“Back in the Day” – a poem by John Menaghan

May 2nd, 2023

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David Becker, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

David Becker, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Horace Tapscott, 1986

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Back in the Day

I’d like them to say
he was always there.
– Horace Tapscott

I started out on piano but in those days
you could get beat up if you played a
piano or carried a violin on the streets
so I switched over to trombone and
only later came back to piano again

Born down in Texas but L.A. became
my true home Houston just a memory
Central Avenue jazz bursting out
everywhere hanging with Dolphy
Carter Morgan Cherry all night long

Married enlisted found myself
stationed way out in Wyoming
joined the Air Force band then
hooked up with Hampton back
in the Southland for too little pay

Spent some time in New York
where Eric introduced me to
John Coltrane but before long
way too few gigs and one hard
rough winter chased me all
the way back to sunny L.A.

Time to create an orchestra
Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra
to be precise everybody on
board artists activists dancers
poets Panthers teachers
power to the people

Watts in ’65 I knew exactly
what was up who started
the riot wasn’t I giving my
people what they needed
playing music on a flatbed
truck for the duration seeking
to somehow address their
boiling righteous perilous rage

Might have kept my big mouth
shut but didn’t of course
a black-listed black man
ain’t that double indemnity
or some such thing but hey
what brother ever did discover
or declare that life is fair

Went into my so-called “dark
period” then but you know
I never was scared of the dark
never ever not with music
there to set me alight

Just 64 when a sudden
seizure shook things up
and then the doctors took
a look and found the cancer
in my lungs that took me
out of action way too soon
so much more I planned to
do and be and say and play

But hey who knew how many
days any black man had
better make the most of
every morning noon and
night some kind of miracle
really to last so long

Loving believing sharing
always there the best
things I could be or so
it always seemed to me

Stay black and die hoping
my music lives forever in
my stead only way to try
and make it so I’d never
ever ever quite be dead

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Winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and other awards, John Menaghan has published four books with Salmon Poetry — All the Money in the World (1999), She Alone (2006), What Vanishes (2009), and Here and Gone (2014) —as well as poems and articles in Irish, British, American, and Canadian journals, and given poetry readings in Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Hungary, Canada, and across the U.S. from New York to Honolulu. A fifth volume, composed entirely of his jazz-related poems, is forthcoming from Salmon in 2024.

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Listen to the 1969 recording of the Horace Tapscott Quintet playing “The Dark Tree,” with Tapscott (piano); John Carter (clarinet); Cecil McBee (bass); and Andrew Cyrille (drums). [The Orchard]

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