Jazz and the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac and David Amram
Contributed by Stephanie Nikolopoulos
Before Jack Kerouac stuck his thumb out and criss-crossed his way across the lush landscape of America, he moved from his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, to attend prep school at Horace Mann and then Columbia University in New York City. Still just a teenager, he began frequenting the jazz clubs of Harlem and writing up music reviews for his school newspaper.
Starting off as a journalist, Kerouac honed his craft. He soaked in the music and learned to listen well. The jazz he was listening to had a whole different attitude than the jazz that infused the spirit of the Lost Generation writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jazz had gotten its starts in the early 1910s in New Orleans, but following the Second World War it had morphed into a faster style known as bebop—or simply bop. It wasn’t predictable like swing; rather, its melody was more complex, its structure asymmetrical, its spacing dissonant. Bebop prided itself on improvisation and instrumental prowess. Kerouac absorbed the genius talent of musicians like Charlie “Bird” Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz found its way into the content of Kerouac’s iconic road-trip novel On the Road, which he began writing in the 1940s and was published, by Viking Press, in 1957. His characters constantly fiddle with the dial on the radio or are engrossed in a live concert, but that’s not what makes Kerouac’s writing stand out. After all, his fellow Massachusetts-born friend John Clellon Holmes—the writer with whom Kerouac was talking when he came up with the label the Beat Generation—also wrote about jazz. In his 1952 novel Go, Holmes’ description of friends listening to jazz records in crowded tenements is palpable. Critics even consider Holmes’ 1958 novel The Horn the Beat Generation’s ultimate jazz novel. The distinction between Holmes’ Go and Kerouac’s On the Road, however, is that Holmes’ prose is more traditional while Kerouac’s styling embraced the more avant-garde methods of the bebop musicians.
What bebop musicians were doing with musical notes, Kerouac wanted to do with words. Just as they improvised their music, he freestyled his verse in his efforts to create prose that was as immediate as a live concert. In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” written in 1958, Kerouac explained his writing method in terms related to jazz:
PROCEDURE Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.
METHOD No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)–“measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech”–“divisions of the sounds we hear”-“time and how to note it down.” (William Carlos Williams)
Consequently, Kerouac’s prose is a pure rush of thoughts and feelings. He heaps on themes, demonstrating his virtuosity. His story is not easy or comfortable; it’s complex, jagged, and—at times—jarring. It’s also captivating and beautiful.
Truman Capote famously derided Jack Kerouac’s ability to sit down at a typewriter and pour out a novel in a span of weeks, saying, “That isn’t writing; that’s typing.” Much of the literary criticism surrounding Kerouac posits just that: that he was undisciplined and prone to rambling. Scores of articles and books suggest, however, that the wild syntax and spurred-on prose mirror his bebop-related content and riff on the greater experimental culture of the time period.
Not long after On the Road came out, Kerouac began collaborating with a young musician. David Amram is considered the pioneer of the jazz French horn and can play pretty much any instrument you throw at him. He used to go into a world music store in Greenwich Village and pick up folk instruments many Americans have never heard of and learn how to play them. When he was playing at the Five Spot, a Bowery jazz club frequented abstract-expressionist painters and poets, he used to see Kerouac there. Amram wrote for the lit mag Evergreen Review in 1969:
I knew he was a writer, and all musicians knew that he loved music. You could tell by the way he sat and listened. He never tried to seem hip. He was too interested in life around him to ever think of how he appeared. Musicians understood this and were always glad to see him, because we knew that meant at least one person would be I listening. Jack was on the same wave-length as we were, so it was never necessary to talk.
By the end of 1957, Amram and Kerouac began performing the first-ever jazz-poetry readings in New York City. Amram created music on the spot; Kerouac read and improvised, his voice an instrument. They listened to each other’s intonation and rhythm, playing off each other’s talents.
At last, the spontaneous visions of words and music fused together.
Suggested reading and listening:
Stephanie Nikolopoulos (http://stephanienikolopoulos.com) has read with David Amram at the Cornelia Street Café. She is the author, with biographer Paul Maher Jr., of Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”