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
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
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