(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)

An Interview With Robert Cass:

[The following interview was first published in Mesechabe: The Journal of Surregionalism and appears here with the permission of the author.]

Robert Cass, quintessential "40s bohemian, reluctantly allowed himself to be called New Orleans's "oldest living beatnik;" He was a poet, editor, essayist, nomad and inventor of identities, dance and theater impresario, jazz fanatic.

Bob Cass published Climax: A Creative Review in the Jazz Spirit, in 1955 and 1956 from the bar, A Quarterite Place, 733 Bourbon St.  Climax published poetry, fiction, and essays by writers such as Lawrence Lipton and Judson Crews.  He knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and created the imaginary demimonde of writers and artists in The Society of the Marvelously Damned that moved invisibly through the after-hours joints of the Vieux Carr? .  Called a "handsome blond adventurer," in Diane di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik, Cass escaped Iowa in the Forties, discovering Count Basie and Louis Armstrong in Kansas City and voodoo dance in New Orleans.  He told his story of art and malingering "in the shadow of America's time-clocked fa?ade," on April 16, 1999, with his son, Jim, also on hand. Dennis Formento conducted the interview for Mesechabe.

M:  How did you get the idea of starting a magazine and incorporating jazz into your work?

BC:  That was one of my projects, you know, even from the voodoo dance thing, as soon as I started getting interested in jazz and related the idea of jazz and art. I'm glad I picked up on that. And then I found the artists had been picking up on jazz. 

M: You were already interested in voodoo dance.

BC: I figured that was the early part of jazz. And I just wanted to connect it into that sense. This friend of mine, Lon Garcia, part Mexican, part black, I had met him in California, (he) had worked in Katherine Dunham's dance troupe. He had been to Haiti with her.  He told me that we should put an ad in the paper and he would teach these girls, we'd have drumming and stuff just like he had seen in Haiti.  The idea was, we?ll rehearse it, and if it turned out to be pretty good, there was an old theater down on Dauphine Street that was still usable, we could take it and put it in the theater during Mardi Gras.

But we didn't get past the rehearsal stage because of the bust. They had an old charge that was on the books about having musical instruments in a shop. It was very close to Bourbon Street, and the Bourbon Street people were jealous, you know.  So the people who ran this joint right

A New Orleans
Robert Cass

down on the corner sent the police over.  He came and looked in, you know, and it blew his mind! Just about all of the friends that I had in the French Quarter were drifting in and out there, and it looked like we had more business than Bourbon Street places. And that was the reason we were busted besides the black and white thing.

M: It throws a new light on another story about the old Quorum Club at 611 Esplanade.  You remember it?

BC: I ran it during its last period.  They just gave me a certain amount to make the coffee.  I showed movies in there too.

M: Were you around for the Great Quorum Club Raid in August 1964?  People were playing music, it was interracial, and the police came in, arrested seventy-five people and took them all to court.  The charges included "communist agitation, labor agitation, civil rights agitation, pointless intellectual conversation and tuneless playing of guitars."  The judge threw it out.

BC: Probably the same judge! In my case, it was all thrown out.

M: The Climax bust happened on Mardi Gras Day, 1952.

BC: Who was running the Quorum when that happened?

M: I think it was a guy named Jack Frazier. (Note:  Later, Jack founded Atlantis Distribution, first underground literature distributor in New Orleans.)

BC: Jack Frazier, I remember him.  Didn't he have another coffeehouse on Rampart Street?

M: That was the Ryder, where the Landmark Hotel is right now.  (920 North Rampart.)

BC: That was a good little coffeehouse.  I was right in the middle of the French Quarter, in the whiskey belt, the show belt.  That was the worst possible thing, but it was a good, hot spot.

M: Where did you live at the time of the Climax bust?

BC: I lived upstairs above my shop.

Jim:  Toulouse, between Bourbon and Dauphine.

BC: There was a big fence up there, so it was kind of a dead area, really.  It was just off Bourbon Street. And 912 Toulouse? Ramblin? Jack Elliott wrote a song about it.

M: Oh, no, was that your place? The place in "912 Greens??

BC: No, but a lot of people I know lived there, mainly musicians, in certain pads, and when there were too many of them, they would sleep in shifts.  They'd bring their girlfriends up, so it was a great place.

M: And the bust?

BC:  Count Basie was playing somewhere in town, and the guys were coming off that gig. Brew Moore (trombonist) was here at the time, and several of the musicians knew him. So they were coming around, and some of them were talking about the thing that was going on at my place, and that sort of amplified the crowd.

Nothing happened to them. The cops said we were under arrest but they didn't stop anybody from leaving.  And so everybody that was interested in the scene stayed, people who just came out to see people that they knew. Where would we go?  It was our scene.

