This is the first poem of a sequence of poems about the jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, who was Jamaican born but came to Britain in 1952. Joe was my Dad's first cousin. Joe died tragically young and was much neglected during his life, really, but now increasingly Joe is being recovered as a very important musician, and in fact, a pioneer of avant-garde free jazz in Europe. He died in 1972 and I was born in 1976 so I never did meet him, and it's the great joy, I suppose, of poetry that you can imagine that you did have the meetings that you wanted to. So in this poem I meet Joe Harriott.
If you believe I saw Joe Harriott play in 1963
and in my good blue dress, danced all night
in that basement dive below Gerrard Street,
Joe howling through his sax, white shirt
sweat soaked and gleaming in the spotlight,
you may as well believe any of the things
I dream on, listening to his music –
the way he smelt up close say (of cigarettes
and clove) when we took a corner table
at the New Friends on Salmon Row, gnawing the ribs
he loved and in between chews just talking
to me in that fatherly way he had.
You may as well believe that sometimes
I put his records on and just start crying
and can’t stop crying, don’t even know
what I’m crying for – those decades in history
when men like Joe and my father were shadows
on English streets, or just the way
a melody can get you. I walk the small rooms
of my flat, light spilling through the skylights,
the treetops just in sight through the glass
and even with all these tears, I’m sort of happy.
Richard says be careful what you do in poems
to real people (known people), but surely this poem
shows its seams enough to let me wish
that Joe didn’t start dying so young, at gigs
he couldn’t even stand up straight to play,
that men he used to jam with didn’t see
his broken body shuffling down the streets
and turn away, and those last morphine days,
the dog he saw barking at the window
of the third floor ward really wasn’t there
– well, how could it be, if Joe and me just stepped
from the club into this winter night,
heading arm in arm down Brewer Street
to order steaming bowls of won ton soup.
first published in The Rialto magazine, 2014, © Hannah Lowe 2014, used by permission of the author.