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An Interview with:
ruth weiss: San Francisco’s Jazz & Poetry Innovator

azz Steps recently asked Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg of jazz and poetry ensemble Upsurge! to interview legendary Beat jazz poet ruth weiss. Having just returned from a successful European tour, the 74-year grand dame of jazz and poetry, sporting bright magenta hair, met with Raymond and Zigi to discuss the past, present and future of their unique art form. Following are excerpts from that interview.

Raymond: First, I would like to thank Mary Destri and Jazz Steps, for bestowing this gift and honor on us, because I had heard your name for probably the last five to ten years, come up periodically. People would say, "You should see ruth weiss," or "Do you know her?" So, now, it becomes a reality.

I wanted to say that I give you my utmost respect and props, because being a survivor in more than one way, i.e. to come out of Germany [ruth and her family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s], and to be a survivor of the Beat poetry era, because a lot of people didn’t quite make it.

ruth: Well, I hate to say it, it isn’t just not making it/not being known, but a lot of people who are known are gone.

Raymond: That’s what I’m talking about.

ruth: It was both. And every day, I hear about another person who’s gone.

Raymond: As a person who has seen a lot – I was just totally floored by your history, a person coming out of Germany…

ruth: I don’t think it’s that unusual at all, but…

Raymond: Well, to me it is, because I came out of South Central LA, and I’m here in California…

ruth: OK, I think that’s amazing!

Raymond: Well, I would grant you that. But, 150 years from now, when people open up books on the literary movement, how would you like to be known? What would you say would be the essence of ruth weiss?

ruth: I’ve always considered myself a poet. I’ve always known this is what my life was to be, way back. I wrote my first poem at five. And I have done plays, I’ve done paintings, I’ve done stories, I’ve done theatre pieces, but I consider myself a poet whose other work – paintings, etc. – are simply an extension of the poem. So, this is the core. So first of all, I definitely want to be known as a poet.

Then, in ramifications, the word "Beat," even though today it’s a holy word, I still hear it in my ear how it was meant then, which was a very derogatory term. People would come on weekends in their polyesters and look at the beatniks. And then those who would not exactly put them down, but wanted to imitate, would buy beatnik kits, which I thought was very funny, with black glasses, and don’t forget the bongo drums! I mean, come on!

Zigi: And the berets!

ruth: No, the berets actually started in Paris, I think. They took that, so that was stolen from the…existentialists? I don’t know. But the beret, they took that on, too. But don’t forget the black glasses, because everyone was stoned, and you don’t want people to see your eyes. Completely ridiculous!

But if they say I’m part of the Beat generation, fine, because it was true. But one of the ramifications would be definitely jazz poet. But more recently, as I’m traveling around and I want to keep connecting with jazz musicians, especially the Bebop type, but I started connecting with a cellist from the symphony who wants to improvise. I’ve connected with a flamenco guitar player, and we had a fantastic session. So, the music expands, so it isn’t only jazz…and maybe it’s all jazz, right?

Zigi: That’s right!

ruth: So, I think it’s wonderful – you’re saying that you’re honored to meet me, but I am so elated that I’m meeting some younger people that are really into that work of the word and the sound being one and intermingled, and that music is not a background to the word. That it’s a dialogue. And I’m so happy that I can encourage this.

People say, "Why don’t you teach classes?" Well, I could have just incorporated it, but I like teaching by just doing it. And then, people can pick up and do their own version of it. I don’t want several ruth weisses running around. Whenever people have come up to me and said "You’ve inspired me, and we’ve started our own group," that makes me very happy. But, always explore your own voice.

So when you say, "How would I like to be considered," I would like to be considered a poet, and I like to work with good musicians, and I also like to work with painters. I get a lot of my inspiration for what I write from visual artists. Paul Blake, who is my partner since 1967 – "the summer of love!" – is a wonderful visual artist. I really get some visual impacts. So, I get a lot of my hits from both the visual and from sound. I don’t take a tune of jazz and do something. I just like the rhythm and the feel of especially Bebop jazz, which I first heard back in the 40s – Bird, you know, Charlie Parker, and Prez, and of course, Billie Holiday. She was part of my inspiration of how she dealt with her voice.

The first time I heard Bebop, I knew it was my kind of sound. I’d even been writing in those kind of phrasings already.

Raymond: Where did you first hear Bebop? You heard it in the 40s.

ruth: In Chicago. I lived at the Art Circle, and there were musicians who used to jam there, and then I ended up living with a saxophone player. His name was Billy Cannon, and we were in our 20s, very young 20s, and he had just come from New York where he actually lived with Charlie Parker and his lady, Little Bird. And he lived with them awhile.

