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Philip Lamantia Remembered

Philip Lamantia   1927-2005

--"There is this distance between me and what I see."

Philip Lamantia, one of the four members of "The Jazz/Poetry Trio" (Lamantia, Jack Kerouac, Howard Hart and David Amram) passed on March 7th at his home in San Francisco, CA. He was 77.

His friend and fellow Trio member, David Amram, looks back fondly with his reflect . . .


When Nancy Peters e-mailed me on a snowy day in early March of 2005 that Philip Lamantia had passed away, I re-read the e-mail two times, hoping I had misread it.

I was in Lowell Mass, Jack Kerouac's hometown, in the middle of a snow storm, where I was performing at the annual celebration of Jack's birthday, presented by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac. It was also the 50th anniversary of Charlie Parker's death.

Earlier that day, I has spoken to a group of students visiting Lowell Mass from the University of Denver about what a blessing it was to have known, as well as to have first played with both Kerouac and Charlie `Parker a half a century ago when, I was their age. Now another great original was no longer with us.

The day before I received Tyler news of Philip passing, I had told their professor Dr Audrey Sprenger and all the students about Philip Lamantia, Howard Hart, Kerouac and myself presenting the first jazz/poetry readings ever formally held in NYC in the Fall of 1957, first in October at the Brata Art Gallery, on December 27 at the Circle-in-the-Square Theater and then at Brooklyn College, in early 1958. I told them about the exciting days of early 1957, when Jack introduced me to Lamantia.

At the time Phil was already a veteran of the poetry scene. Lamantia had been one of the featured poets, along with Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder, with Kenneth Rexroth as the MC, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco Oct 7 1955, which is where Allen Ginsberg first read Howl. Jack Kerouac was there that night as well, but as a cheerleader of sorts, and along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others, an enthusiastic member of the audience.

In our readings with music two years later in NYC with Phil, Kerouac and Howard Hart, no matter how insane everyone else's behavior became during the course of our 1957 late night/early morning marathon spontaneous presentations, Philip always remained our anchor, with his mellifluous voice, brilliant delivery and seemingly effortless elegance.

It was Philip who created the name for the four of, the Jazz/Poetry Trio, which we used for our public presentations. I think he realized that this way, in case one of us showed up really late, we would still have a trio.

Jack, Howard Hart, Phil and I all called what we did together Poetry/Music-Music/Poetry, long before our first official public appearance at the Brata in Oct of 1957. When we were all together hanging out, we often gave countless unsolicited performances at coffee houses, painters lofts, assorted parties, park benches and even once on the subway on the way to Brooklyn for a formal reading.

I wasn't only playing jazz. I tried to create spontaneous music in many genres, all created on the spot to enhance the music already inherent in the phrasing and nuances of Phil's beautiful poems.

We never rehearsed. Phil was so musical that it was like playing with a great musician. Phil's poetry tapped into the roots of many sources, from the `classic styles and rhythms of the great poets of antiquity to the current urban street sounds of today, and word/pictures of pastoral moments inspired by his years of travels through the wide open spaces of the USA, Mexico, and all of the American Continent.

Every event we did was unforgettable, unpredictable, spontaneous, full of positive energy and always fun. When I would talk to Phil over the ensuing years about doing another series with Jack and Howard Hart in NYC someday, he always said "We should, but if we don't, we can always know that we were the first to do it there."

Philip and I had our final reunion in the Spring 2001, when I was in San Francisco, performing for the showing of the original scroll for On the Road. The day after the showing of the Scroll, I performed music which I created to accompany Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his poetry, for a CED/DVD of his Pictures of the Gone World . That night, following the afternoon recording at Zoetrope in North Beach, photographer/film maker Chris Felver took me to visit Philip, who had temporarily recovered from the acute depression which had plagued him during much of his life.

That night in the spring of 2001, he was as vivacious, brilliant, warm and as he was the first time we met in early 1957, when Jack Kerouac brought Phil up my old walk up apartment at 114 Christopher Street to play music, read poetry, and call up our various sweethearts.

I reminded Phil how I first heard his voice that night, in counterpoint to Jack's, as their non-stop rapping got louder and louder as they trudged up the six flights of stairs to hang out until dawn.

Philip recalled how after I played them some music, and after they read some poems with music, Jack made a second series of calls 1 a.m. calls to their friends and admirers to let everyone that Philip was back in town.

I remember perfectly how I listened that night to Phil and Jack, as they rapped non-stop about the collective spirit of jazz and its sociologic effect on the American psyche, about their shared love of Catholicism and Bhuddism, about poets past and present from around the world who gave us all mirrors to see ourselves in a fresh light, and about the courage and grace of various athletes, explorers, painters, actors, painters, composers, poets and everyday folks who dared to follow their hearts and go their own way in life.

As I got to know Phil better, it became clear that Philip seemed to know, even back in 1957 that his work spoke for itself and would always continue to do so. He was a modest person but he had such a great intellect and flawless critical ability, that combined with his enormous knowledge of so many forms of art, Philip knew his work was of lasting value. While he was unfailingly generous in judging the work of others, if one of his own poems didn't meet his high standards, he would keep rewriting it until it did.

Kerouac loved Phil's work as much as he loved Phil's spirit, humor, erudition and pure appreciation of the beauty of all that surrounded us, which so many people in the 1950s took for granted or ignored. Phil was always ahead of what was supposed to be happening, (but still always right in time). He had an understanding of the machinations of the international arts scene that none of us ever did. This was because He had been acclaimed as a child prodigy, hailed as a Surrealist poet while still a teen-ager, but early on abandoned the whole international literary scene to pursue his own pure path.

We all thought that he was much more than a Surrealist poet, just as we knew that Kerouac was much more than a Beat writer and that Charlie Parker a true genius and vastly more than just a be-bop saxophone player. Like any significant artist or person of substance, Philip walked his own path, and defied categories. No title could do him or his work justice.

He was and always will be Philip Lamantia, poet extraordinaire. If you ever needed to know more about him than that, or wonder now why he has been held in such high esteem for over a half a century, all you have to do is read his poems.

Now he is gone, but through his timeless writings, his voice will always be with us.

I recently discovered an old acetate recording that Phil, Howard Hart and I made in early 1957, and am transferring it to CD and giving it to Nancy Peters so that she and Phil's estate can let future generations hear what it was like to hear him read his poetry than. Chris Felver filmed us in 2001 at our reunion/jam session at Phil's apartment, to celebrate our continuing efforts forty-four years later. We are giving copies of that to Phil's estate as well.

I always carry a copy the old black and white poster of our 1957 jazz/poetry readings at the Circle-in-the-Square Theater, with Phil, Kerouac and Howard Hart, in my pocket with me. I always tell kids, when they see it, that we all hoped that what we did back then now proves that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and all of us would be happy if our work could in some way inspire them to pursue their dreams, to never give up trying, and to be brave and collaborate with others.

Now, as I do with Jack and Howard, I will always carry, along with the copy of that old poster in my pocket, the memory of the spirit of Philip Lamantia in my heart.

David Amram
March 16, 2005


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