It hardly seems possible that this week’s release of The Brown Beatnik Tomes – Live at the BRIC House is Danny Simmons’ first album.
How did the multi-talented, Tony Award-winning co-founder of Def Poetry Jam — a novelist, poet, gallerist and neo-African abstract expressionist painter — miss out on that credit?
Along with forging ahead on this project with legendary bassist Ron Carter by his side, Simmons is carrying on with a new mission and its flourishing programs at his Rush Arts Philadelphia gallery and community art house at 4954 Old York Road in Logan. It was a bumpy road for a minute, considering the accusations of sexual harassment leveled at his brother, Russell, but during this recent conversation with PW, it appears the younger Simmons has weathered the storm.
You’ve lived in Philadelphia now for four years, with your gallery in Logan open for three. How is the Philly gallery scene treating you?
The gallery is working out great. We’re putting together a strong, Philly-centric based board of directors with Tanisha Laird at the helm. She’s also the CEO of Symphony Hall in Newark, [N.J.] so she’s really connected to the arts. [Also], I have Noah Smalls, who has his own gallery in Upper Darby, managing the day-to-day things. We have a children’s program run by Raphael Tiberino packed with neighborhood kids.
Upper Darby has several galleries, and now you’re out in Logan. Is that the future of the Philadelphia gallery scene — NOT in Philly proper, but rather its outlying areas?
I don’t know about Philly, but my philosophy has always been that galleries need to be in neighborhoods, not as centrally located as they have been historically. The way to get people to enjoy art [in] the way that art can make social change is to have galleries where people are. When I opened my gallery in Brooklyn, it was all part of a strategy to bring art to people. Galleries such as that can be more comfortable and community-centered. They’re not as imposing as a [Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts]. If they see a gallery down their block and art through the window, they step in.
Is grant and philanthropic money still flowing into Rush Arts?
We got a grant from AMP Philly to do community engagement stuff in Logan, but other than that, we have been funded by private donations. Now that I have a director in place, I can go after additional monies. I can’t comment on how it all is, but I can tell you this: Rush Arts Philadelphia is the only cultural outlet in my neighborhood, so there’s not a lot of art grants or philanthropy going into Logan.
I ask because the accusations against your brother had to have affected you in some way; his life, or so-called life, had seeped into yours. How have Russell’s problems affected you?
We lost a lot of supporters at first because of the accusations. Some of them came back and supported our fundraiser last year for the gallery. Some of them didn’t. As far as Russell goes, he’s opening new businesses, living in Bali and doing his yoga practice. It seems as if most of those troubles are behind him. He’s coming back, and he’s very happy. He’s not happy about the accusations, but his life is on track. It just took a different trajectory. And he’s my brother, so... it may have slowed us down, but it made us recalibrate our mission.
Can you get into that ‘recalibration’ a bit?
Our old mission was to expose new artists. The new mission is using the arts to spur community development and engagement. It’s two different trajectories with a new end. There are enough places searching out new, young artists, [so] that doesn’t need to be my primary mission — not as much as going on with arts making a change in communities. I asked myself, ‘What does Philly need?’
You have shown your hand as a poet in the past. You co-founded and co-produced HBO’s Def Poetry Jam for five years. You’ve got three books to your name. I know you’re a Beat Gen fan. Who did you love?
Amiri Baraka is one. Sonia Sanchez, Ursula Rucker, Black Ice, Jessica Canmore, Vanessa German, The Last Poets. You’re right in mentioning the Beats such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
How did the Caucasian Beats romanticize the African American experience?
It wasn’t just the Beats. There has always been a fascination with black life. What goes on with black people. What’s so hip about them. It’s a fetishizing and romanticizing, even to this day. Look at Ginsberg's Howl. Its first lines are salutatory, but it also doesn’t really understand the struggle and pain, what was really going on with black people. Had there been more recognized black Beat poets, and what was really up with black life, people would see that situation differently. People who were running down the street heading to the Cotton Club in Harlem might have seen what was going on around the corner. The issues, not just dancing.
Have you ever read Bob Kaufman from San Francisco, nicknamed ‘The Golden Sardine’? He’s brilliant, all that stuff on City Light Books, but it’s rare that people know him.
Oh man, yes. I should have mentioned his name. I did not know about Kaufman until I wrote “The Brown Beatnik Tomes.” I was talking into a crowd about there being few great black Beats and someone in the audience yelled out his name. Now I have like 6, 7 of his books. He might have been the greatest Beat. He’s amazing, and definitely on the cusp of madness.
Tell me about the process of getting “The Brown Beatnik Tomes” down on tape, and live at that?
It starts with the question of exploration, of those black Beatnik poets we were just talking about. Not being involved in that movement, but certainly being involved in the hippie movement in the 60s, I wanted to tackle the issues that the black Beats didn’t tackle in a style that was stream of consciousness with picture-word association. And do it in a way that was abstracted. That’s where the book came from. When I got to meet Ron Carter through a friend, we were having dinner at his house. He was fascinated. I sent him a copy. He thought it was great. A collaboration was born. When I had a reading at PowerHouse Books, he came up on stage, and did a set with me. The chemistry was amazing. After that, we got BRIC, who was doing its first jazz festival, to book us as a headliner. We told the Blue Note label, off the cuff, and here’s the album.
Nooooo. This is just us, being us.
Ron Carter’s tough. What was he like to work with?
