San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Fused love of jazz, writing in role as state poet laureate
In the early 1960s, Al Young was a latenight DJ at KJAZ in Alameda, spinning John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and expounding between records with a cadence that sounded too suave and soulful for a gangly 21yearold. Eventually, Young’s onair persona evolved into a poetry style that riffed on song titles and lyrics, a style he called “musical memoir.”
Fortyfive years and 10 collections later, Young was named poet laureate of California in 2005 after giving a personal reading to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger inside his cigar tent in Sacramento.
A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University who taught poetry and creative writing there and at UC Santa Cruz, Young was playing his jazz records and writing verse right up until he suffered a stroke in 2019. He hung on until his halfparalyzed body shut down and died April 17 at a private care facility in Concord, said his son, Michael Young. He was 81.
“He was steady, cool and graceful, and never complained,” Michael said. “He couldn’t use his profound gift of expression, but he was still there, and when I’d play Duke Ellington, he’d conduct with his good hand.”
That was also the hand that he used to outline five novels, including
“Sitting Pretty,” published in 1976 and optioned for film by Bill Cosby, as well as original screenplays for Sidney Poitier and Richard Pryor.
“Al was one of the earliest hyphenates. He wrote poems, essays, novels. It was like a literary fountain he turned on,” said Janet Coleman, host of the literary salon Cat Radio Cafe in New York, and coauthor with Young of “Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs,” about their joint friendship with bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Published in 1989, it is still in print. Coleman met Young when they were both undergrads at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the late 1950s. By then Young was fluent in Spanish, could sing in French, and was coeditor of Generation, the campus literary magazine.
“He was so handsome and riveting that I thought he was going to be a star in the fashion of Harry Belafonte,” Coleman said. “He had a beautiful singing voice. But he chose the harder life of a writer.”
He also chose the life of an editor. Young put together “African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology” (1995) and, in partnership with Ishmael Reed, cofounded the 1970s literary journal Yardbird Reader (named for Charlie Parker) and another journal called Quilt. Among writers they introduced was Mona Simpson, now publisher of the Paris Review, and Terry McMillan, winner of the American Book Award.
“Al was a 9to5 poet. He wrote like other people went to work,” Reed said. “He was obsessed and driven and was one of the best craftspersons in the United States.” Reed and Young even formed a musical duo, with Reed on piano and Young on vocals, doing the Frankie Lane blues “We’ll Be Together Again” at Litquake several years ago.
In phone conversations, Reed said he always had to be careful with his use of grammar because
Young would correct him. They spoke every day until Young’s stroke. Three weeks ago, Reed and his daughter Tennessee called him for the last time to interview Young for a forthcoming issue of Conch, a continuation of Yardbird Reader. That was their last conversation.
Ernest James Young was born May 31, 1939. He was the oldest of seven, raised by his mother, Mary Campbell, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers. He had a bookish aunt who used to read to him, and by age 4, Young was reading to himself. By 7 or 8, he had changed his name to Al because he liked the sound of it better than Ernest.
“He was precocious from such an early age,” Michael said of his father.
In 1946, the family followed the great migration north to Detroit. He attended Central High School, writing his first plays, including roles performed by his classmate Lily Tomlin. He was also editor of the school newspaper. He graduated in 1957.
After two years at the University of Michigan, he left school and moved to the West Coast to be close to the jazz and Beat poetry scenes in San Francisco. On his first day here, he coldcalled his favorite poet, Kenneth Rexroth, and got invited over to Rexroth’s place in North Beach, Michael said.
He later settled in Berkeley and was involved in the jazz scene there, hanging out the Blackhawk and the Jazz Workshop. He also developed an act playing guitar and singing in a folkblues hybrid on the Bay Area coffeehouse circuit.
At a Berkeley party hosted by Chronicle pop music critic Ralph Gleason, Young met Arlene Belch, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. They were married in 1963.
Young went back to school to finish his degree at UC Berkeley, with a double major in English and Spanish. He was accepted for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford and moved to a house in the hills above Portola Valley. He and Arlene eventually moved to Palo Alto, and though the Youngs were separated in the 1980s, they never divorced. Arlene Young died in 2016.
Young never attended graduate school, which may have precluded him from getting a permanent faculty position. He was an adjunct, teaching poetry and English literature at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis.
Among his students was Persis Karim, now a professor of comparative literature at San Francisco State University. She had never heard of Young and took his class by accident when he was a lastminute fillin for another professor.
“He had this beautiful booming voice and exuded love,” recalled Karim, the daughter of Iranian and French immigrants who had no idea when she entered Young’s class as a junior that she was being launched on her career path. “I became a poet in part because of Al and his encouragement.”
Karim later edited “Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora,” published in 2006 with a foreword by Young, and she was among the poets to campaign for Young to be named poet laureate of California.
“He was deserving because he is such an original voice,” Karim said. “He had this way of listening to the music of every culture and bringing it into his work.”
After his stroke, Young spent two years as an inpatient, and a GoFundMe campaign was established to help with the medical bills. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the top contributor, followed by authors Amy Tan and Richard Ford.
In all, 900 people have contributed, according to administrator Pam Kingsbury, senior lecturer in American literature at the University of North Alabama, who met Young when he gave a reading at Delta State University.
Young is survived by his son, Michael, of Oakland, and sisters, Michelle Young of the Chicago area and Aveda Young of Detroit.
Donations in Young’s name may be made to Author Al Young at GoFundMe, or by mail c/o Pam Kingsbury, P.O. Box 3265, Florence, AL 35630.