Art Lewis, Sax Player en la frontera

This morning on El Paso’s online magazine newspapertree.com, I read Richard Baron’s profile of our local (I use the word “local” in the WCW sense, not the pejorative sense that it too often means in the El Paso parlance) saxophone great Art Lewis. Art is a very wise man, a wonderful showman on the sax, and a gritty blues singer, even as old man like me still sexy belting out “Baby, I’m gonna rock you, oh, I’m going to rock you all night long.” Actually, a few years ago Art moved back to his hometown Houston a few years ago to care for his mother and to take care of some of his own health issues. He was a fixture in the music scene here, and he still once a year returns for the "Art Lewis Birthday Jam” organized at random times by his good friend Hector Montes. He’ll be in town this weekend, tonight at the Camino Real for the Jam proper and Sunday night at Kiki’s up on Piedras Street, one of his old venues.

[Note: Richard Baron is a photographer and essayist, with an emphasis on documenting arts and culture. He now lives in Albuquerque. The photo of Art is of course Richard's.]

Please read Richard’s profile of Art. It’s important reading if you’re interested in the soul of El Paso. Indeed, if you’re interested in the fronterizo spirit. And while you’re at it, read the entire selection of Richard’s profiles that are collected on Newspaper Tree. Richard’s idea was to capture the foundation of the El Paso arts and culture scene by profiling a number of its citizens, folks who may not receive a lot of publicity but whose presence really reflects the integrity of the fronterizo imagination. These profiles are important stuff, I promise you. I especially recommend the profile of Ed Patrycus.

Art moved to El Paso in the late 50s or early 60s—I was never sure when. But I do know that Art Lewis quotations litter my journals for the last ten or so years. He is an important part of my El Paso imagination, the way I’ve come to love this peculiar place that seems so much in the eye of the storm these days. In fact, after the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks the U.S., I wrote a long poem trying to understand bin Laden and that whole chaos. Art Lewis served as a guide for me, a Virgil of sorts, playing his magical sax. Here’s a section from that poem, “The Soul of Osama bin Laden,” that’s in my book White Panties, Dead Friends and Other Bits & Pieces of Love:

Art Lewis walked in. Tall, lanky and very black. He was wearing a black suit and a black shirt and shiny black shoes and a very nice black porkpie hat. Art is growing old, but nobody ever asks him how old. Maybe that’s because he is a wise man. His wisdom is rooted in music. Every day of his life Art Lewis steps into the river of his life and prays into his jazz saxophone. His sacred horn blows away the stifling air of fundamentalism. Right and wrong, innocence and guilt are notes in the same piece of music. Improvisation as a devout way of life. It’s his spiritual practice.

Maggie brought Art Lewis a cup of green tea. Art, she said with a smile on her freckled face, you smell like marijuana, you better be careful. Art laughed, and gold glistened inside his mouth.

Art was wearing a long necklace of wide silver links and turquoise scattered here and there like stars. A cheap necklace really—not real silver, not real turquoise—but it was handsome hanging around Art’s black neck. Art, I asked, where did you get that handsome necklace? Oh, he said, a wino in the alley outside the Cincinnati Street Bar gave it to me. The guy was an Indian from some place called Acoma. He wanted me to play him some blues. So I played him some alley blues, and he gave me the necklace.


Paul Blackburn

Ron Silliman’s May 15 blog celebrates the work of Paul Blackburn and makes the following announcement: “The Paul Blackburn page at the Electronic Poetry Center has gone live. Jack Krick’s months of effort have finally born fruit. I’m here to tell you it’s a major event.” (Note: R.B. Kitaj did the portrait of Paul.)

I agree and I wholeheartedly recommend that you visit both Ron’s blog and the EPC page. Good stuff there. Paul’s work has too long been ignored. I was so happy to read the news that I wrote the following two comments and posted them on the Silliman blogspot.

Oh, this makes me so happy to read this. Tears in my eyes even. Paul, more than anybody else (well, along with the composer Barney Childs) was my mentor, the way he spoke and lived his poetry. I met him in 1964 at the Aspen Writers Workshop. Robert Vas Dias was the director but Toby Olson was the man responsible most for bringing Paul. Paul took to my work and understood my hesitancy and nervousness and befriended me (Toby too for that matter). Simply accepted me and stayed close to me. I was honored but too young to realize I was honored. In 1967 he was on some sort of government-funded journey through the south visiting African American colleges, and he stayed with Lee and me at our house in Memphis when he was reading and leading workshops at Lemoyne-Owen College. After several days in Memphis, Lee and I drove him to Nashville and visited Fisk University with him. I remember him talking about poetry and since we had beans and hot dogs for dinner, every once in a while, leaning over and raising one cheek or the other (away from the person he was talking to) to fart. Not missing a beat in the conversation. He spoke about visiting Pound in Venice and he read poems and played tapes of live readings from New York City. I remember especially Joel Oppenheimer’s “Sirventes on a sad occurrence.” It was a remarkable reading of a great and important poem. I raved about the reading. Paul smiled and said there were only three people in the audience, him and two others. But also Ray Bremser was on those tapes, Ed Sanders, Diane DiPrima, others. I was dumbfounded and delighted, a pure poetry high. During that visit Paul wrote a poem for Lee, something like “A Short Riotous Poem for Lee Merrill Byrd” that’s in the Collected. He wrote that poem sitting at our table. Beautiful spring flowers sat in front of him. Paul was writing in his thick journal. He asked Lee, “What kind of flowers are these?” Lee said, “The 39-cent kind.” And that’s the line in the poem. It was a lesson in poetics I never forgot. The improvisation, the being there, the careful listening and paying close attention to what is in front of you and letting the poem happen. [See note at end.] That week he received his first two copies The Cities. He gave us one and dedicated it to us with his fat pen. That book is one of my treasures. Somewhere I have tapes Paul used to send to us, him reading his poems. I copied them for Edie Jarolim, but I need to find them to send to the Electronic Poetry Center. Over the years, Paul kept up with us and in Colorado he visited us, along with Joan and their baby Carlos. He never forgot his friendship. He introduced me to the bigger world of poetry. I miss him greatly in my heart. Thanks greatly for reminding me. And many thanks to Jack Krick and the Electronic Poetry Center. I also will speak up for a paperback of the Collected.


1. In my first printing of this entry, I was so excited to write something down I got my dates all wrong, and so I've made corrections. Four years later we were living in South Fork, CO. I knew he was sick. We had written back and forth and he had told us about the cancer in his throat, but then Toby called and told me Paul was dying and if I wanted to talk to say goodbye I better do it quick. Now 30-something years later I'm very unsure what happened. Part of me remembers me calling him and weeping and telling him goodbye. Another part of me remembers me never never making the call. I don't know. I was 29. Thinking about Paul brought up all sorts of stuff in my head.

2. Turns out that the poem “A Short Riotous Poem for Lee Merrill Byrd” doesn't have that line "the 39-cent kind." Well, I guess that could be embarrassing, but still it's a wonderful story. And I think that line is in some poem of Paul's. I need to go do some researching. Oh well.