Poems from Climax: A Creative
Review in the Jazz Spirit


Singer Beasley
(Robert Cass)

She is a woman
waiting for death
with lucrative invasions
money and affections
are incalculably juggled
in the bookkeeping of her desire
that never gets out of the red.

She wears the lure of the forbidden
like costume jewelry whose
dazzle invalidates falsity
Her eyes like luminous dials
signal with marvelous inaccuracy
vibrations and pressures of sex  
Her body is the promised harbor of tender
storm that haunts the deep slumber
of ships lost at sea, and her soul,
a lighthouse, that brightens the jagged
darkness of the rocks upon which the world
is a drunken sailor floundering  
Remembrance in her is a sea
sobbing against the timeless sands of illusion
and every man, like a tattooed sailor,
bears grotesque witness of the flesh
to her indelible laughter

                  * * *                   
The Ass and God

Mason Jordan Mason  

When god make all the beasts
he make em
so they can pull their peter up inside.
But there was this one ass
So proud of his peter
He let it hang outside all the time
And this make God pretty mad
And he said, I am the father of all things,
But this ass was a proud and stubborn ass
So God turn him into a man
And he can no longer pull his peter up inside
And that's why man is proud & stubborn like God   ##

M: How many were arrested?

BC: About twelve, fifteen.

M: Were you listening more to traditional jazz at the time, or anything that came down the pipe?  You mentioned Count Basie's band.

 BC: I ran into Louie Armstrong's band in a big dance hall in Missouri.  I was trying to become an officer in the Navy so they put me in a school in Maryville, Missouri, and I heard about Armstrong's band playing at a big dance hall outside of St. Joe.  I went down there and I was just completely knocked out. I just stood by the stage and dug it.  

When I got here, I had a little shop over on Dumaine Street, first. And these two guys came down here from Harvard. Real intellectuals, they came down here with a tape recorder because they had gotten interested in it. They came into my shop, and we started talking all day about jazz, and so I started going around with them.  They found out when all the parades were happening.  A lot of white people weren't doing this at the time, you know. If I hadn't met those guys, I probably wouldn't have even gotten off on that track.  But once I did, it became a big thing, and I began to really dig it!  They made a recording of Mamie Barnes, the blues singer, and they got a band together.  I was moving out of this apartment when they had this recording come up, and they figured there was just about enough room to put a band in it. Anyway, they had a session there.  And I met other people like Dick Allen (Tulane University archivist & bandleader), and I became a second-liner, definitely, at the parades. Picked up the trumpet, started going back to learn how to play it again after I had learned to play it a little bit in a school band.  I played the French horn, which was just that oom-pa.  Pretty easy to pick up. I went into Dick Allen's pad, and he had this old beat-up trumpet in there. I picked it up and I blew a high note on it, and I just decided to keep it.  I said, "I'm going to take this home with me." He didn't care, I guess. He had a pad like this, you couldn't stuff more than two or three people in there.

M: You ended up down here chasing jazz after WWII then.  

BC: I ended up here, yeah.

Jim:  What about the McCrady Art School?

BC: That's why I came.  Our first real pad was outside of the French Quarter on Governor Nicholls.

M: Just before New Orleans, you were in San Francisco.  Were you involved at all in the jazz scene, the literary scene?

BC: We went religiously to the art places in the red light. Ferlinghetti hadn't started the bookstore yet.  But there was this one guy, Pierre Delattre, he wore a tam all of the time, he used to go around starting clubs. People would put him up to start an art gallery. The Black Cat was one of oldest ones in that area. It used to get so crowded you would be in there like this (indicating his cluttered room.)  It was a mostly gay joint.  A lot of them were mostly gay. Twelve Adler Place was right close to where City Lights is. That was a place where a guy would come in and play guitar, folksingers and minstrels? you'd meet everybody like that.

San Francisco Art School was right in same area.  I wanted to go there first.  I tried to get my GI Bill straightened out for I had already quit on it.  They gave me a rough exam. They said that I ranked in the top of professional artists, but to make sure that I didn't slip, to just make it rough on me, you know, the government said I could only go for commercial art.  And that kind of turned me off.

I wanted to meet all the artists and dig the good artists and be one myself.  So I thought about it awhile, and I decided to come down here and go to the McCrady Art School, which wasn't big enough to be compartmentalized like that. McCrady (John McCrady, 1911-1968) was a pretty good teacher and a nice guy, right over here on Bourbon Street.

M: Where is your artwork? 

BC:  A lot of it was stolen. Operators would come around and offer to find buyers for you and they would leave town before they came around and gave it to you back.  Jim has got one of my paintings over at his house.

Jim:  An oil or acrylic view of the St. Louis cemetery and Claiborne Avenue, looking toward the city, seeing beyond the cemetery tops...

