A.B. Spellman



so there's the 15th heavyfoot regiment band
the harlem hellfighters, james reese europe
director, tuning up. they got a french horn
choir & enough trumpets & t'bones to call down
the saints. hell, they got marimbaphones &
double b-flat helicons; they got all the brass
you can mass on the grass. they got bill robinson
for drum major so you know they can kick
& they're looking good: knickers creased
to the side & tight wrapped leggings
boots got more sparkle than glass
croix de guerre ribbons puff their chests

they form. on europe's cue they rag How
Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down On The Farm
After They've Seen Paree
in a shim sham shimmy
kinda march that j.p. sousa never heard of
the hellfighters blow their way up fifth avenue
& the ticker tape snows down &
the white folks' cheers lift the clouds

you'd've thought to see it that america'd changed

but proud picture postcards from dixie
still hit new york of "nigger barbecues"
autos-da-fé of black heroes from the war
ruined by the taste of honor, who walked as
the hellfighters walk, too proud to live, staked
& burning, their complaining wives & sisters too
before those awful deadpanned faces
slow cameras caught. "close the school jeb
the kids need to see this. they're running
an extra train from atlanta so i'll make sandwiches
& lemonade to sell to the tourists &
for god's sake pick up the trash. we want
the town to look good for all the dignitaries"

so on the march uptown europe broods
through the throb of his fiery corns
just whose hell did we fight anyway?

but now at lenox avenue in sweet harlem
the music hits the sidewalk & explodes
bold & living, tangible, its own force in the world
it springs the heels of fine brown ladies
who pump the mana into the sound, the hot afflatus
of the rising home. 'jangles, legs no longer weary
stretting like a guinea fowl in estrus, his kick
gone higher in a cakewalk with the sisters
& spatted swells flush with the pride of renewal
the mighty doughboys are again the darktown
strutters. call the tune, professor europe

"well, hit it boys: Here Comes Your Daddy Now
sweet mama, Here Comes Your Daddy Now"

Shamil Guliev
1993, 32cm. x 24cm

see more work by Shamil Guliev




his worn hips barely support the horn
in his hands. it is gold & flashes under the fresnels

the sound is deep enough to live in. phrase turns to
brilliant phrase & the source never empties

i see in newk the hope of every limping
artist in the reluctant race against the slamming

of the lyric door when the senses atrophy
that dread day when a line of sound or verse

will hurt to render: the gripping eye
dims the active ear dims the trilling voice

dims, such fears we can contain in the long slowdrag
to humdrum death as long as the making works

there's newk in the picture of matisse who wields
a ten-foot brush as he lay in his deathbed

newk on the bus with count basie who
could only die on the road. see newk in ghana

with du bois as he started a fifteen-volume treatise
in his eighty-fifth year, so sonny blows the final plea

of the graying work maker—let me age anywhere
but in the horn



i will die in havana in a hurricane
it will be morning, i'll be facing southwest
away from the gulf, away from the storm
away from home, looking to the virid hills
of matanzas where the orisha rise, lifted
by congueros in masks of iron, bongoseros
in masks of water, timbaleros in masks of fire
by all the clave that binds the rhythms of this world

i'll be writing when i go, revising another
hopeful survey of my life. i will die of nothing
that i did but of all that i did not do
i promised myself a better self
than i could make & i will not forgive

you will be there, complaining
that i never saved you, that i left you
where you live, stranded
in your own green dream

when you come for me come singing
no dirge, but scat my eulogy in bebop
code, sing that i died among gods
but lived with no god & did not suffer
for it. find one true poem that i made
& sing it to my shade as it fades
into the wind. sing it presto, in 4/4 time
in the universal ghetto key of b flat

i will die in havana in rhythm, tumbao
montuno, guaguanco, dense strata
of rhythm pulsing me away
.................................................& the mother of waters
will say to the saint of crossroads
well, damn. he danced his way out after all

for Gaston Neal

my fast walking buddy slowed down
for forever he's spun 'round corners
his hustle in his bag, his habit in overdrive
too quick for the breeze; too slick for the roller

