobo” Shaw the drummer’s day. His laughter was like a minefield—suddenly erupting at the La Mama studio on East Third Street where the Music for Cartographers Series took place and where I found an artistic home away from the Poetry Project and Mabou Mines. Bobo Shaw wore dreads long before anybody other than Jamaicans and Jackie, his girlfriend was sweet and kind, but their relationship was volatile. We said little, but we knew something was wrong. Drugs. Stupidity. Playing out the “jazz life”. Musicians who could go from Bach to James Brown depending seemed stuck in a form of masculinity whose time had come and gone. Flared jeans and kente cloth aside, the more established “cats” were always showing pictures of their children, but they didn’t live anywhere near them. They were always talking about beautiful Black women and almost all of them were hooked up with white women.
David Murray, dark skinned, handsome, terrifyingly talented, his tone that summoned Albert Ayler and Paul Desmond and a host of other great tenor saxophonists, but then he would go gospel on you, take the music so far out. We all wondered if he could bring it back—some nights he did; some nights he didn’t. I can see Steve McCall, the amazing drummer for the group AIR drinking and his very young, blonde girlfriend worrying. Fred Hopkins wife was sort of blonde and considerably older. They had both paid a huge price in Chicago for their romance. But few of these brilliant accomplished and somewhat romantic Black musicians were with smart Black women. Sometimes it seemed that they were performing a form of patriarchy. One of the few arguments I had with David Murray was when he told me I should only read Black writers. I looked at him like he was a fool and told him off. We did not speak for a week. And once a white drummer started hitting on me (all very innocent) and all of a sudden it was like the Black Police came down on me. Where were these brothers when I was totally dateless?
There was a streak of Black male Puritanism in the Jazz World that did not jibe with the music being made. That conflict could get physical or financial. The last time I spoke (if you want to call it speaking) to Phillip Wilson, another great drummer, who is in this picture was to request the payment of a loan of $50.00. I now think that he was so used to people just letting everything slide that he had no comeback—the charm was gone; he was sinking fast. His end was not pretty. And it was near the Tin Palace. He left behind children. He left behind some great records. He left behind memories of amazing performances. He left behind considerable debt.
The Tin Palace was just one place where music —loud, scattered, brilliant and daring was marking the East Village to Soho streets. I was always running from Avenue C to Bond Street, down to Ali’s Alley, over to Studio Rivbea, up the rickety stairs to David Murray and Stanley Crouch’s loft above the Tin Palace. Loft jazz was how it got played out in the newspapers. Lofts run by poets, musicians, fans and open to this army of mostly Black men carrying their horns, organizing their drum kits or rolling their sensitive or complicated instruments—salute Fred Hopkin bass; Henry Threadgill’s “hubaphone; Anthony Braxton’s contrabass-the elephant of instruments. But here we are standing in the sunlight in front of The Tin Palace, on a September afternoon—me, Stanley, David, Victor, Alice, Bobo and Phillip.
We are in the heart of The Bowery where two clubs served as the Matrix for things musical East Village circa 1976. The Tin Palace on one side. CBGBs on the other. The Tin Palace where young and not so young men were playing with their version of the Jazz Life—located at the corner of Artistic Expression and Low-Rent Stylishness. Swagger and heat. Instrument cases and leather jackets. Just got in from Copenhagen or Rome or Paris—where you got paid for what you loved to do. Here we were in front of their palace, smiling for the photographer. Bobo Shaw and Phillip Wilson long dead. The rest of us breathing or I think so as I write this. The Tin Palace now gutted, renovated, stripped of its musical bohemian past. Renamed. Repurposed. Uncreative. CBGBs is now a high-end menswear shop. But in memory, the Tin Palace is Mamie Blythe shouting to Stanley Crouch, “give up those drums” and the cognoscenti taking Rashan Roland Kirk out of the line of photographic fire. Paul Pine’ generosity and Harry Lewis’ good temper. The door opens and I ask for $5.00. Who enters could have been anyone from around the globe.
Patricia Spears Jones is a nationally recognized African-American poet, playwright and cultural activist whose forthcoming collection, A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems will be released in fall 2015 from White Pine Press. Living in the Love Economy, a chapbook was published in 2014. Poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: The Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry; broken land: Poems of Brooklyn, Best American Poetry and elsewhere. Her plays were commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines. She curates WORDS SUNDAY, a literary series at Calabar Imports, Bed-stuy in Brooklyn. She is a senior fellow for the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank. Her website is www.psjones.com.