BC: That's the way McCrady would have painted that scene.

M: His influence on you was in terms of subject matter, style or both?

BC: Yeah, both.  I was going there at a time when everybody, except a few old ladies who were there, were veterans.  Jim Kolb was from Mississippi.  He did a lot more painting than I did.  He went right into non-objective, went right into fiery colors, shapes. He is an interesting story in himself. 

M: Well, that was an interesting jump from San Francisco to New Orleans. Eluard Burt, the musician, and Lee Grue, the poet, brought up this term, 'the Golden Triangle," a sort of hip triangle between New Orleans, San Francisco, and New York.

BC:  I probably made that up. I was always thinking of the whole thing as a scene, the whole bohemian scene.  I was digging it wherever we went.  I remember going down into the Mission District. We lived up on Farrell, halfway from downtown San Francisco to where the rock bands started playing in the Haight.  We were right close to that.  It was back of the City Hall, and the art museum was over here.  That whole city center was right across the street from the back end of it.  We stayed in that territory, we went to a couple of other places in that neighborhood before we gave up on San Francisco.

I heard Charlie Parker there. There were after-hours clubs mostly, all right in the center of things. Can't remember where it was, but it was one of Bird's crazy nights.   It was the first time I ever seen him play.  Everywhere I went, people were talking about him. Incredible. There were Dixieland bands, too.

M: You printed the first issue of Climax in Oklahoma.  You went out there to do some poetry readings?

BC: No, I had gone out to print the first issue.  That was the beginning. My friend  (Del Weniger, published in Climax) was teaching up there.  He said, "Come on up here.  We?ll print your first issue up here. We've got a whole roomful of equipment that nobody uses." Up I went.  All the type was pied, it was all over the floor and we had to straighten it all out, me and him and his wife. I ran the whole press run myself, feeding by hand, because they didn't have an automatic feeder.  I put up so many copies, and then I had to stop it.  Big old thing, you know. That was some experience, doing that without knowing how.

I went out there by myself with the stuff that I had after putting out a little flyer. I sent it to various people, the library and the University of Indiana. They got a subscription!  That was fantastic.  There must have been some jazz people around there then.  So I just went up there with that stuff, I don't think I had even written "On the Society," I think I wrote it as I was typing it to print. That first issue, I filled it up with a bunch of my stuff under different names so it would look like it wasn't just me, because I didn't know enough people to fill it up!  And I wanted to publish some of my own writing anyways, right?

Judson Crews was one of the first people to write to me. There was a black poet over there, that had a couple of poems in here, that wrote crazy, really good stuff. Mason Jordan Mason.  You ever heard of him?  He was living in Taos at that time, I don't know where he is now.  He was black.  And there was in that one yellow issue of Neurotica, they've got two little ones in there of his: Redbone Legends.

I wish I?d?a had some of those. I printed whatever Judson sent me.  And I literally just got stuff from people I knew.

 M:  'the Age of Work? was Del Weniger's contribution to Climax.  It's sort of in a different style than the others. 

BC:  He was the only scholar that we had.

M:  Did you know Louise & Jon Webb very well, of The Outsider"

BC:  Sure.  Kelley's got all the copies of The Outsider. I think they came over the night of the voodoo raid, but they didn't stay when they realized it was going to be busted.  The Webbs, they were stalwart people that I hoped I helped to nudge a little bit into the publishing field.  They took it one better than I did, with making books with original bindings that were really quite a kick.

M:  How were you making a living all this time?

BC:  Hard to say.  I wasn't.  I was eating what the lady made. I had gallery-type shops where I was selling paintings, different times.  I was evicted a lot of times too.  I had one on Bourbon Street. The last one was on Royal Street, the most rent I ever paid.  I came back from Mexico with a whole bunch of photographs, real good Mexican photographs, made by a girl that went down there from here and became a Mexican and became a teacher.  You could go down and get a job teaching English to Mexicans.  That was a great gig.  I went down and when I came back, I

New Orleans
had its own
Beat Generation

had this thing full of beautiful photographs.  That was the time I came back with a bunch of pot that a guy had given to me.  I went down there carrying a suit to this guy that worked making ads uptown, somewhere.  He was one of the Quarterite people.  And he dug the idea that I was trying to get this thing printed.  He told me to go to his house and get this suit and bring it to him. And that was a lot of the money that I had to get the thing printed down there. Isn't that something? I just seemed to fall into things like that, that helped me get through.

M: A Quarterite Place was at 733 Bourbon, and that was the Climax headquarters. Climax Gallery, 733 Bourbon St., New Orleans, 16, Louisiana.  That's Fritzel's now.

BC: Fritzel's was my bedroom when I didn't make it to bed.