14th & u changed colors in the streaking seasons
before & after us. jelly roll, hustler to the bone
the lordly duke, swooped through here, derbied
& spatted, wolfing on soft-hatted women
all fine in their honeyed aspect

walls of his heart, cool blow that whips
the flame, the corner's dancing gravitons
pull the brown swells home
my buddy's base spot in pittsburgh
the crawford grill, housed bebop liberated
hip boys swung out of cab's neat seats
with reet pleats into yardbird's redefined tweeds
& shades. my hip talking buddy
told stories of the pittsburgh hill: murphy men
playing on the respectable greedy. knife fights
in the pool room that didn't even stop the games
my buddy danced them to life for white
the mad painter, & me

in our new day, '56-'57, 9th & u, 14th & u
sweet & sour georgia avenue, were as swinging
as d.c. owned. some flicks in this block
latin dance in that loft, hardbop in this basement
brown bags in that cabaret, fats domino
& pegleg bates at the howard. i knew
the facades & parlors; my quick stepping
buddy knew the back rooms & alleys
upstairs at abarts buck & gus & stump let me sing on the last set

to a near empty room; i like to think because the squares
had split & they thought the crowd down enough
but in truth they were tired so here, a.b., have the mike
angel eyes in c. i wanted a cool like johnny hartman's
my next buddy didn't care. he wanted to rap about the mallarmé
in my back pocket. i knew books but craved the corners
city poets from baudelaire to langston had told me of
he knew the streets but craved the books he had no guide for

.....................................he said

so go there with me. i know hard nuance
that will decorate the rills of your brain
with glow & shadow. rooms of this limp city
where men still jam the delta blues in time
to the rimshot percussion of dice against the baseboard
know back doors to alleys where the trade
is in pleasures of the edge of the skin. the senses
order rules: you learn to see as the blind see
with the light of knowing what the books
don't teach. with the omniscient eye
of living when the power wants you dead

.....................................yes, i said

come here with me. i know verse
that will not leave you even as the years
abbreviate memory. lines to make a family
of. show you that thought you almost had
when the gray sickness enclosed you &
the scream wouldn't sound. how like the streets
the broken-line page is: you read it down
below your reason, down beneath the bottom
where mad lost truth cringes & hides


but the streets are treacherous in their virtue
scag poisoned my swift stepping buddy, put
a dip in his stance & a slide in his stride. snaked
a new set of veins all through him. tracked a map
of scars 'round his now tilting form. scag
whored his love of books. bent the eye
the radical of his poems, down to corrupted
concrete earth. still my book-hustling buddy
made a lyric of the stroll, sang poems of walls
made of roaches near the '64 14th & u
where the demon dooji hung

no blood-humping parasite could eat my buddy
whole. i saw him build a school of pan-african
dreams where the art of struggle crossed
the bloody waters from home to home: black
flame of the burning streets, flame of the muted
poor, flame of his flaming corner. he danced
through the crumbling walls with mad men &
mad dogs, screaming, kill martin? kill malcolm?
.....................................kill me

we are not the only people who celebrate the death
of our heroes by dying; are not alone in our festival
of bones; do not sing solo before the tumescent flame
we pantomime war in our dance of release & ululate
"fire" in chorus at the brilliant air till it burns our throats
& call it victory. we are alone in this collective isolation
this black isthmus where i eats i & america, jailer & father
gives us the material to construct heroes better than cities

from that time he hears the near teutonic music
of jackboots breaking the air as they descend
toward his face. no fault there. it is the nature
of jackboot wearers to abhor the cries of those
whom they have caused to hurt, to crave silence
from the voice-warriors of the burning night

no fault here. my heart-first buddy hooked
the corners the alleys the readers & rappers
to the fire & sirens. brought the brown classes
to the venue of the city poem where dawn
is closure for the after-hours hustler, the moon
a lamp to work by, faith is the next vein shot
& hope is the will not to die today

my flipped-out buddy knows such madness
has value, out too far, in too deep, stability
of water, figments encircle the eye, this is
the buddy who took pound's chair at st. e's
who nursed lovers through the deathside of suicide
who taught verse to his cellmates at lorton

ah, but my fast walking buddy slowed down
jewel did this. she is a dancer & showed him
where the body ends. not at the flesh's tips
but with the shapes embossed in air when the form
flies away. jewel is a mother & taught him where
the body ends. not with images stranged in space
but at the core of her where new life curls & moves
jewel is a lover who took him where the body does not end

the great good love slowed my buddy down

A.B. Spellman is both a founding member of the Black Arts Movement and one of the fathers of modern jazz criticism. Before moving to Washington, DC to begin his thirty-year tenure at the National Endowment for the Arts, Spellman was an active poet, radio programmer, and essayist in New York, the poet-in-residence at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and a visiting lecturer at Emory, Rutgers, and Harvard universities. He has also been a regular jazz commentator for National Public Radio. His books are The Beautiful Days (chapbook, The Poet's Press, 1965), Four Lives in the Bebop Business (Limelight Editions, 1985, republished as Four Jazz Lives by the University of Michigan Press in 2004), and Things I Must Have Known, his first full-length collection of poems (Coffee House Press, 2008).

The poems here are reprinted from Things I Must Have Known, with the author's permission. For more information on the book, see:


Published in Volume 10:2, Spring 2009.