Jazz and the Beat Generation
As the Beat movement was getting underway, bebop was already going strong, especially in New York City, where 52nd Street was bustling with activity in jazz clubs up and down its length. Bebop was an innovative style of jazz which saw its heyday in the ’40s, characterized by smaller combos as opposed to big bands and a larger focus on virtuosity. Bebop’s renaissance came about in the heart of New York City, where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis were ushering in a new era for jazz music.
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and friends spent much of their time in New York clubs such as the Red Drum, Minton’s, the Open Door and other hangouts, shooting the breeze and digging the music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rapidly became what Allen Ginsberg dubbed “Secret Heroes” to this group of aesthetes.
Why did jazz suddenly become such a driving force behind the writings of the Beat authors? What similarities can we find between jazz musicians and the Beats? Perhaps the most obvious comparison we can make is indicated by the very word “beat.”
“The word ‘beat’ was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted”. Kerouac went on to twist the meaning of the term “beat” to serve his own purposes, explaining that it meant “beatitude, not beat up. You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz real cool jazz”.
The Beat authors borrowed many other terms from the jazz/hipster slang of the ’40s, peppering their works with words such as “square,” “cats,” “nowhere,” and “dig.” But jazz meant much more than just a vocabulary to the Beat writers. To them, jazz was a way of life, a completely different way to approach the creative process. In his book ‘Venice West’, John Arthur Maynard writes:
Jazz served as the ultimate point of reference, even though, or perhaps even because, few among them played it. From it they adopted the mythos of the brooding, tortured, solitary artist, performing with others but always alone. They talked the talk of jazz, built communal rites around using the jazzman’s drugs, and worshipped the dead jazz musicians most fervently. The musician whose music was fatal represented pure spontaneity.
In his only successful book, ‘Go’, Beat author John Clellon Holmes wrote:
In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them, and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life, a way of walking, a language and a costume; and these introverted kids… now felt somewhere at last.
Perhaps the best model to explain the artistic ideals of both the jazz musicians and the Beat writers would be the late 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s attitudes towards the artist’s duty to create was quite similar to that of the jazz musician and the typical Beat poet (though it is likely that the Beat poet would purposefully imitate Rimbaud while the jazz musician would be unaware of any similarities).
Rimbaud drank heavily, wrote poetry at a young age, and “burned out” much like a number of drug-using jazz musicians. Rimbaud’s dedication to his art was so fervent that, around the age of 21, he arrived at the point where he could do no more. Beats claimed Rimbaud as another “Secret Hero,” much like Parker or Davis. The “Rimbaud complex” was an attitude that both the jazz musicians and the Beats shared.
Many Beats used heroin, Benzedrine and other drugs in adulation of the jazz musicians which used them, hoping that the drugs would do for them what they supposedly did for greats like Parker. Kerouac wrote his most famous book On the Road, frequently heralded as the definitive prose work of the Beat era, on a three-day stretch fueled by a Benzedrine binge. William S. Burroughs used his dependency on heroin as an inspiration for books such as Junky and Naked Lunch.
Not only did the Beats foolhardily try to emulate the ways of life of bebop greats, they used the principal ideas of bebop playing and applied it to prose and poetry writing, creating a style sometimes called “bop prosody.” Beat prose, especially that of Jack Kerouac, is characterized by a style submerged in the stream of consciousness, words blurted out in vigorous bursts, rarely revised and often sparsely punctuated for lines and lines. “No periods… but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)” wrote Jack Kerouac in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” one of the few pieces he wrote which explained his method of writing. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg said:
Yeah. Kerouac learned his line from–directly from Charlie Parker, and Gillespie, and Monk. He was listening in ’43 to Symphony Sid and listening to “Night in Tunisia” and all the Bird-flight-noted things which he then adapted to prose line.
