Winter 2005



Leah Caracappa

For Al Jones, everything had to lead out of Bruce Street.

That's the one-way street where Jones grew up, one of ten children, in Baltimore, Maryland, exposed to the bleak future of a black man in segregated mid-twentieth century America.

Accomplishing that feat required some fine-tuned street-level education, and cultivation of a budding career as a performing acrobat, before winding up in Paris in the 1950s. That's where Jones became part of a group of black American artists -- among them Ted Joans, Louis Armstrong and Amiri Baraka -- whose art and lives flourished in Europe during that era.

Among them was Hart Leroy Bibbs, a man whose work influenced Al's life ever since.

The path from Bruce Street to Paris was no easy one. Al Jones recalls being surrounded by an atmosphere of hopelessness, which he intended to overcome through his acrobatics. Given an offer to attend Lincoln University to pursue that art -- which he had to turn down for lack of funds -- he had the good fortune to strike up an acquaintance with the entertainer Redd Foxx, who suggested that Jones take his show on the road. Foxx declared that he would help find both Al and his partner Ted Evans a show to perform in, and kept his promise -- billed as "The Two Earls," the young acrobats experienced rapid success, performing in such meccas for black entertainment as the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and on Broadway.

It was a racially-motivated incident in the South which resulted in Al and Ted heading for Paris. Jones recalls that the pair were 'almost killed' for drinking out of a whites-only water fountain. Discouraged, and deciding they did not want to live a life of fear, the duo headed for Europe. There, says Jones, he found the respect he was seeking -- and a friendship, with Hart Leroy Bibbs, that would change his life.

Jones, who these days performs poetry of his old friend Bibbs from memory at venues around New York City and Long Island, recently recalled the excitement and the passion he was infused with through his friendship with Bibbs. "Leroy was one of the last artists that traveled around a lot and tried to carry on the tradition of the 'vagabond' title," says Jones. "He was a free-spirit; he chose to live on his wits."

Hart Leroy Bibbs, better known to his friends as Leroy, was born in 1930 Kansas City. He lived and worked in France as a poet and photographer for 20 years. "The first time I met Leroy he was selling books at different jazz clubs," Jones recalls. Jones became a huge fan of Leroy's work, and began attending his poetry readings, many of which were set in the fervid world of Black American jazz in Paris.

It was a fast paced world -- Bibbs and his crowd hung out in smoky clubs, and traveled from city to city, normally working with jazz artists, combining his words with music. "When artists work separately, each lacks the elements of the other that make a collaboration so beautiful," says Jones. "When artists collaborate they each add one perspective to create a whole, diverse project."

Bibbs' poetry was full of the rhythm and richness he perceived in life. "He was really passionate," says Jones, who admits that Leroy's poetry 'tore him up.' "He would write for his life, it was like he bled every time." Basing most of his poetry on his ill health and use of drugs, Bibbs used poetry as a way to express his pain as well as his pleasures, Jones recalls. In fact, he remembers the first line of his favorite Leroy Bibbs poem 'Black Spring,' a poem that pays homage to New York. "Be bleak Spring and roll on off with me through Central Park." And in 'Hey Now Hey,' a poem Jones frequently recites at readings these days, Bibbs brings life to the independent, jazz-filled lifestyle of artists in Paris "where my dawns are your evening's desire."

Bibbs was also well known for his photography, and brought his abstract photographic compositions to the collaborative process. "You see the explosions of color and lines and light," says Jones. "When you look at it you hear the music. It's the notes, you can see the rhythm." An illustration of how Bibbs accomplished this may be seen in the Ted Joans-Leroy Bibbs collaboration 'Double Trouble,' a volume in which Bibbs' photography visually expresses what Joans presents in his poems.

And aside from his accomplished poetry and photography, Bibbs was a philosopher, says Jones, who would frequently gather crowds as he traveled through Europe. Jones recalls, for example, how people came around to hear an impromptu philosophical oration by Bibbs one time in a courtyard in Spain. "He always had a group of people following him around town. People came around to listen. Leroy had such a wonderful way with words, and there was a lot of truth and beauty in what he would say."

As Bibbs' health declined, it was Al Jones who became a collaborator with the artist. "I could always tell when Leroy forgot the words to his poetry," Jones recalls. "He was a little cocky sometimes, so he would start snapping his fingers, or he would say 'Hey Now Hey' too many times. That generally told me that Leroy could not remember his own words." He recalls a time when Leroy was on stage performing, and apparently just didn't feel like reading any more. Indifferent and disinterested, Bibbs looked out into the audience and yelled, 'Do it Al!' recalls Jones. Jones went onstage and finished performing the poem.

Today, Al Jones continues to "Do It" for Hart Leroy Bibbs, reciting his old friend's poetry from memory at poetry readings in the New York metropolitan area. "I read his poetry now because I love it," Jones says. 'But I also read it because I figure, if I can read it to one person and they respond, then I am happy."




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