Disappeared poet Weldon Kees surfaces in San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation collection

November 30, 2016
Moody black and white photo of Weldon Kees sitting in chair

Weldon Kees was unknown to me when I started processing the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation collection about three months ago.  In photographs, Kees has dark hair combed neatly to one side, a matching moustache, and an intense gaze.  He was most often photographed wearing a tweed suit with a sweater vest and tie and holding a cigarette. He dabbled in a number of things (among them: Communism, novel-writing, Abstract Expressionist painting, psychotherapy) but, over time, it has become clear that Kees best made a name for himself through poetry.

Although I wish he were better known for his quietly devastating poetry, he is actually best known for parking his car at the Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955 and disappearing without a trace. As Pete Hamill asks, in a Sunday, August 9, 1987 article in the San Francisco Examiner: “What could be more poetic than to vanish into the fog of San Francisco, never to be seen again?”

Born Harry Weldon Kees on February 24, 1914 in Beatrice, Nebraska, he must have decided at some point (rightly so) that “Weldon Kees” was a more interesting name and called himself that thereafter.  In this simple action, we can see intimations of Kees’ preference for reinventing himself – a pattern that he would repeat many times throughout his life.  Kees lived in Denver for a while, where he earned a degree in library science and married a woman named Ann Swan.

Poets' Follies flier

Addressing the mystery of Weldon Kees in a July 4, 2005 article in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes that “there is a…suggestion of a man who manages to be absent from his own life.”  Kees’s inability to commit to a place, an art form, an ideology, is both relatable and disconcerting. He came to jazz, supposedly, during a period of frustration with poetry. He preferred San Francisco’s take on New Orleans-style jazz (called “Traditional Jazz”) over Bebop. Perhaps Kees was drawn to what trombonist and band leader Turk Murphy himself described as “basically dance music played by obviously happy musicians” (Turk Murphy, Music for Losers back cover)? 

One might ask what a poet is doing in a jazz collection – and, moreover, a traditional jazz collection? Kees was also a jazz pianist with many famous friends, among them Pauline Kael, Clement Greenberg, Willem de Kooning, and Bob Helm, who played clarinet in the San Francisco-based Yerba Buena Jazz Band in the 1940s.  The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation collection was donated to Stanford in 2009 and documents the lives and careers of a number of traditional jazz musicians, including Helm and Murphy. Helm and Kees collaborated on a home-recorded album called “HOLIDAY RAG,” which features Kees as both singer and pianist.  He is accompanied by Helm on clarinet and washboard.  The album features such self-consciously arty fare as “Anaïs Nin Stomp” and “Culture Vulture Lucy” – a song about a “creature from Telegraph Hill” who “reads quite a lot” and “thinks God knows what.” Kees developed a live show, called Poets' Follies, at which the duo performed.

It could be said that there is something of a cult around Weldon Kees.  Fellow poet Joseph Brodsky wrote, of Kees, “His poetry…is that of the here and now and of no escape, except for poetry itself.” Whether that statement is bleak or uplifting is for the reader to decide.  The notably small pool of available information about Kees only makes the details of his life more intriguing. The Weldon Kees Papers and Archives at the City of Lincoln, Nebraska Libraries consist of just two boxes worth of material, and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s library houses the Bob Helm-Weldon Kees sheet music collection.  The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation’s contribution includes many homemade recordings, on both reel-to-reel and cassette, of early “HOLIDAY RAG” demos (some recorded at Kees’s Dana Street house in Berkeley), live recordings of Poets' Follies rehearsals, and a wonderful black and white snapshot of Kees reading cartoonishly in the foreground, while (a woman who is presumed to be) his wife Ann lounges in the sun in the background – a tranquil moment in what appears to have been a tumultuous life.

Weldon Kees reading newspaper with Ann Swan [?] in background