Jack on Jazz: How A Genre of Music Helped Create a Genre of Literature

Jazz clubs on 52nd Street in New York City, seen here c. 1950s, were familiar territory to Miles Davis and Jack Kerouc, pioneers in their chosen fields of jazz and fiction.

While cruising across the Bay Bridge to San Ramon about a month ago, I caught a Michael Krasny interview with Marcus Shelby on NPR. Marcus Shelby–teacher, composer, bassist–is the heartbeat of the Bay Area contemporary jazz community. His deep-rooted understanding of African-American history is seen through his performance of songs such as “Harriet Tubman” and “Port Chicago,” which he uses as an exercise of cultural remembrance. The show aired on Duke Ellington’s birthday, and, after discussing the Duke’s influence, Shelby found himself awash in much deserved praise as Krasny opened the phone lines and caller after caller paid their respects. Then a caller asked him for guidance. This woman, whose name escapes me, had always appreciated, but found it hard to like, jazz, and she asked Shelby for advice on learning to love the art he had so skillfully mastered. Shelby immediately recommended Kind of Blue by Miles Davis.

Kind of Blue is a special kind of album–as approachable as it is quixotic, as revelatory as it is confounding. It might be difficult for modern listeners to understand the revolutionary concepts burned into the album’s grooves since we’re so far removed from its August 1959 debut. Since then, this type of jazz has been emulated the world over, and is now an accepted part of the American unconscious, present in our lives as music in movies and cartoons, and as the background to conversations in an elevator. But in 1959, jazz–particularly the form Davis pioneered here–was the cool subterranean art form that attracted hipsters like Jack Kerouac as well as traditional music mavens. Eventually it would transform popular culture in tandem with other revolutionary movements that prioritized spontaneity and emphasized the newness of roads less traveled.

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An intimate look at the “Kind of Blue” studio session.

In studying art, I’m consistently impressed with how much preparation is involved in the construction of spontaneity. It’s not a false concept, but spontaneity does require skillful and thoughtful craftsmanship in order to result in artistic genius. Before hitting the studio for his Kind of Blue sessions, Miles Davis had been experimenting with “modal” jazz which emphasized soloists over a background of one or two scales, or “modes”, instead of what jazz typically emphasized–busy chord progressions. With a few compositional sketches in hand, he gathered a group of young innovators to round out his crew: John Coltrane as tenor saxophonist, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley as alto saxophonist, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on the kit.

As this group of musicians entered the studio, Davis laid out the parameters: the focus would be on first takes. Beginning with the opening track, the tone is set for the album as Chambers takes the lead while Evans keeps us engaged with unorthodox chords from which the rest of the music takes its cue. This is a bold choice, leading with the bassist and refusing to follow a linear path, one that validates the song’s title, “So What”–a musical call to arms in its brash repudiation of the jazz norm, and a sign of what’s to follow. “Freddie Freeloader,” actually the first track recorded during the 1959 sessions, momentously extends the swinging vibe of the first track and beautifully showcases Kelly’s contribution to Davis’ sextet. For me, the album is weighted in the center with “Blue in Green”, a song aching with simmering mood. Often described as “meditative” by jazz pundits and music theorists, the cycle of chords for this song was hashed out years before entering the studio when Davis slipped Bill Evans a piece of paper. Having written the musical equivalent for “G minor” and “A augmented” on the note, he told Evans, “See what you can do with this.” “Blue in Green” was born. This song is noirified, sultry and conjures so many clichés: dimly lit boudoirs in black and white, smoke curling around a billowing curtain, and the butt of a cigarette falling, wasted, onto a dampened empty sidewalk as its user turns away into the night.

As with all game-changing works, Kind of Blue struck a chord with an audience ripe for its message. Postwar America was searching for an identity in the 1950s as the country was entering the Cold War. Living under the perpetual threat of annihilation, much of American culture proverbially stuck its head in the sand. Families proliferated, moved to the suburbs in search of a Leave-It-To-Beaver lifestyle, and focused on the acquisition of goods and services pushed by advertising agencies in magazines and on television. There was, however, a subset of the population that remained disaffected by the Second World War–so much so that they found it impossible to distract themselves with taglines, products and the promise of a glittering American life.

