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Jazz and the Beat Generation
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:
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:
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:
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':
hey, man, BIRD is dead
screw the horn
hey, man, BIRD is dead
screw the horn
All of this is rather ironic when we read a journal entry of Holmes',
written on December 15, 1948:
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:
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.
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