Steve Dalachinsky, Poet and Pillar of NYC Jazz Scene, Dies at 72

The PEN Award-winning writer was a frequent collaborator with and steadfast supporter of avant-garde musicians

Poet Steve Dalachinsky, Vision Festival, NYC, 2015 (photo: Marek Lazarski)

Steve Dalachinsky, a poet long associated with New York City’s “downtown” avant-garde jazz scene in multiple ways—as a chronicler, as a performer, and as a supporter—died September 16 at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, Long Island, New York. He was 72.

Dalachinsky’s death was confirmed to WBGO-FM radio in Newark by friend and musician Matt Mottel, who said that the poet had had a stroke after a reading of his work on September 14.

A regular reader of his poetry at experimental music outlets such as the Knitting Factory and the Vision Festival, Dalachinsky was likely to be on the scene even when he wasn’t doing a recital. His love for jazz, especially of the free and avant-garde stripe, ran deep, inspiring several books of poems and ingratiating him with many of the music’s stalwart players. Dalachinsky also collaborated with a number of the friends he made among musicians, working most frequently with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.

According to an obituary written by the staff of Blank Forms, a nonprofit that supports experimental artists, Dalachinsky had seen a performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra earlier on the day he died, and his last words were “Maybe I overdosed on Sun Ra.”

Steven Donald Dalachinsky was born September 29, 1946 in Brooklyn, growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the central part of the New York City borough. Late in his life he recalled having been an odd man out from a very early age: On the one hand, his childhood friends were mostly Italian Catholics, who called him “Christ-killer”; on the other, he was expelled from Hebrew school for wearing a cross.

He was also involved from his earliest memories in poetry and art, keeping throughout his life a set of notebooks from his teenage years. He took lessons in painting at the Pratt Institute; however, he was also a high-school dropout and later described himself as attending Brooklyn College “for about 30 seconds.” At around that same time, though, the teenage Dalachinsky discovered the Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. He also discovered Cecil Taylor by chance, walking past the Five Spot on the Bowery while the iconoclastic pianist was playing there. It was the first of many fandoms and friendships he would build over the next several decades.

Much of the chronology of Dalachinsky’s life and work is unclear. He had been publishing chapbooks and individual poems since at least the early 1980s; although the 2009 anthology Reaching into the Unknown contains writing that dates back to 1964, it wasn’t until 2000 that he published his first full-length book of poems, A Superintendent’s Eyes. He was a prolific reader and performer of his own work for much longer, however, and had appeared on at least three albums as a spoken-word artist—one, 1999’s Incomplete Directions, was a full-length album under his own name that featured accompaniment by Shipp, percussionist Susie Ibarra, Parker, and guitarists Thurston Moore and Vernon Reid, among many others.

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Dalachinsky also claimed the influence of Kafka, Camus, Blake, and visual arts. A Superintendent’s Eyes was based primarily on his years as the superintendent of a building in SoHo, where he lived for 40 years. “Avant-garde jazz is just one inspiration for my writing/poetry,” he said in 2016, “though I admit it’s been a big one.”

It was certainly the one that figured in his most acclaimed work: the groundbreaking 2006 collection The Final Nite, which consisted of poems written over 19 years—entirely at and about performances by saxophonist Charles Gayle. The book received a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2007.

The Final Nite was the first of six books dedicated to jazz; most of them were for specific musicians—and, in the case of 2009’s Logos and Language, a collaboration with one, pianist Shipp. Dalachinsky also wrote liner notes for albums by Gayle, Shipp, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and several others. He made recordings of his own with Shipp (2005’s Phenomena of Interference) and drummer Federico Ughi (I Thought It was The End of the World and Then It Happened Again).

Dalachinsky collaborated with artists in other musical genres as well, including the French duo the Snobs (whom he met during his frequent travels to Paris for poetry readings) and the heavy metal band Eighty Pound Pug. More recently, he worked on several projects with his wife, poet and painter Yuko Otomo (whom he married in 1983). His final book, Where Night and Day Become One: The French Poems, appeared in 2018.

“The words I hope instill a sense of place, of being, of worth, and understanding,” Dalachinsky told AMFM Magazine in 2016, “about how this crazy world is structured and how humans have so tortured themselves and other species for decades.”

In addition to Otomo, he is survived by his sister Judy Orcinolo and nephew Shaun Orcinolo, both of Florida.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.