Monday, February 17, 2014

Frank O’Hara at the Five-Spot

By Chet Williamson 

In his short lifetime, Frank O’Hara was an influential poet, largely recognized as a key figure in the New York School of poets. 

They were a gathering of friends really, namely, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, and a handful of others. The group wrote and published work in New York City in the late 1950s, early ‘60s.

Their poems were stylistically recognized for their first-person narratives, satire and humor, and -- most importantly – everyday, American-speech patterns.

In describing his approach, O’Hara said, “I do this, I do that.” The intent, he explained, was to capture the immediacy of life and that poetry should evoke the feeling that it is something to be experienced, “between two persons instead of two pages.” Given this simple directness, O’Hara’s poems often read with the intimacy of diary entries.

One of the more famous pieces utilizing this process is “The Day Lady Died.” Written by O’Hara in 1959, after hearing of Billie Holiday’s death, the poem sounds like an achingly beautiful elegy played by a saxophonist at the singer’s grave.

Billie Holiday

The conceit of this feature centers around O’Hara’s writing of the piece.

The Poem.

The Day Lady Died by Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

The Poet.

Young Frank
He was born Francis Russell O’Hara on March 26, 1926 in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, but O’Hara spent much of his youth in Worcester. In grade school, he went to St. Paul’s Elementary School on Chatham Street and took piano lessons at St. Gabriel School of Music (across the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral. He later attended St. John’s Preparatory High School (then on Temple Street).

In his book, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, author Brad Gooch said, “It was through music that O’Hara often chose to express himself, particularly the romantic swoonings of his suppressed self, at the keyboard in the family’s music room or occasionally at recitals sponsored by his teacher J. Fred Donnelly, at St. John’s Church in Worcester. His favorite show pieces in those days were such accessible works as Gershwin’s First Prelude, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy’s ‘Reverie,’ and Dvorak’s ‘Humoresque.’

St. Paul's Cathedral
But he also worked up several pieces that were perhaps less popular but satisfied his own interest in contemporary music: ‘Seven Anniversaries’ by Leonard Bernstein, ‘10 Preludios’ by Carlos Chavez, the piano part of ‘Konzertmusik’ for piano, brass, and harps by Paul Hindemith, ‘Prelude, choral et fugue by Ceasar Franck, Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy by Zoltan Zodaly, and Saudades do Brazil by Darius Milhaud.”

In 1944, at the age of 18, O’Hara studied piano with Margret Mason at the New England Conservatory of Music. While still in high school, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was O’Hara’s favorite work by James Joyce. “He identified with Joyce as the Irish-Catholic renegade who had deserted his Jesuit training to become a writer, who had decided not to pursue the religion of Mary Mother of Jesus but rather the religion of High Art,” Gooch said.

St. John's Preparatory High School, Temple Street, Worcester, circa 1960

Recalling his early years, the poet said, “It was a very funny life. I lived in Grafton, took a ride on a bus into Worcester every day to high school, and on Saturdays took a bus and a train to Boston to study piano. On Sundays, I stayed in my room and listened to the Sunday symphony programs.”

A snapshot of the rest of his days reads like this: He attended the University of Michigan, Harvard, and the New England Conservatory of Music. His ambition was to become a concert pianist. Moving to New York in the early 1950s, O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art, first as a front desk clerk. He later became an associate curator of painting and sculptor at the museum. Instead of living out his dream at the piano, O’Hara immersed himself in writing and the world of art.

For more biographical information, see:

O’Hara was on a first name basis with such recognized painters as Willem de Kooning, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Jackson Pollock. Although he continued to listen to classical music, and hung-out at jazz clubs, the paintings of these artists were a constant source of inspiration for O’Hara and his poems.

Frank O'Hara by Alice Neal
Hazel Smith in her book, Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, wrote that the poet was never identified as an improviser, but his work often alludes to writing at speed and surrendering to the demands of the moment. “O’Hara’s interest in improvisation does not seem to have been linked with a strong interest in jazz, as it was for [Jack] Kerouac. Larry Rivers, himself a jazz musician, said in an interview with me that ‘Frank wasn't keen on jazz.’ Furthermore, O'Hara does not seem to have been as susceptible as Ginsberg and Kerouac to the ‘hippie’ ideology of improvisation .... to Eastern religion and spiritual transcendence,” Smith said.

In a letter to fellow poet Gregory Corso written in 1958, O’Hara himself wrote: “Several people you know around lately, Kerouac whom I’ve only seen once or twice but like a lot, Howard Hart, and [Philip] Lamantia who are reading with a French hornist [David Amram] as the Jazz Poetry Trio … 
David Amram at 5 Spot
I don’t really get their jazz stimulus but it is probably what I get from painting … that is, you can’t be inside all the time it gets too boring and you can’t afford to be bored with poetry so you take a secondary enthusiasm as the symbol of the first – for instance, I’ve noticed that what Kerouac and 'they' feel as content of jazz in relation to their own work (aspirations), I feel about painting with the corresponding difference in aspiration, that is where one takes Bird for inspiration I would take Bill de Kooning: partly because I feel that jazz is beautiful enough or too, but not fierce enough, and where jazz is fleeting (in time) and therefore poignant, de K is final and therefore tragic … 

Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman at the 5 Spot
Then also, I don’t have to see what I admire while I’m writing and would rather not hear it, which seems unavoidable in the jazz milieu since even if they don’t whistle while they work they read with it. Maybe I should try to give a reading somewhere in front of a Pollock or a de K …. I guess my point is that painting doesn’t intrude on poetry.”