Then, we lived together, and what we would do was get stoned on marijuana – I never would take anything other than that – and listen for hours and hours. He really turned me on to Thelonious Monk, of course, Charlie Parker, and Prez, Billie Holiday.

And I became friends with a fantastic jazz violinist named Steph Smith. He and I knew each other back in the late 40s. Of course, he had been performing in the 30s. He lived on the South Side of Chicago, and I would go visit him. I would just sit there and smoke a joint, and he’d start playing the violin, and it was just like I was in another dimension. And, I didn’t know there wasn’t much jazz violin. Except the Gypsies, of course. There is some Gypsy in my background, too.

Anyway, I would say ’49, is when I really got immersed in it, in Chicago. Then I went to New York. Then I was in New Orleans, I met several jazz musicians back in 1950. And then, I was in San Francisco in ’52, and I’m walking down the street, and there is Johnny Elgin, who was a keyboard player in New Orleans. He said, "Well, I just married this lady, and she’s got a place out on 18th and Church, called Harem Haven, and lots of musicians are there. Come and jam with us sometime." So, there in the boiler room, any night you’d go by, they’d be jamming there, and I would join them.

Well, a few years later, in 1956, three of those musicians opened up The Cellar, and that’s how it got to be that I so-called "innovated poetry and jazz in San Francisco."

Raymond: Why do you think that the Beat poetry thing happened in North Beach, as opposed to, say, Minnesota or New Orleans or LA? Why here?

ruth: It expanded later, by the way, into LA, but first of all, North Beach, San Francisco has always been known as a Bohemia, from way back, way back. That was the Bohemian quarter. Just like the Village in New York, just like the French Quarter in New Orleans, and so on, Chicago’s Near North Side. What happened is – and this is simply my opinion – a lot of the poets, well-known Beat poets, lived in New York, and went to Columbia College, and ended up in San Francisco. So, some people say it started in New York. Well, it started with some New Yorkers, but it started actually – this is my opinion – in San Francisco is where it really exploded, it really happened. That’s where the magazine Beatitude came out.

Raymond: Zigi read some of your poems this morning, and I could really feel the musicality. One of the things I really dug was the way you run words together. I think that’s so very hip and musical to me. It reminds me of a horn. When did you start doing that, and what prompted you, and what is the meaning or significance of it to you?

ruth: I think it’s my natural way of talking. My original language was not English, it was German. How did I learn English? I arrived here, I’m 10 _ years old, my parents put me into a children’s home so I wouldn’t run in the streets. No one speaks German. And here I am, at the age of 10 _, having gone through Algebra and everything, in a place where not one person speaks a word of my language, so the only way I could pick up the language was by sound. So, I was learning, at the age of 10 _, as if I was a baby, just learning a new language, because nobody told me that this meant this. I had to figure it out, but it was like it entered me directly, instead of being translated.

And, often when I perform in Europe, and some of the people don’t speak English – because all my work is performed in English – they will still respond on some kind of emotional level, because of my tone. I had that kind of experience at the Gathering Cafe, where Mary first saw me. One night, about a dozen people came in and sat in the back, way in the back. And on one of the breaks, I was near there, and I heard them all speaking French. So, I went over and started speaking English, and I realized that they didn’t speak any English. So in my very bad French, I asked, "What are you getting?" They said, "Oh, it’s great – and you should come to France!" Then I realized it’s an international – not even international, it’s an intergalactic communication of sound between people.

ruth weiss will be appearing at the The 1st Annual Upper Grant Avenue Fall Art Fair, to be held on Sunday, September 22, from 11 to 6 pm. The event will feature over 100 artists and merchant booths, including a small press, rare and independent book marketplace. For details on the event, or volunteering, or sponsoring, call (415) 986-6210 or (415) 781-4201.

UpSurge! JazzPoetry Ensemble is a free-pushing jazz band with poets Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, chanting, shouting, singing, whispering, speaking and dancing their message. Combining poetry and jazz, male and female, Los Angeles and New York, Jewish and African-American, UpSurge! crosses boundaries, twists expectations, moves minds, and incites action, while always holding true to the rhythm. For more information, check out their website at

by ruth weiss

i hear with love
i hear with love
i hear with love

i am the ear & voice of love
i am the voice & ear of love
i am the choice of love
i hear the voice of love
all is change

i hear the hum of the earth turning

1 2 3 4
who are we for
5 6 7 8
how do I relate

fall down seven times
get up eight

it’s work it’s work it’s work
it’s worth it


Excerpted from the book A New View of Matter by ruth weiss