One of the things about living in New York is that there is more of a chance that you might get to rub shoulders with your heroes. This is a double-edged sword. So often you find that the artists who make the art you identify with or the movement you choose to follow don’t always pass the smell test as human beings. I grew up knowing the name John Sinclair as that of an icon: the revolutionary thinker who founded the White Panther Party, who brought the MC5 to Chicago in ’68, whose bogus imprisonment galvanized the movement against Trickie Dickie’s feds. A lot of times, a resume like that is simply a preamble to a run for the Senate, or fishing for a sweetheart deal on Coca Cola franchises. But from the beginning, John Sinclair was an artist first and foremost.
Most of John’s notoriety grew out of his founding of the Detroit Artist’s Workshop, a vehicle to provide the youth of Motor City with chances to paint, hear concerts and take classes. Sinclair was mad for music, from the cradle. Wrote about music for Downbeat and other publications. Not just about rock and roll. He was one of the first journalists to champion the cosmic free jazzer Sun Ra. He is a scholar of blues music, a colleague of Robert Palmer. Produced concert in the park events in Detroit for years. And from the time he was a teen right up through the present day, he has hosted radio shows celebrating the musical legacy of this country.
If you read the interview I conducted with John contained in the Great Weather anthology I Let Go of the Stars in My Hand (and you should), you know that John also has a serious background in poetry stretching back to his student days. Both Beat and Black Mountain influences shaped his approach. John has toured around his unique poetry presentation for twenty years. Like any poet, he must do this on a shoestring. I have made the couch in my apartment available to John on a couple of occasions to help his traveling budget along. The first time he came, he went straight to my bookshelf, and after examining a Beat collection I have, he asked me, “Do you mind if I read you some Robert Creeley?” He then proceeded to read about five or six Creeley poems superbly, just for me. That’s a real poet.
John’s jazz and blues poems are a special and unique creation. They help you to better understand the music, by understanding what the makers of the music went through. He develops the pieces over time with musicians who are long-time collaborators, such as Wayne Kramer from the MC5 or Carlo Ditta from New Orleans. Fattening Frogs for Snakes: Delta Sound Suite is a masterpiece of blues history, and the recording of it was produced by the legendary Andre Williams. Detroit Life assembles the stories of the musical legacy of his hometown, played by the cream of the Detroit jazz community (I thought it was the best album of 2008). John’s latest project, Mohawk, parses the recorded vocabulary of the genius Thelonious Monk.
But what makes the chance to know John and get to be part of his performances so fulfilling is that he is a beautiful person. Funny, wise. Not hung up on his past. Excited about what he is doing next. Very much looking forward to laying his latest stuff on us all at the Parkside Lounge on Saturday night, October 18th, starting at 8PM, with Carlo Ditta in from Nawlins helping to stir the pot. I hope that all of you reading this will come out and dig the continuing coolness of an American icon.