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His words fit into music 'like fish in water'

Let's sit right down and say how slowly the passing can appear to take/ When nothing in the form of everything is at stake.

Those lines by Ontario poet, teacher and video artist Paul Haines could have been his own funeral march, if somebody sang them loud-and-soft enough, the way they are on New York avant-jazz band Curlew's 1993 album A Beautiful Western Saddle.

So could such works as Anti-Pondering or On the Way to Elsewhere and Here or What This Was Going to Suppose to Mean, many of them sung on the 1994 Haines anthology Darn It! Or the Michigan-born writer's Canadian Poem, which declared, The summer has/ aged and I'm/ getting dark/ earlier and/ earlier.

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This was an artist fluent in things that slip in and out of existence: a note, a laugh, a light, a life.

He was a high-school French teacher, husband and father in tiny Fenelon Falls, Ont., where he settled for the last quarter-century before his death on Jan. 21 at age 70. But Haines was also the inventor and inhabitor of a way of language just one step from jazz music, pivoted on its heel, at a tilt facing north.

One friend, Toronto critic and musician Stuart Broomer, puts it plain: "He was in some ways the most important imaginative writer involved in jazz in the last 40 years."

The musicians who in turn answered Haines's call have a few last responses to come, with tributes planned next Wednesday in Toronto and this fall in New York and at the Guelph Jazz Festival, in Guelph, Ont.

Consider Haines as a jazz songwriter, as Broomer does, and you'd go back to Hoagy Carmichael or Cole Porter to find lyrics that slip through to such wry, poignant effect. Yet his style was nothing like theirs, just as the new jazz wasn't Duke Ellington. Rather than suave couplets about cocktails and courtship, a typical Haines poem offered stripped-down postwar French surrealism, a haiku doing a can-can.

He gloried in puns, malapropisms, cracked syntax and ribald mental pictures that might raise a blush. He walked on mechanical knees -- a souvenir of his high-school track career near Saginaw, Mich., in the 1940s -- and the idea somehow suits his writing: Metal meeting meat in motion.

"The fact that his words were so baffling," British singer Robert Wyatt told BBC Radio 3 after Haines's death, "that's perfect for music, because you can say you liked the solo or not, but not what it meant. So his words sort of floated in music like fish in water."

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Where other "jazz poets" through the years have taken the liberty of the music as licence for manic jags into the badlands of self-expression, Haines took his cue from its multidimensional form, at the speed of surprise. As Toronto composer John Oswald says, "Paul never wrote about music; he wrote music."

"His poetry is very polysemous -- it points in many directions at once," says a younger friend, Guelph, Ont., drummer and composer Jesse Stewart, with whom Haines wrote a multimedia opera in 1999. "And music might be said to do that as well."

The trombonist Roswell Rudd, who is helping organize the New York tribute, calls Haines, "one of the great listeners of the world," with a range from swing to punk.

Rudd was a friend and musical partner of Haines beginning in the late-fifties jazz hothouse of New York's Radio Row (now Ground Zero), alongside free-jazz pioneer Albert Ayler, Canadian artist Michael Snow (with whom Haines made the landmark film New York Eye and Ear Control) and other giants-to-be such as Steve Lacy and Paul and Carla Bley.

Out of these friendships eventually came Haines's famed libretto for Carla Bley's dazzling avant-jazz opera, Escalator Over the Hill, which has been called the Sgt. Pepper's of early 1970s jazz, featuring everyone from Charlie Haden and Don Cherry to Jack Bruce and Linda Ronstadt. Haines sent Bley his poems from a Navajo reserve in New Mexico, where he and his wife Jo lived at the time.

The title came, he later said, from his irritation with the verb "to escalate" during the Vietnam War era (reflecting his eternally subtle social conscience, and adding shades to "over the hill," too). The paper back in Saginaw celebrated with a headline reading, "Local athlete writes opera," which so amused him he carried it around for years.

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Escalator was revived for a live European tour in the late 1990s, but meanwhile Haines did a second Bley disc, Tropic Appetites, written while he spent five years in New Delhi. "He was this great traveller," says Broomer. "The kind of person who would go to Moscow for the weekend. He actually did that once."

Later, Bley would also participate in Darn It!, a double CD assembled over seven years by Haines and producer Kip Hanrahan, on which his poems were performed by dozens of musicians in and out of the jazz realm, from ex-Box Tops and Big Star singer Alex Chilton and Toronto's Mary Margaret O'Hara to jazz-improv composer Henry Threadgill, English saxophonist Evan Parker and cult guitarist Derek Bailey.

These albums are virtually the only way to find Haines's writing. His one book -- 1981's Third World Two -- went out of print once its texts had been cannibalized for songs and for the admired but little-seen video works he made in his final decades. He seemed to find print too static, though he could destabilize it, too, when he chose, as in his album notes and other critical essays.

He wrote a glorious dada-polemic booklet for the original pressing of Ayler's 1964 Spiritual Unity, a key album in free-jazz history (a rare copy recently went on eBay for $1,725 U.S.), and notes for many other milestone records. On several, he even served as the recording engineer.

"He had an ear for sound, really quite beyond mine," says Rudd. "And this included language. There were times when it was difficult for me to understand him, as if he was speaking in tongues."

But friends also mention Haines's prodigious warmth, generosity and humour, and his avalanches of eclectic "gaslight" mixed tapes (or "K7s," a bilingual pun). Jesse Stewart mourns the end of the many letters, signed with aliases such as "Rudy L. Glorytractor."

I experienced that side of Haines in 1995 when a fax about an interview that, sadly, never transpired, included this text as a return address: "Matrigupta of Ujjain, India, wrote a poem that so pleased Rajah Vicrama Ditya HE WAS GIVEN THE ENTIRE STATE OF KASHMIR. The poet ruled Kashmir for five years (118-123) and then abdicated to become a recluse."

Haines may have won his own kingdom, but his end ("at his desk with his cassette deck on pause," says Oswald) was similarly obscure. His death met with silence in the Canadian press; compare that to the frenzy when his daughter Avery Haines was fired in 2000 for making an indiscreet joke as a TV news anchor. (Her career recovered. Another daughter, Emily, is a fine rising rock singer, whose father's sensibility often winks out from her lyrics.)

It may be that, as Toronto event organizer Glen Hall says, Haines was "a pretty intransigent non-self-promoter." And that, as Oswald says, "Like quite a few extraordinary, little-recognized Canadians who come quickly to mind, he is unclassifiable."

But Haines was also an ideal transplant, with his very Canadian-seeming, off-kilter humour, and deserved better treatment here. It was left to the BBC to do a half-hour tribute in March, including a passage from High Tide, commissioned there in 1999 for an Evan Parker session -- another elegy manqué and one of Haines's sweetest:

Everyone's feet wetter -- musicians, listeners -- and tied now together. Night parachutes concealed, their cargo installed. The tide, no longer high, is in, and still.

Big Ears: a tribute to Paul Haines, takes place Wednesday at 9 p.m. at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Ave., Toronto. Tickets are $10. Performers include John Oswald, Michael Snow, Jesse Stewart, Emily Haines, David Mott, Rita di Ghent, Tim Posgate, Trio Muo and Saint Dirt Elementary School.

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