One of the governing maxims of the Beat style of writing was expressed by Allen Ginsberg when he paraphrased an old Zen Buddhist philosophy in his words, “First thought, best thought.” Ginsberg called this improvisational technique applied to writing “composing on the tongue,” and it was used in one way or another by many of the Beat writers. Gregory Corso wrote a poem about the sun which was entirely spontaneous. “Sun hypnotic! holy all protracted long and sure! firey goblet! day-babble!”, and so forth.
The rhythm, meter and length of verse was also distinctly more similar to jazz music than it was to traditionally European styles. Ted Joans, a poet and friend of the Beat authors, once said, “I could see that [Ginsberg] was picking up the language and rhythm of jazz, that he wasn’t following the European tradition”. Ginsberg fancied himself a poet in the style of a bebop musician because he lengthened the poetic line to fit the length of his own breath, paused for air, and launched another line, sometimes starting with the same word as the last line. Jazz music is distinct in its stressing of the second and fourth beats, as in traditional African music, as opposed to the stressing of the first and third beats, as in Western music. Beat poetry frequently has a much looser, more syncopated rhythm, similar to jazz.
This technique is perhaps best exemplified in Ginsberg’s classic poem ‘Howl’, which was to Beat poetry what Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was to Beat prose. “I depended on the word ‘who’ to keep the beat, a base to keep measure, return to and take off again onto another streak of invention,” Ginsberg said in a 1959 essay about his approach to poetry. The verbal technique of ‘Howl’ can easily be compared to a Charlie Parker song, in which Parker plays a series of improvisational phrases upon the same theme, pausing for breath and starting another. But Ginsberg said, “Lester Young, actually, is what I was thinking about… ‘Howl’ is all “Lester Leaps In.” And I got that from Kerouac. Or paid attention to it on account of Kerouac, surely–he made me listen to it”.
Perhaps the Beat who felt the strongest racial empathy with the jazz world was Leroi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Baraka was a very different sort of Beat poet, and he was never a big part of the previously discussed group of core writers. Baraka was primarly set apart from the other Beats due to his attitudes derived from his African-American heritage. Most of the Beat authors were white. Baraka used his race as the fuel for much of his poetry, and he was very extreme in his political and racial viewpoints.
In his poetry, Baraka achieved levels perhaps closest to the goals of jazz musicians, especially John Coltrane, whom Baraka admired deeply. Baraka even contributed writing to the liner notes of a recent Coltrane anthology, using elements of scat to write lines such as “aggeeewheeeuheageeeee.aeeegeheooouaaaa”. Baraka took note of Coltrane’s “inversions” of tunes written by whites, such as “My Favorite Things,” and their transformations in works such as Jack Kerouac’s ‘Desolation Angels’ or ‘On the Road’.
Kerouac was particularly into the bop scene, even outside of his works. In his book ‘Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis’, Jack Chambers writes:
Kerouac was even booked into the Village Vanguard to “play” regular sets, reading poetry with jazz accompaniment… on his better nights, he dispensed with the poetry and took up scat singing, including a faithful rendering of a Miles Davis solo that… “was entirely accurate and something more than a simple imitation.”
According to Ted Joans, Kerouac “knew lots of jazz musicians”, and befriended musicians such as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Brue Moore.
As Ginsberg said that ‘Howl’ was all “Lester Leaps In,” Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ was partially inspired by Dexter Gordon’s and Wendell Gray’s “The Hunt”. From ‘On the Road':
[Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) stands] bowed before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record… “The Hunt,” with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.
Kerouac even tackles the role of jazz historian in another part of ‘On the Road’. Triggered by a jazz club performance in Chicago, Kerouac launches into this ambitious paragraph:
Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and subtlety–leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother’s woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie–Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can’t feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.
Kerouac was also a poet, and he used his poetic abilities to eulogize Charlie Parker upon his death in his book of poetry Mexico City Blues. Choruses 239 to 241 are dedicated to Parker.
Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
Charlie Parker, who recently died…
“Wail, Wop” Charlie burst
His lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.
