Robert Greenwood, 'Roy Fisher, Jim Burns and Jazz': “This piece of great informality.”



        Dear Jim this was meant for a

        New Year Letter after a Christmas

        Stand but

        First there was the New Year then the

        Post struck and the winter (1)

        Things clutch at you harder when you’re turned

        Forty Jim. So though Elizabeth (2)

        Thomas passed your good wishes through the steam

        Of a reeking grey-fleshed hot

        Potato in a pub this is late


        Just that it was a shock in

        How Far Underground to see (3)

        You’ve been down here so long now with us

        In the real burrows. Welcome

        To the turned-in and the mild slit eyes

        We’re wearing in this middle age

        Jim. These are

        Testy times. The kids will have to

        Drop off the velvet copter-skids –

        They’ll fall soft


        And what I hadn’t totted was

        The way they’re kids to you now. That

        Has to be. I calculate

        You’ve been on earth all through my life

        Except the little bit before Ben (4)

        Webster joined the Duke


        I see I can’t still think of you busy

        Down the age-groups

        Detecting poets as they hatch; (5)

        Time was I saw you do it

        In between working out/The Cost (6)

        Of Losing Herbie Haymer or/ (7)

        Gus Bivona’s Aliases/Brick (8)

        Fleagle’s Secret Contracts/Due Tribute

        To Johnny Guarnieri’s (9)

        Imitators/Long Live Lyman (10)

        Vunk!/How Far Gone

        Was Argonne?/What Price (11)

        The Riddle

        Of Vernon Biddle? (12)


        (But can you tell which

        Piano-player Stud

        With nuns in Woonsocket? (13)

        And which one bears the shame

        Of sending Miles

        Davis’s bassist home from a gig with

        Five-and-six in his pocket?) (14)


         – This mature struggle with form –

        Not fighting the rhymes off, letting the norm

        Establish itself, much as Donald Davie

        These days outlines his potatoes with the wavy

        Coupling of sauce – a form-storm!


        And you’ll have noticed the capitals

        Starting the lines/a pre-Projective habit. All’s

        Well that ends well Jim & thanks

        Again for the plug


        And may you find

        At the end of the line

        The whole world in yr jug.


Written on 8th – 9th April 1971, Jim Burns Entering the Seventies started life as a letter to the poet, publisher, essayist and reviewer, Jim Burns. I am grateful to Jim for supplying me with a photocopy of the original letter sent from 7 Endwood Court, Birmingham B20 2RX. The poem differs in parts from the letter and was printed in Consolidated Comedies, a pamphlet published in December 1981 by Pig Press (Crusty Editions), Durham, the back cover of which reads: “Don’t believe all they tell you: not all of Roy Fisher was collected in Poems 1955 – 1980 (O.U.P.). You read The Book, now read The Ones That Got Away in his Consolidated Comedies.” The poem has not, thus far, been printed anywhere else. The only commentary made about in print it is Ian Sansom’s description of it as “a wistful comment on ageing.” (TTARF p.195)

I hope here with these notes to unpack at least some of the references made in it.

At a reading he gave at Coracle Press on 4th December 1981, and released on a cassette tape by Audio Arts, Roy describes the genesis of the poem.

“ [It’s] dedicated to a figure from what used to be called the literary underground. I myself have been billed in places like Twickenham Tech, and I remember doing a lunchtime reading there. I was taken to a hall where the windows were covered in black-out and there was a lurid notice outside saying ‘Underground Poet Inside.’ What you had to do, apart from not be Seamus Heaney, to be an underground poet I never quite found out. I wasn’t even trying. But a friend and tireless supporter of the poetic underground or out-groups or parts of it, in fact almost all parts of everything, throughout that period and he’s still at it, is Jim Burns. He’s also a tireless supporter of the most obscure musicians of the big bands of the 40s and 50s, the boppers and the swing bands and he writes many an article. And if you hear a list of names in this piece of great informality, it comes from that side of his interests which I also share. This is a thing I just wrote as a letter, having thought of Jim Burns as a mere boy and realising that he was not all that much younger than me. He’d written an article in Stand magazine called How Far Underground?

Jim and Roy had both been anthologised in Michael Horovitz’s Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (Penguin Books, 1969).

And Jim Burns is indeed still at it and writing regularly for Beat Scene and the Penniless Press online magazine where recently, in an article on the jazz guitarist Arvin Garrison, he has reasserted his preference for the margins: “It has often been my contention that minor figures in the arts can provide a better picture of a period than more-successful writers, artists, and musicians. Their work reflects what was happening stylistically in its range of references. This can be seen as a limiting factor if they failed to move on, but it should not be a reason for neglecting what they did achieve, albeit in a small way.”