We’re the odd couple, me with my patched up jeans and embroidered shirts, and him with his suits and ties. Ron is a consummate professional, and not the type to do anything without meticulous rehearsals. The friendliest, nicest dude, but a perfectionist. That PowerHouse thing came out so perfect, we were both stunned.
What best defines the album, best defines where you’re at as a poet, best proves that poetry is alive and thriving? In record terms, we’re looking for the first single.
I think my emotional state and the words of The Final Stand of Two Dick Willie does it for me. When I heard myself say, ‘Two Dick Willie took a haaarrrd stand against the middle passage fare increase,’ I knew I had nailed it. Damn. It explained so much of me in that one sentence, and Ron just caught me with the right music. That is perfect.
Because you don't have all day to scroll though just how much music is headed to Philly this summer, we provide these picks for shows you should check out over the next few months. You're welcome.
Grits & Biscuits
Take your horse down the old town road to the Dirty South. This isn’t your typical Southern party – it’s a night of music and culture celebrating a unique genre in an energetic yet “down home” scene. | June 1. 9pm. $20. Theatre of the Living Arts, 334 South St. livenation.com
The music for when you can feel colors. This Japanese psych-rock band is just here to make “feeling good music.” The venue for this one is Underground Arts. If you’re going to get good feelings, what better way than to experience them than inside this intimate venue. | June 19. 9pm. $16. Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. undergroundarts.org
Sink your teeth into this political inspired psychedelic group. In their tracks, you can feel the deep influences drawn from the artists’ own immigrant experiences. If you need to feel something for the first time in a while, this is the show for you. | June 13. 9 pm. $15. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. johnnybrendas.com
These guys have been keeping it real since the 80s. They first hit it big with their cover of “Mrs. Robinson,” which you've probably all heard before. Get pumped pre-show to their new album “Varshons 2.” | June 14. 8 pm. $25. The Foundry, 29 E. Allen St. thefillmorephilly.com
He’s on the come up from Camden. This rap artist writes lyrics that tell stories and aren't just about fucking bitches. Get refreshed with a local talent who’s evolving with each album dropped. | June 27. 8 pm. $20. Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South St. tlaphilly.com
This Brooklyn-based rock experience is still very experimental in nature but brings an accessible sound. Philly is one stop on their summer 2019 tour, “Erotic Reruns.” With songs like “I am Chemistry” and “Tightrope,” Yeasayer has expertly designed its shows to always keep you guessing. | July 11. 8:30pm. $25. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. utphilly.com
Millsap’s folk/blues sound makes us think of jean shorts, cowboy boots and craft beer. Clearly, this is the perfect show to see in the mid-summer heat. Thankfully, this one’s inside the air-conditioned World Cafe Live, so you’ll be beating the heat while enjoying a great artist. | July 24. 8pm. $15. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. worldcafelive.com
The Psychedelic Furs
Another 80s band to throw you back to the glory days. You know a band’s success when they haven't released an album in almost 30 years, but are still touring. The classic movie “Pretty in Pink” was also based off of their song with the same name. So, yeah, we’d say this group was, and still is, a big fucking deal. | July 13. 8pm. $40. Franklin Music Hall, 421 N. 7th St. bowerypresents.com
Sons of an Illustrious Father
We’re all just children looking for some sustenance. Look no further than this strange, grungy, fuzzy, rock n roll group that never fails to blur the genre lines. They released a cover of The Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t ‘Cha” last month, and it’s a jumbled, sinister track that probably sounds like how it feels to be stuck in purgatory. Regardless, we fucking love it. | July 21. 8 pm. $12. Boot & Saddle, 1131 S. Broad St. bootandsaddlephilly.com
Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae is an R&B musician with plenty of soul. Her sound is super refreshing and has been good enough to win her two Grammys. She last released an album in 2016, but all her work in film and TV - like the song “The Scientist” she recorded for “Fifty Shades Darker” - keep people talking about her infectious talent. | July 31. 8:30 pm. $30. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. utphilly.com
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears
This group’s sound is all over the place, in the best way possible. Funky, punchy and bluesy, their music is a mix of everything that makes you groove. Think you can bear it? | Aug. 15. 9pm. $20. Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. undergroundarts.org
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
This is what we would consider bong ripping beats. Gizzard’s the perfect band to party, smoke, jam and moves to. Through the haze of marijuana-tinted minds and music, they happen to put on a hell of a high-energy show. | Aug. 30. 8:30pm. $35. Franklin Music Hall, 421 N. 7th St. bowerypresents.com
Sammy Miller & The Congregation
We could all stand to be uplifted by some decent jazz. Miller is a Grammy-nominated drummer whose band has collaborated with the likes of Lady Gaga and Queen Latifah. Let’s all unite as one nation under a groove. | August 1. 8 pm. $12. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. worldcafelive.com
Legendary Shack Shakers
These Southern guys have migrated north to give us a fresh sound. Their music is a fusion of rockabilly, blues and country that you never thought you needed to hear before. All you hoes better throw down to these banjo-plucking vibes. | August 10. 7 pm. $15. Kung Fu Necktie, 1250 N. Front St. kungfunecktie.com
Having formed last summer, this hometown group is still fresh on the scene. They are a collective – their first EP, “A Light on Each Side,” featured over a dozen contributing artists – but have narrowed down to a core touring group of five members. Their second EP is due to be released this summer. To say we’re excited would be an understatement. | August 22. 8 pm. $12. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. johnnybrendas.com