What made Jack
Kerouac run? Jazz helped
In his great and weird book, "Mexico City Blues," Jack Kerouac zooms in on
Charlie Parker for three of the poetry volume's 242 choruses. "How sweet a story it
is/When you hear Charley [sic] Parker/tell it ..." he sings.
And well he might, for Kerouac had a lifelong love of jazz and he came of age at a crucial
time in the music's history. Because he was born in 1922 and lived until 1969, he was able
to slice across the diversity of the jazz idiom with the assured opinions of a genuine fan
who'd found a taste for traditional New Orleans jazz, big-band jazz, experimental jazz,
be-bop, cool jazz and the West Coast influences that have all run together into the
different estuaries that have brought us to where we now find ourselves as jazz fans.
And that influence found its way into his prose, his poetry and his very method of
thinking. Through him, the notion was tempered and hammered by contemporaries into a quite
extraordinary body of work that has affected many notions of music, literature and the
improvisational aspects of both that have enriched bookish music lovers like me.
The Beat Generation, of which Kerouac was a founding member -- in fact, he even named it
-- are the spiritual grandparents of many current trends in artistic expression. And, as
with all fait accompli influences, there are some untalented charlatans who nowadays
insist upon claiming the Beats as progenitors of each particular art, but who have no
claim whatsoever on the bloodline.
Kerouac was different. His love of wordplay and his avid appreciation of jazz blended into
a kind of holistic method that affected other important Beat Generation figures, such as
poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and the problematic but very intriguing novelist,
William S. Burroughs.
Sadly, most people who don't pursue an active interest in literature can only think, when
they bother to think at all about the Beat Generation, of beret-wearing, goateed hipsters
in dungarees and sweatshirts who honk on atonal saxophones and snap their fingers in lieu
of applause, smoke a lot of marijuana and don't bathe very often. It's a stereotype, of
course, but the image remains, and I have a half-baked theory that the staid post-war
rhythms of the United States accomodated the stereotype in the late 1940s and through the
1950s to the point where we've relieved ourselves of the responsibility of thinking about
it at all.
I'm being chauvinistic here, and I apologize. I am an American, and Kerouac, Ginsberg, et
al., were American writers, but the influences of jazz on their writing have gone on to be
published in dozens of languages and are available to other cultures than the prevailing
western European heritage of the U.S., though even that old notion is changing.
It was the openness of Kerouac and company to Oriental thought, other ways of thinking and
hearing and living that has affected the general notion of the art of our day. I spent the
first decade of my life in the 1950s, and I well remember -- through a child's memory
buttressed by further study -- the laconic social smugness that accompanied America's
gradual pullout from a wartime economy. And I needn't remind anyone of the tumult of the
1960s, when some of our Beat Generation pals began to witness the fruits of their labor,
for good or ill.
What, you may ask, has this to do with jazz? A fair question.
In my view: varying degrees ranging from "plenty" to "everything." The
beauty of music as a whole is that it carries no rational, only affective, content. And
that means anyone can understand it if they give it a try. One doesn't need to memorize
special terms or be able to read the notes on a page in order to understand music. You may
find it interesting to know what "fermatas" or "melismas" or
"ostinatos" or "interpolations" are, but that's only chicken
scratching. The stuff written on the score of "'Round Midnight" is no more that
beautiful tune than a painting of a tree is a fruit-bearing arbor.
What Kerouac did was rely for his inspiration upon this most basic and greatest expression
of all artistic endeavor -- music -- and found there a kernel of something of which he
could make use. And he bridged a gap with it. Rhythmic speech doesn't have to be shackled.
Sometimes musician and listener are told by rhythm and melody what the rhythm and melody
want. A canny musician responds to that call. Kerouac did, too, and made use of it by
opening his ear. And he translated it into something original -- a hybrid between jazz and
Allen Ginsberg's own dedication in, perhaps, his most famous volume of poetry --
"Howl And Other Poems" (City Lights, San Francisco, 1956) -- credited Kerouac
with "creating a spontaneous bop prosody and original classic literature."
Kerouac himself prefaced "Mexico City Blues" (Grove Press, New York, 1959) with
this statement: "I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an
afternoon jam session on Sunday. I take 242 choruses; my ideas vary and sometimes roll
from chorus to chorus or from halfway through a chorus to halfway into the next."
If that doesn't sound like jazz to you, tune up your ears.