Roy admits to a similar interest in the overlooked: "I've always been interested in tracking down the under-recorded musicians who stayed around Chicago after the Goodman-Krupa-Freeman-Stacy-Spanier-Wettling-Tough wave had moved out to the swing bands and Eddie Condon's New York circle." (Death by Adjectives. AEBC p.141)

(1) The postal workers' strike began on Wednesday 20th January 1971 and lasted until Thursday 4th March. The Meteorological Office Monthly Weather Reports for that period record “an unusually snow-free January” with mean temperatures above average everywhere, but with below-average amounts of sunshine and overnight fog in most parts of the country. Roy was 40 years’ old at the time when he wrote this poem and Jim was 35.

(2) “Elizabeth Thomas was the Literary Editor of Tribune at the time and I was reviewing regularly for the paper, and she must have told me she would likely meet Roy at some event or other. A reading, perhaps?” (Email from Jim Burns 16/07/2021)

(3) Jim’s article How Far Underground?  was published in Stand, Volume 12, No.1., 1970/71. “I always did feel that a non-establishment area had more to offer. After all, any experience that leads you to Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth, Roy Fisher, Edward Dahlberg (just a few names selected at random) can’t be bad.”

(4) The tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (1909 – 1973) joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in Boston in January 1940, five months before Roy’s 10th birthday and one month before Jim’s fourth.

(5) Concerning his magazine Move which ran for eight issues, from December, 1964, to April, 1968, plus a supplement published in November, 1966, under the title Thirteen American Poets, Jim has said: “The idea was to use it to put people in touch with each other, and from that point of view it worked, especially in my own case. Lots of other magazines, big and small, from around Britain and from America started to exchange copies with me and poets sent their work and copies of their books. I was influenced in some ways by the example of Gael Turnbull's Migrant magazine in that the audience I wanted to reach was largely made up of poets and a few interested readers. I wasn't under any illusions about how many people were likely to be interested and ran off only 200 copies of each issue…I just read what came in and printed what I liked. Just a few of the poets who were in the magazine and the supplement were Anselm  Hollo, Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Carol Berge, Charles Bukowski, Jack Micheline, Andrew Crozier, Chris Torrance, Fielding Dawson, Larry Eigner, Tom Clark, Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, Michael Horovitz, Max Finstein, Wes Magee, David Tipton, and quite a few more. And it was sometimes a pleasure to give space to a quirky, older poet like Hugh Creighton Hill.” (Interview with Kevin Ring published in Beat Scene in 2014)

(6) Jim wrote regularly for Jazz Monthly and its rival publication Jazz Journal and may well have been unique in writing for both. His output consisted mainly of articles on major and minor figures associated with bop including Fats Navarro, Dodo Marmarosa, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Allen Eager and a series of articles for Jazz Monthly on lesser-known bands of the 40s. He has described how “Jazz was a key thing I was drawn to and in 1950 or so it wasn't respectable, so it was like entering into a strange new world. Bebop was, for me, and I'm quoting Gilbert Sorrentino here, an entry into a whole new world of culture. It took me into art and literature that seemed different to the official versions of those things.” (Interview with Kevin Ring published in Beat Scene in 2014) Similarly, Roy described how hearing Meade Lux Lewis’s 1936 recording of Honky Tonk Train Blues was a life-changing experience for him. “In the three minutes it took to hear it, it seemed as if every cell I had was mobilized to go in search of those unimagined sounds, which seemed to have nothing to do with any music I’d ever heard – even jazz, which had simply sounded rackety, over-urgent stuff.” Roy goes on to describe how two books, Wilder Hobson’s book American Jazz Music and Hugues Panassie’s Le Jazz Hot, were “the first developed writings about any of the arts I ever encountered. I read them over and over again, and can still call whole sentences up from memory.” (AEBC p.38-39). Roy later taught himself to play piano and from his teens worked with local bands eventually playing in pick-up groups alongside Wild Bill Davison, Bud Freeman, Bruce Turner, Archie Semple, Harry Edison, Slim Gaillard, and Sheila Collier with whom he recorded a Bessie Smith tribute album.