New York beat Gregory Corso similarly eulogized Bird upon his death in a poem called “Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker, Musician,” published in his 1955 book ‘The Vestal Lady on Brattle’.
hey, man, BIRD is dead
they got his horn locked up somewhere
put his horn in a corner somewhere
like where’s the horn, man, where?
screw the horn
like where’s BIRD?
Corso’s 1958 book ‘Gasoline’ also contains a poem entitled “For Miles.”
Poet whose sound is played
lost or recorded
can you recall that 54 night at the Open Door
when you & bird
wailed five in the morning some wondrous
yet unimaginable score? (Corso, 50)
But of all the Beats, it is probably John Clellon Holmes who admired jazz musicians the most. He dedicated an entire book to the story of a down-and-out tenor sax player named Edgar Pool, entitled ‘The Horn’. Holmes also extrapolated an incredible amount of meaning from the aforementioned Dexter Gordon song, “The Hunt,” saying “listen there for the anthem in which we jettisoned the intellectual Dixieland of atheism, rationalism, liberalism–and found our group’s rebel streak at last”. Holmes’ ‘Go’ is full of religious imagery linked to jazz; his use of words such as “testament,” “sacrament,” “holy,” “mystery,” “prophecy,” “ritual” and “altar” assign a divine quality to jazz.
All of this is rather ironic when we read a journal entry of Holmes’, written on December 15, 1948:
As far as bop: I have stayed up very late with Jack [Kerouac], listening to Symphony Sid (“the all-night, all-frantic one”), who plays six solid hours of bop “at your request and in our groove.” I’m still puzzled by it as music, although I hear plenty of fine things in Dizzy and Parker, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a…response to this post-war period.
Not only does Holmes seem not to “get it,” he incorrectly dubs bebop a “reaction,” when in fact it slowly evolved from late swing and transition period jazz. Still, Holmes was undeniably influenced by the bebop musicians.
West Coast poets were so influenced by the jazz movement that they made radical strides in synthesizing the two for the sake of live performances. The two primary poets responsible for this movement were Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, who attempted to liberate poetry from the clutches of the academics “who wouldn’t know poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight” in Ginsberg’s words. Incorporating jazz, they believed, would attract a wider audience and bring poetry down to the level of the average jazz-club patron.
Many of these poems were recited with jazz accompaniment at the Cellar, San Francisco’s foremost jazz club. The results were tape recorded and released on the Fantasy jazz label, with the music of an ensemble comprised of tenor saxophonist Bruce Lippincott, drummer Sonny Wayne, pianist Bill Weisjahns, bassists Jerry Goode and Bob Lewis, and trumpeter Dickie Mills. Rexroth performed his 20-minute poem “Thou Shalt Not Kill” with a free-jazz accompaniment. Ferlinghetti wrote seven poems published in his ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ with the intention that they be read with jazz. The introduction to the “Oral Messages” section reads:
These seven poems were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken “oral messages” rather than as poems written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental reading with jazz, they are still in a state of change.
With this new wave in performance, jazz musicians also found a new challenge in assimilating to the vocal and emotional element of the reciting poet. “…[I]n the words of Lipppincott… “We… respond with our instruments as emotionally as possible to the words of the poem and also the pre-arranged form. Such as… for this many lines we will have the drums swelling and rolling and the bass will enter at the bottom and play bowed”.
Very few of the Beats were jazz musicians to any extent. Similarly, the jazz musicians of the time did not often have literary aspirations. Thus, the inspirational connection between the Beat authors and the musicians was not exactly a two-way street. There are some exceptions; Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” was occasionally performed with poetic accompaniment, and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was released with a poem penned by Coltrane himself in the liner notes. There was also a degree of interaction between the two artistic fields; as previously stated, Kerouac interacted with quite a few jazz musicians, including Miles Davis.
Thus, without the Beats, the jazz movement would probably have rolled right along. But, as we have seen, the Beat movement relied heavily upon the genius of great such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis for the inspiration that produced such valuable works like Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. How fortunate that the two movements coincided at just the right time.