Jim:  What about the Bourbon House?

BC:  Bourbon House was the hangout, where nothing happened, but everything went.

M:  Where was it?

BC:  Right on the corner of Bourbon, what was that sainted street?

Jim: St. Peter?

BC:  (Imitating French tourist) Saint Pete-terre.   People sat and drank coffee and tried to see if anybody new was coming in town.

M:  You wrote about leaving "America's time-clocked fa?ade? and coming to the Quarter where you could have a measure of peace or removal from work, jobs, pressure, the military. You were in the Army?

BC:  Navy.  Navy, of course!  I could've been an officer, but I straightened out and flew right.  That's something my brother Foster did.  He deliberately got into the Navy so he could get a commission. They were just picking you up off the street and putting you in the grunt department.

M: Your very own brother volunteered you?  God, what a betrayal. 

BC:  Oh, he didn't volunteer me.  I could have been an officer.  But I didn't make good enough grades?I  was already reading too many nasty books.  

M:  You didn't want to have any part of corporate, military, straight life, ever.

BC:  No. I certainly wouldn't have.  Everybody had to go? If I hadn't, they would have conscripted me.  I stayed out one year to go to college because I was enrolled in this program. I made it through the freshman year when the school was right in my town.  But then they sent me to Maryville, we got into the monkey suits, and they started trying to make soldiers of us.  They had some nasty sergeants, some older guys, who would make us behave and everything.  For getting sack time, they'd call me Sleeping Beauty, because I would be the last one to show up to be counted. 

M:  Later, you shipped out to the Pacific and eventually got busted.

BC:  I was sittin? doing something when I was supposedly on watch, when the new commanding officer came in.  They waited until we got into the Philippines, the only time we ever had liberty, and he put me five days on bread and water in the forward hold where the sonar goes through.  Up in the front of the ship, the first thing that would get blowed up if you hit a mine.  I think he had a pretty good sense of humor to do that.  I had friends in the kitchen, of course, that would bring me stuff to eat, little bits of pineapple, fruit and stuff, so I made it pretty good.  But that was the only good liberty time that I had in the whole period. They were just glad to get rid of me because I had let myself devolve to cleaning the head. It was my way of protesting.

I collected books, bought books when we went on liberty. Underneath my bed, I had it full of books, so I took to sleeping out on the deck.  I liked the idea of sleeping outside anyway. I would go clear to the front of the ship and sleep up there on the deck. I sort of dug being a sailor, took it romantically and philosophically.  After all, the world is mostly water. 

The war was already slowing down when I got out.  I could have got out, I had points enough, I had been overseas long enough to where they would have had to send me home anyways. I got into the hospital trying to claim that I had a back pain or something.  My buddy had done it, and it worked for him, so I did it.

They threatened to send me back because I was reading all the time.  I wouldn't even look up when a doctor came by to inspect me.  They sent me to the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist threatened to send me back. I don't know what I did, but he changed his mind somehow.  I must have looked like I was going to start a ruckus.  I transferred from the ship to the island, Guam. I lived in a little camp there, it was called The Dump: lumber, machines, tape recorders, everything that came in, and the boss of it was this guy who was a sort of Marlon Brando-type tough guy.  And he had two or three, four little short guys who were Mexicans, pretty young guys. I think they were too young to have been in the Navy in the first place. 

We were the crew.  There was me and this other guy who was maybe going to go to college sometime.  We lived in a tent, the two of us, and they lived in another tent.  Poured water over the top of our heads for a bath.

I remember we started getting worse food.  Why did the food get bad?  They weren't sending any more out to the islands.  It wasn't even cooked well, everybody just stopped going to dinner and got a beer and crackers. Whatever little stuff we could score was better than eating bananas.  The ship had showed up, which was the ship I went out on, and I talked my way onto that.

M:  And then you ended up in the bughouse?

BC: They have all the doctors look at you and see what kind of a specimen you are so they won't take other people like you again. 

It was kind of a funny scene.  There was one guy, a farmer, a really young guy, he missed his cows, you know.  Some were really almost not there, space cadets.  I dug it as being like jail, anyway. But it was a happy place because I knew I would get out soon. 

M: You were listening to jazz at the time, swing music?

BC: Yeah, Harry James was my first knowledge of band music.  I used to sing all the pop singers, Frank Sinatra and all of that stuff.  But I was ripe for jazz right away. I didn't stumble into it, I put myself in its way.

I went to bars where they would have small bands.  And talk about the more better stuff, yeah, yeah, I remember that scene! It wasn't very frequent, but whenever I could have liberty and hitchhike down there. To hear Louie Armstrong, I had never seen or heard anything like that. I thought that I knew!  Here it is?

M:  The uncut, real thing.

BC:  Yeah.  ##



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