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Jack Kerouac circa 1950s.

Individuals in the subset I speak of were young, and they were Beat. To quote the author Jack Kerouac:

“The Beat Generation…was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg…of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way–a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America–beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction…it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization–the subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation…”

Kerouac was a sensory addict, a lover of music who frequented hot jazz clubs in New York’s Harlem and San Francisco’s Fillmore Districts. He would write perhaps the best known Beat novel, and for this reason he became “King of the Beats”–the unofficial Beat mascot as identified by the mainstream press. This Beat novel was liberally autobiographical, called On The Road, and provided insight into a subterranean community that shunned traditional society in searching for more authentic experiences; it emphasized spontaneity and a new mode of literary thought, just like Davis’ Kind of Blue. Published in 1957, it follows the misadventures of Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) and the classic anti-hero Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they mine for meaning in the American miles between San Francisco and New York City. The pair immerse themselves in the urban bowels of these two cities, where a simmering counterculture is on the brink of a full-blown boil in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

When Viking finally found the cojones to publish this epic novel, Kerouac’s importance as a postwar author was immediately evident not just for the content of his narrative prose but also for his method of delivery. As explained in his quote above, the concept of “Beat” was a communal creation based on existing concepts so, in that respect, the source of the novel’s message did’t make his literary voice unique. What did elevate his prose above that of his peers’ was a narrative style that Allen Ginsberg later termed “spontaneous bop prosody.” This style was heavily influenced by his Canuck heritage that blended French with English, his second language, but was most evidently the product of converting jazz cadences into phonetic words and complex sentence structures. The tempo of Kerouac’s writing embodied the frenetic force behind his perpetual travels–the movements that found him the figures who would inspire his content. As jazz was and is peculiarly American, his passion for the genre and its integration into his writing lent his words a unique force that paired perfectly with the rusted red, white, and blue landscape he so painstakingly painted, as well as the avant-garde characters he knew intimately and immortalized in fiction.

Just like the music of Miles Davis, Kerouac’s work was also predicated upon a “first take” ethos underwritten by a dedication to craft and persistent preparation. The problem with Kerouac scholarship is that his interviews were generally misleading, since he often drank rotgut booze to calm his nerves and enjoyed playing with his own mythology. Later interviews with the people he knew are also circumspect since they’re clearly self-interested and memory is a fuzzy, moving target–one that might be even fuzzier for a group of known drug users and jovial alcoholics. What we do know is that Kerouac told reporters he wrote On the Road in a three-week, benzydrine-driven “ball” on a single scroll of teletype; this news spread quickly, and remains a beloved creation story. Unfortunately for admirers of this myth, his official archive reveals multiple revisions of the famous novel that include wildly different characters and plot points written on traditional sheets of typewriter paper with his trusty Underwood or scrawled in his own hand. In fact, Kerouac spent most of his life obsessively developing his craft as he agonized over word choice, sentence construction, and character development. His “three-week ball” was actually the product of a lifetime of practice.

In addition, the novel would never have happened without a little help from his friends. Although a consummate devotee to the tedious work of writing, Kerouac was still searching for his literary voice which later combined a Wolfean narrative scope with the jazz constructs that dominated his journals long before he felt comfortable including them in published work. After years of approaching fiction traditionally by emulating the writers he most admired (Thomas Wolf, Ferdinand Celine), he unlocked the key to his success through an exercise called “sketching.” He came to this approach on the recommendation of Ed White, a friend who told Jack “sketch in the street like a painter, but with words” as a means to cure his stagnating depression. This allowed Kerouac to transcribe his “interior music” and gave him, as Joyce Johnson points out in The Voice Is All, “a way to write passages in which he could seize the peak moment of initial inspiration and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.” This dissolved the “barrier between poetry and prose” that had frustrated him, and when Lucien Carr suggested Kerouac substitute a teletype roll for traditional sheets of paper, well, the last barrier to On the Road‘s writing was removed.

