Poet of Jazz: Paul Pines
In the 1950s, Frank O’Hara was the only poet among his friends, the abstract expressionists. Rather than buddy around with poets from the New York School, the crowd he’s commonly associated with today, he was more likely to be found having a cocktail with Grace Hartigan or Willem de Kooning. As a result, his poetry style became more and more influenced by visual art, and his poems, spontaneous records of everyday life in New York, are filled with casual interactions with his painter friends—all of which is worth mentioning here, since the experience nearly mirrors that of local poet Paul Pines. The only difference is that, instead of abstract expressionists, it was jazz musicians who influenced Pines.
In 1970s, after scraping by as a bartender and cab driver in New York City, Paul Pines opened the doors of his own club, called The Tin Palace. The club, nestled on the corner of 2nd and Bowery, became a popular watering hole for jazz musicians, and in a short time, they started to perform there live. Pines developed close relationships with the musicians that came through, and like O’Hara, was affected both by their art, and themselves as people. Today, Pines lives in Glens Falls, works as a psychotherapist, and hosts the annual Lake George Jazz Weekend.
Pines is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Taxidancing and Last Call at the Tin Palace. His short lines hustle on the page in stanzas that twist and turn, like the hysteria of New York, or the fleeting sound of jazz. His style, both passionate and hip, can take the reader into a loud and happening bar, and then aside for moments of genuine tenderness.
What colors Pines’ poetry, and immediately draws the reader in, are his friends, the jazz musicians—Eddie Jefferson, John Tank, Shelia Jordan, Tex Allen, and Ray Walker “(who once said//Hey Pines, don’t you ever fall in love/with yourself the way/I fell in love with mine!)”. Pines finds the poetry in day-to-day life with these musicians. He can turn one of their casual jokes into a smart and touching line, or a conversation into a token of wisdom. Ultimately, the descriptions of these everyday experiences with the musicians tell not only Pines’ story but also a story of New York. The poems become a cultural record. In this respect, too, the poet is similar to O’Hara.
Undoubtedly Pines is influenced by the music and lyricism of jazz. It’s where his hip tone comes from. At certain times, the poems appear to have an improvisational quality, as though Pines is thinking of words like notes on a piano. This creates an engaging mood that can range from energetic, to humorous, to soulful.
Hello Baby/Last night/I tried to call you/on the phone//where have you been?//I’ve been moving/like Ellington’s hearse/headlights on/slow and quiet/in the rain//all the music in my life playing// “maybe I’m wrong”
Some of the musicians that Pines writes about are at the height of their creative powers; others are beaten down—usually because of drugs. To be sure, Pines occasionally writes about drugs, but not with the idea that one man’s drug use is another’s literary pleasure. Rather, Pines is able to write about them in the broader context of New York in the 70s, and what hard drugs meant for jazz at the time. In “Cocaine Cadenza”, for instance, Pines describes a musician leaving the stage who obviously has a cocaine addiction. But the poem is about more than one man; it’s about a lot of musicians who have finished their “last set”.
After Bradley/finishes his last set/I see his nose/has become//pitted/as moon rock//…a creature/that has started to drift/leaving/ a small/abyss/in the middle/of his face
Clearly, Pines is concerned with the past in his poetry, with life in New York and at the Tin Palace. His poems read like conversations between himself and the people who were there. And there is always the sense that it’s the past Pines is referring to—something that happened that cannot happen again—because he treats each musically rich moment with such warmth, but also wistfulness. The acknowledgement of that creates a vague feeling of emptiness, and its felt even more sharply when Pines uses his poems to say farewell, to both the Tin Palace, and the people that were dear to him.
All week I’ve been/trying to figure out why/we listen for what/the dead and dying/tell us…Cynthia, we always wanted/to know what lay beyond,/spent long afternoons at the reservoir talking about it//Now you know//Or don’t.
Naturally, this conversation with the past turns into one about the broader theme of time spent. “How could anyone say/I’ve wasted my life?” he asks at the end of “After Hours”. The question points out why the poems seem so strong: they regret nothing. They accept and appreciate the past for simply being what it was.
Nothing is obvious about Taxidancing and Last Call at the Tin Palace. Even after a close reading, there continues to be elements in the poems that resist explanation, which make it a pleasure to return again and again to both books.
Last Call at the Tin Palace (2009) and Taxidancing (2010) are available through Trees in Bolton Landing and Red Fox Books in Glens Falls.