(7) The tenor saxophonist Herbie Haymer (1915 – 1949) was killed in a car crash whilst driving home from a Frank Sinatra recording session. (John Chilton. Who’s Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street. 5th edition. London: Macmillan, 1989. p. 140)

(8) The art of discography originates largely in efforts to identify accurately the personnel playing on jazz records, information often not supplied by record labels and further complicated when aliases became a necessity following secret contracts made by those musicians given the chance to record for a label other than the one they were contracted to. Thus did trumpeter Charlie Shavers become “Joe Schmalz”, pianist Nat King Cole “Eddie Laguna”, Benny Goodman “Shoeless John Jackson,” and Johnny Hodges “Cue Porter.” It’s not known whether the reeds player Gus Bivona (1915 – 1996) or guitarist Jacob Roger “Brick” Fleagle (1906 – 1992) ever resorted to aliases.

(9) Pianist Johnny Guarnieri (1917 – 1985) was an excellent, much admired, stylistically adaptable player who became a sort of house pianist in the 1940s for the Keynote label and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, Barney Bigard and others but is unlikely to have found many imitators. He played harpsicord as a member of the Gramercy Five, a small group led by clarinettist Artie Shaw.

(10)   Little is known about trumpeter Lyman Vunk who was born c. 1919 and who worked with Charlie Barnett before joining Bob Crosby in August 1941, left in December 1942, rejoined Barnet, then became a studio musician. (John Chilton. Stomp Off, Let’s Go!: The Story of Bob Crosby's Bob Cats and Big Band). Roy has commented on his liking for “the pithy names of German-American jazz musicians - the trumpeter Lyman Vunk, the drummer Kurt Bong, of the Oskar Doldinger Trio; or the early existentialist tuba player who was a member of Owen Fallon's Californians in 1925 - one Hartmann Angst." (Talks for Words 6. AEBC p.61), and in an affectionate and surreal parody of the articles Jim had written for the jazz press, Roy lists a number of names and projects on which Jim might have exercised his arcane knowledge and erudition.

(11)      The pianist Argonne Thornton (1919-1983) became Sadik Hakim in 1947. He recorded with Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Bill de Arango, and possibly also with Charlie Parker at the Savoy recording session of 26th November 1945 but there has long been a question mark regarding the identity of the pianist heard here. He is rumoured to be the composer of several tunes credited to others. Critical opinion has not always been kind to him. Max Harrison, for instance, called Thornton’s playing “one of finely-tuned mediocrity.”

(12)      The discography appended to Jim’s article on the trumpeter Howard McGhee (Jazz Journal. January 1966; Vol.19(1): p.12-14, 39-40) lists 6 recording sessions featuring the pianist Vernon Biddle. The first four were made in Hollywood between 1945 and 1946, and the fifth and sixth were recorded in Paris on May 15th and May 18th 1948. Punkins, recorded at the latter session, is credited to Biddle but Jim is of the opinion that “it has cropped up elsewhere under a different title.”

(13)      The pianist Dave McKenna (1930 – 2008) was born at Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Best-known as a solo performer, he also worked in bands led by Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman, and recorded with Bobby Hackett and Zoot Sims.

(14)    Wolverhampton born and 16 years Roy’s junior, the bassist Dave Holland replaced Ron Carter as bassist in Miles Davis's band in 1968, appearing on the Filles de Kilimanjaro album. He worked with Davis throughout the Summer of 1970 and can be heard on the In a Silent Way and Bitches' Brew sessions. In Roy’s experience, bassists "owned expensive, elaborate and essential items of technology; they knew their worth in market terms and drove hard bargains. They could lift you up, and they could let you down. And they never did anything for nothing." (Licence My Roving Hands. AEBC p. 77) It’s hard to tell at this distance whether or not sending him “home from a gig with/Five-and-six in his pocket” was the result of a bargain driven hard by either party.

Differences between the original letter and the final poem





So though Elizabeth/Thomas passed your good wishes through the steam (Poem)

So though Elizabeth/Thomas passed me your good wishes through the steam (Letter)


I calculate/You’ve been on earth all through my life/Except the little bit before Ben/Webster joined the Duke (Poem)

The computer prints out/ You’ve been on earth all through my life/Except the little bit before Ben/Webster first joined the Duke (Letter)


Gus Bivona’s Aliases (Poem)

Some Aliases of Gus Bivona (Letter)


But can you tell which/Piano-player Stud/With nuns in Woonsocket? (Poem)

But can you tell me which piano-player /Stud With nuns in Woonsocket? (Letter)


…much as Donald Davie/These days outlines his potatoes with the wavy/Coupling of sauce – a form storm! (Poem)

…as with Donald Davie/Outlining his potatoes with the gravy (Letter)


And you’ll have noticed the capitals/Starting the lines (Poem)

And you’ll have spotted the capitals/Staring the lines (Letter)


And may you find/At the end of the line (Poem)

And may you find/At the end of each line (Letter)




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