This understanding of events is directly contradicted by man historians, biographers and cultural critics point to a letter Cassady wrote to Kerouac in 1950 as the spark for On the Road in its current form. I believe that gives Kerouac short shrift and over-emphasizes Cassady’s influence on his writing. Sketching enabled Kerouac to release himself from “fiction and fear,” and helped to focus him on writing the truth with Neal Cassady, his muse, at the core of his entropic story. Writing Neal as he was instead of fictionalizing a Kerouac-Cassady hybrid for the main character, as he did in unpublished versions of novel, was the breakthrough he had resisted as a young writer struggling against an instinct to write from life when he believed the best writing was pure fiction. In the character of Dean Moriarty, Kerouac captured the reckless spontaneity used by Beat writers as an antidote to the numbness felt by a generation wasted in war, either dead on the battlefield or dying inside an over-regulated postwar society. Cassady may have been the essence of spontaneity, but it was the intrinsic freedom of Kerouac’s jazz-informed prose that enabled 1960s fee love and expression, and has continued to resonate with readers in successive generations.

I am one such member of those successive generations who found Kerouac as a teenager, and have loved him ever since. I read On the Road  in high school on the recommendation of an English teacher, David Soltis, who was probably the greatest influence on my early aspirations to be a writer. I was instantly hooked, seduced by the realm of possibility inherent in Kerouac’s prose and drunk on his words like only a sheltered teen can be. I purchased every book on him or by him, and also collected recordings of Kerouac because to hear the author read his own words aloud beautifully reinforces the lyricism behind his craft. Although it would take me years to understand the import of Kerouac’s contribution to American culture, I immediately felt a connection with Kerouac’s restlessness. My teenage lust for this dead poet compelled me to wear a beret, write poetry that was bad but then got better, and reroute my family vacation to  Lowell, Massachusetts so I could see Kerouac’s hometown and visit his grave.

This lust also drove me to jazz–straight into the arms of Miles Davis and his Kind of Blue, an album that continues to inspire me even while On the Road has, well, been relegated to role of a First Love. The novel’s lyricism and Kerouac’s devotion to craft continue to influence me as a writer and as an illuminated hipster hell-bent on preserving the magic of our disappearing American landscape. But as an adult woman I just can’t ignore the presence of sexism in his work (a topic for an entirely new article) or the perverse relationship between Kerouac and his mother–a relationship which ultimately formed his opinion of women as wives/mothers meant to be barefoot, pregnant, and subject to his will. This sexism taints his work form me as a 21st-century woman and writer in command of her own voice, but I still credit Kerouac’s role in my ongoing development as an artist, and, perhaps, even in my choice of men (also a topic for an entirely new article).

The Kerouac poster that hung next to my bed (next to the obligatory Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt posters) as a teen is long gone, but my vinyl copy of Kind of Blue is still a vital part of my record collection. And I’m not alone in this reverence; Kind of Blue continues to be the best-selling jazz record of all time, and is cited by many current artists–musical or otherwise–as an influence. First editions of On the Road sell for anywhere between $5,000 and $25,000, and it continues to be a contemporary pop culture presence with a movie adaptation that premiered in 2012. Teenagers will always want to read/listen to/wear something that is innately rebellious, and Kerouac will always fit that bill. Despite his many unsavory characteristics, I find myself reflecting on the last paragraph of On the Road time and time again–the one that explains his vision of America, his understanding of life:

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it…and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing od, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

Kerouac lived by one credo: the voice is all. And when an evening of writing begins to fade away, in that moment just before the coming of complete night when I’m finishing articles like this or maybe jotting down a poem (or two), I think of Jack Kerouac, I think of the power of his prose and his ornery addiction to his craft, I think of Jack Kerouac.

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The author on board a Virgin American flight to Seattle with Jack Kerouac by her side, May 2014.
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