Just last weekend, poet and street philosopher Gaston Neal asked friends to stop by his house and say goodbye. He knew the cancer he had been fighting was winning. But Neal won on one account: The friends did come, jazz videos were played, the food was plentiful and he got to express a few last opinions.
"Gaston talked about his principal investigation of the 1960s and 1970s: What was the role of the poet. Was the black poet just a dilettante? Or was the poet a part of the political movement? He said he had come down on the side of the poet being an essential part of the political movement," recounted Tony Gittens, the executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Neal, 65, who died yesterday morning at home, deserves sizable space in the annals of Washington's cultural scene as an influential poet, a tireless organizer of music and cultural institutions and events, and an unrepentant character. Through his own work and enthusiasm over the last 35 years, Neal also helped put Washington on the national cultural scene. As part of the national Black Arts Movement, he co-founded the New School for Afro-American Thought here in 1965, one of a handful of politically active cultural centers in the country. In its six years, the storefront on U Street NW was the nexus for debates and performances by artists who were shaping a black aesthetic and showing how the arts could express the same rumblings as the politicians and street activists.
This was where you could find Sun Ra and Art Blakey, as well as Sterling Brown, the esteemed sage of the younger poets, and the up-and-coming vocalist Roberta Flack.
Yet Neal's impact was not only local. August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, cited Neal as one of his influences. They had both grown up in Pittsburgh. The poets who had dominated the public mind with the realistic, fiery writing of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, considered Neal an essential part of the time's literary movement. Baraka, at a fund-raiser for Neal's young children two years ago, called his friend the country's most important unpublished poet.
"Gaston was a jazz poet," said writer and producer Bill Brower. "Baraka is the one we know about and he has incorporated the rhythms and the styles, and his work is like an instrument. Gaston had that too but he didn't achieve their level of publication and he is not known to the world that way. But to those who understand how the music of the 1950s and 1960s influenced poets, the nonacademic poets, Gaston is recognized as being a force." Neal's work is included in several anthologies, including the seminal "Black Fire" edited by Baraka and Larry Neal.
On Saturday night Gaston Neal sat in a big chair in his house near Rock Creek Park, a supply of oxygen hooked up to his worn-down body, and held forth. He was wearing his ever-present beret. More than 200 friends spilled from the house onto the front lawn and back porch.
At one point the music stopped and Gittens and Lou Stovall, the esteemed printmaker and vice chairman of the city's arts commission, presented Neal with the Mayor's Arts Award just in case Neal was right in predicting that he wouldn't make it to next week's ceremony. "We discussed how important he was to the literary life of the city," said Gittens. And when we finished talking, he said, 'Let's go back to the party.' "
Neal had a calling, one to remind people that the arts, particularly poetry and jazz, were necessities. He was a wiry, roguish guy who was comfortable advising at the Corcoran or reading at D.C. Jail. His hat placed over a spray of fine hair, Neal would roam freely through the city's newsrooms, bars, parks, schools and bookstores. He had a story for every conversation, every person, told in a raspy, loud voice.
As the availability of jazz in clubs and on the radio dwindled, Neal co-founded "The Listening Group." Each month for 11 years, a group of men would gather to listen to a particular artist or a musical period. "If we were talking about Monk, he would have Larry Willis come in and play the piano," said Brower. "One time we had a session on drums with five or six drummers. And they went through a whole lineage of the drums from Africa, Brazil, Cuba and how they influence the dance companies, and whatever else." This grew into a New Year's Day party, big enough for an auditorium at Howard University, and then an annual picnic organized around the birthdays of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
For the last seven years, Gaston and I were neighbors. Our bus rides downtown were filled with the hilarious gossip from his community outreach jobs with the D.C. government, the frustration at getting the message out about AIDS prevention and the head-in-the-sand attitude of local ministers on some issues. And he was pretty blunt on how cancer was taking its toll, how he felt like he was turning the corner, and then how he wasn't. He talked about how early on, when he was giving in to the vices of drugs, drinks and book and art thefts, he hadn't been the father he should have been. He doted on his two youngest girls, Zola and Zendzi, walking them in the rain as they went trick-or-treating, fretting over their music and dance lessons, wondering why one liked a school with a large social scene and the other wanted a more reflective place to grow. This was the poetry of everyday life.
Last week, when he told his friend Tom Porter he had only a few days, he said more than anything he wanted a party. "He said I've seen the pictures, they aren't fooling this time. And then he put his energy into the party, just like he was organizing a poetry reading or a concert," said Porter.
CAPTION: Gaston Neal, teaching a class at Anacostia High in 1971, melded poetry, music and politics.
CAPTION: Gaston Neal, poet and figure on the Washington cultural scene.