A new live album brings together two major forces in New York neighborhood culture
Back in October of 2015, poet Danny Simmons and the bass playing jazz legend Ron Carter took the stage at the BRIC House to play a set for the venue’s Jazz Festival.
While Cater improvised, Simmons performed poems from his most recent book, The Brown Beatnik Tomes. Carter’s nuanced improvisations fit perfectly with the powerful images Simmons conjured with his words. The evening was recorded and has just been released by Blue Note Records as The Brown Beatnik Tomes – Live at the BRIC House.
Simmons is a poet with a commanding presence and a formidable flow. Unlike his more famous musical brothers – Russell Simmons, head of the Def Jam label and Joseph Simmons, better known as the Rev. Run, of Run DMC – he chose poetry and painting as his life’s work. “When he was starting his label, my brother Russell invited me to join him in his new venture,” Simmons said. “I told him I had other things to do, but I didn’t know what they were. Eventually, I found out.
“I started painting in college, and I’d always written poetry. My father was a poet, but after graduation I went into social work. By the 90s, I wanted to branch out. I’d seen my brothers gain mainstream traction with their art, so I quit my job and started writing and painting in earnest. My mom encouraged me. She told me, ‘Nobody’s gonna let you starve.’”
His career as an artist took off. His paintings have been shown at the Smithsonian and United Nations HQ in New York and he’s written several books of poetry and a novel. “About five years ago, I started reading my poems in public,” Simmons said. “Even though I’ve had my poetry published, I primarily thought of myself as a painter. When Brown Beatnik was published, I was invited to give a reading at the Powerhouse Arena, a bookstore in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. I knew Ron Carter was going to be there, promoting his biography, so I asked him to back me when I read a few poems. He did. Afterward, he invited me to dinner at his home. I asked him if he’d join me for a another performance at the BRIC House.”
Carter agreed and Blue Note Records recorded the evening. “I invited some of my fellow poets to perform with us, including Liza Jesse Peterson. She’s a huge talent and a playwright who does a one woman show – “The Peculiar Patriot.” She made it onto the album.
“When I got on stage that night, I was a little intimidated, but I didn’t let anyone know. Ron has so many accolades in the music world. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?’ He was there with his trio. He played a few songs and backed me up, without knowing what I’d be doing. I’d selected a few poems and dog-eared the pages, so I could flip through the book to get to them. The sound quality was amazing, even more so when I listened to the playback. The synergy between us was fantastic.”
Simmons’ poems are masterful – sexual, political and personal. With Carter’s intuitive backing, they sound like songs as much as poems, particularly on epics like “The Jigaboo Waltz” and the love ode “Tender.” His honesty is something that’s all too rare, especially in our current political climate. “Some things are getting better, in so many ways, but the backlash we’re getting from small, well publicized hate groups – skinheads, Neo-Nazi groups – is daunting. It won’t stop progress, but it does give you pause. I get nervous about the police lately, which I didn’t used to do. I realize that I’m an old man, with a big gray beard, and I don’t get the same response as a young man, but this is really nothing new. It was happening during the Obama administration, spurred on by the mere fact that he was in the office.”
Philadelphia’s Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, an organization Simmons started 25 years ago, helps the population of disenfranchised communities, and people of color, gain access to the arts world. “Having been a young artist myself, I saw the need to represent artists of color, and poor people, who were not being picked up by the SOHO scene. I put together a fundraiser with my brother Russell, and Run DMC. We raised a quarter of a million dollars. Now we have a gallery in Philadelphia and offer arts education to those who need it. We do classes for kids in the galleries in New York and in the New York City school system. We’re not in the schools in Philly yet, but we’re doing it in the art galleries, under the logo of Rush Arts Philadelphia. The acronym is RAP, a tongue-in-cheek homage to my brothers.”