Frank O'Hara reading, Ray Bremser, Leroi Jones, and Allen Ginsberg in the wings

The Place.

The 5 Spot, the club where Billie Holiday whispered in everyone’s ear leaving them breathless, was run by two brothers, Joe and Iggy Terminis. In an article written in the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote that it was a “family business, a neighborhood bar at 4th Street and Cooper Square, when the brothers took it over after returning from the service in 1945. They knew nothing about jazz.”

Giddins interviewed Joe who said: ‘To me jazz meant Dixieland – and would have been content to keep it a neighborhood bar except that the neighborhood had changed. The el was torn down and artists and musicians started moving into the lofts.”

Giddins said, “One of their patrons was a musician named Don Schumaker, who held jam sessions in his loft. After playing they would come into the 5 Spot to buy a beer. Late one evening, when the bar was doing little business Schumaker told Joe that he’d get a piano, they’d have the jams there. The second or third musician hired that year, 1957, was Cecil Taylor.

This now famous photo taken by Burt Glinn for Esquire, is in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum. The identifying caption reads: "In a corner of the Five Spot (left to right) are: Sculptor David Smith; Frank O'Hara, a poet; Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan, both artists; an economist Sydney Rolfe; dancer Anita Huffington; and Bill Hunter, a neurosurgeon. Bar jumps till 4 a.m."

Soon the 5 Spot earned a reputation as a bohemian hangout. DeKooning, Kline, and Larry Rivers were habitues. … Tennessee Williams would come down for the poetry readings, and when Mal Waldron was the house pianist, Billie Holiday was a regular patron. Billie didn’t have a cabaret card so she couldn’t perform anyplace in New York that served liquor. She never worked there for money, but she sang there numerous times. During one of the poetry readings a precinct captain noticed her and asked Joe if she would sing. ‘I asked her and she said, she’d love to but the fuzz standing over there. I said, He’s dying to hear you, so, she did,’” Joe recalled.

Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday 
In his book, Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, author Joe LeSueur, who lived with O’Hara from 1955-1965 documents the night the poet heard Holiday at the club. In the chapter titled, ‘The Day Lady Died,’ LeSeur said: “And now, I’ll tell everything I remember about that night at the Five Spot, the shabby, unimposing jazz club at Third Avenue and Fifth Street, which for as a long as five or six years was the watering hole of downtown painters, the place to go when they grew tired of the Cedar [another local tavern] and wanted to mellow out and listen to the music of, say, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, or Ornette Coleman. 

The Thelonious Monk Quartet, featuring John Coltrane
"Joe Tremini, a large and friendly man who seemed to like painters, ran the Five Spot, whose walls he covered with posters and announcements of their shows. As to who among our friends was there the night Billie Holiday sang, I have only the vaguest memory … 

Lady Day
"What I do remember, very distinctly, was the excitement that ran through the place when word got around that Billie Holiday had just come in. The table where she sat with Mal Waldron wasn’t far from ours, and I remember looking over at her and thinking how young she looked. Of course it didn’t cross our minds that she'd might sing … [LeSuer] notes that Holiday slipped into the room around 1 a.m.] “A little later,” he recalls, “when I was on the point of leaving, she and Mal Waldron rose from their table and moved to the piano. Aware that she was going to sing, I looked around for Frank. 

"I knew he’d gone to the john, but what was taking him so long? It turned out that I had no cause to worry, for he missed nothing – in fact, the john door he leaned against was closer to the piano than our table was.
To me Billie Holiday seemed remote, even unapproachable, and it was hard to imagine anyone having the temerity to stare at her or otherwise draw attention to her, much less actually speak to her: it was like being in the presence of – not God but Garbo … .”

Holiday died on July 17, 1959. She was 44. On the day of her death O’Hara was walking around City. As he says in the poem, he learned of her passing reading a headline in the New York Post.

O’Hara had written his poem on his lunch hour,” Gooch said. “Later he caught the train with LeSueur to East Hampton where they were met by Mike Goldberg in the olive-drab Bugatti he had bought the year before … . On the drive to the house Goldberg was renting that summer on Georgia Pond, the only topic of discussion was the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s death at the young age of forty-four. ‘I’ve been playing her records all afternoon,’ said Goldberg. Arriving back at the house, Goldberg put a Billie Holiday record on the hi-fi … . O’Hara, who had been silent about the matter throughout the trip, pulled a poem out of his pocket that he announced he had just written that afternoon and read it straight down to its concluding stanza: 
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 Spot
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”

O’Hara died tragically after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island Beach, Long Island. He was pronounced dead on July 25, 1966. He was 40 years-old.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at:  Also see:
Thank you. 


See poem mentioning Miles Davis at: 

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