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A Night in Expo Park: Jazz, Poetry, and JFK History

As we told you on Monday, the most promising way to start off this busy week was in Exposition Park. It was there that a variety of happenings went off in succession, providing a wealth of personally enriching options to help offset the grind that daily work often presents. These included poet Kenneth Goldsmith reading from his new book, Seven American Deaths and Disasters, at the Reading Room, as well as a performance by jazz acts the Bradford 4 and Yells at Eels at Beef Haus. Lest you think that an evening of poetry reading and jazz combos sounds like the stuffy wine-and-cheese corner dressing of a patron-system event, I assure you that was not the case.

Goldsmith performed to an almost uncomfortably packed room, as he delivered a single poem from his collection called “The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” Though it was only one piece, it clocked in at 55 minutes.

The collage-like poem is exhaustively repetitive and relies heavily on actual KLIF radio transcripts from the day of the assassination. Goldsmith spares no detail—antiquated commercials, Tommy James song lyrics, and bumbling returns are all included. The hypnotic effect is something like a rosary, and a few of the supposedly more daring figures from the local art scene couldn’t handle it. The room was certainly less packed by the end of the reading, as there were several disruptive walkouts. “Thank you for your patience with this piece,” Goldsmith said at its conclusion. “It’s not an easy piece.”

Goldsmith offered theoretical remarks about that particular event as a genesis for media industry habits that would follow in its wake.

“It’s very primitive in that it’s still trying to be very earnest, and sort of G-Men type of rhetoric,” he said. “But as you go through the book you see that this pattern begins with the Kennedy assassination and plays itself out even up to the death of Michael Jackson.”

Goldsmith was mindful of the anniversary fatigue that is specific to Dallas regarding the assassination. “I was a little worried that you guys had heard way too much of this. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, I know this story already.’”

Goldsmith is a founder of UbuWeb, the indispensable collection of poems, film, and music that he runs with the help of universities and is entirely non-commercial. For a man who has a website dedicated to the avant-garde, it is very illuminating to see an obscurist take on some of the biggest mass media events in our history, or what he refers to as “cliche.” Yet, it’s not entirely an analytical experience for Goldsmith to interpret the hours and hours of disaster-related transcriptions he has compiled. “They’re all giant media—assassinations, and the World Trade Center, and the Kennedys, and John Lennon—but still, I’m moved by them,” Goldsmith said, referring to the specific contents of his collection. “And I know better than to be moved by a cliche, but there are moments even now, where at the end there, I kind of got welled up a little bit.”

Goldsmith related to the pall-ridden Dallas identity through his own East Coast lens. “But that’s all part of the cliche, knowing that you’re going to have to live with it, the way I do in New York—always having to live with the World Trade Center.”

Goldsmith alluded to tragedies that continued to take place on a similar scale, but occurred after the completion of the book. “Of course, with every passing week, it feels like another chapter could be added to that.” He offered up a brief assessment of hyper-current history that is still being made as we speak. “I’m sitting there listening to the strange Malaysian jet thing, all that speculation, circularity, all that all-around nothingness that keeps coming up out of that language.”

As soon as the Reading Room event ended, I headed over to the Beefhaus Gallery to see that Yells at Eels were still setting up. Some of the poetry reading defectors were already there.

Trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez led his rhythm section—entirely comprised of his two sons, Aaron and Stefan on bass and drum kit, respectively—through a set that stayed fairly tight, with refrains that occasionally reminded of the late Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, in its intimidating cohesiveness.

Houston saxophonist Jason Jackson blended seamlessly with Dennis Gonzalez’s trumpet, and somehow blended with his sleighbell too. Whenever the mood struck, Gonzalez would ditch the horn and go into his literal grab-bag of percussion tricks. A couple of children in the audience were clearly delighted by the proceedings, especially when Stefan would break into a solo.

As fierce as Yells at Eels could be, the otherworldly aspects of headlining act the Bradford 4 led to much jaw dropping in the room. The international ensemble is led by cornetist and trumpeter Bobby Bradford, who has roots in Dallas going back to the 1940s, though he has spent much of his time in California since then, where he teaches at Pomona College.

Oddly enough, Kenneth Goldsmith’s earlier meditation on JFK’s assassination wasn’t the only connection these two performances would have to that world-shifting event. Bobby Bradford’s ex-partner Melba Moore was a singer at the Vegas Club when Jack Ruby was running it in the early `6os. You can actually see her referenced in the Warren Commission’s official report, where she is referred to as “Mrs. Bobby Bradford.”

Bradford was associated with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman in both North Texas and also when the two lived in Los Angeles. He is featured on Coleman’s Science Fiction, from 1971, and it’s a shame that Bradford isn’t a little more well known. Dallas could use a little more credibility in experimental music.

In a 1976 interview with revered jazz publication, The Coda, Bradford shed some light on his life as a young musician in Dallas, and the crowd expectations at the time:

You see in Dallas during that period it was always a dancing situation, there were no clubs where you went to see a band and listen, where the audience would just sit. You always had to play danceable music even when you were trying out your bebop licks. In those days you were always playing in bands that were playing for people who were going to dance. So guys like James Moody would come to town with a band and he had to play for a dance too, and so did Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons. The later it got into the evening though the more jazz they played, the drunker people got the less inclined they were to dance. So the cats would open up and start playing a little bit more jazz and everybody would listen.

He goes on to give some strong opinions on North Dallas in particular:

Well the Black part of North Dallas was a notorious cut-throat get-killed area.

So now, many decades removed from the Dallas that Bradford knew, he’s playing in a crowded art space, with Chicago musician Frank Rosaly, a drummer 40 years his junior. Rosaly and Bradford are the furthest from each other on the musical spectrum, since—despite his association with such wild free jazz—Bradford is still a very melodic player, one who has even been described as “romantic” by more than one writer. Rosaly, on the other hand, has performed with noise and rock musicians in addition to the extended amount of face time he gives jazz ensembles. But it was the balance between Rosaly’s erratic drumming that bordered on a plate-spinning act and Bradford’s measured performance that made this set one of the most delightfully unusual sets of music I’ve seen in Dallas in recent memory. Suddenly the room, though filled with modern champions of daring art, felt so painfully standard.

Creaking passages from clarinetist/saxophonist Frode Gjerstad and bassist Inegbrigt Håker Flaten, both from Norway, slowed things down to an ominous level. Then the group would suddenly build up to such intensity that Rosaly would top it off by placing his shoeless foot on the bass drum or using brightly colored straws in lieu of sticks. It got so bizarre that I remarked to a friend that this was the musical equivalent of someone interrupting a meeting at City Hall in an octopus costume. We felt about as remarkable as khakied models in a Kohl’s catalog by contrast.

At one point in the evening, Stefan Gonzalez goes to shut the front door of the space, which faces Exposition Avenue. “Pa onde vas, Stefan?” his father, Dennis asks him in Spanish. “I don’t want to blast the neighborhood,” Stefan explains. “But this is an artistic community,” says his father.

All photos by Andi Harman.