Beats of Summer, guest post, Jack Kerouac, Jazz Music, Stephanie Nikolopoulos

Guest Post: Jazz and the Beat Generation (#BeatsOfSummer)

Cover design by Igor Satanovsky

Cover design by Igor Satanovsky


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.

Photograph by RA Araya.

Photograph by RA Araya.

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:

Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac by David Amram

The Jack Kerouac Collection

The Horn by John Clellon Holmes

Black Music by Amiri Baraka

Stephanie Nikolopoulos ( 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.”

American Lit, Beats of Summer, Blog Post, Events, Jack Kerouac

Friday’s Featured Beat: Jack Kerouac!



Name: Jack Kerouac

Born:   March 12, 1922 (Lowell, MA)

Died:   October 21, 1969 (St. Petersburg, FL)

Seminal Work:  On the Road

Relationship to The Beat Generation:

Jack Kerouac, with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, founded The Beat Generation in 1940s New York City.  He was inspired by Jazz music and by the mantra of “first thought, best thought.”  His writing reflects a quest for honesty and a mythical approach to ordinary life.   

Importance to Literary History:

As one of the founding members of the Beat Generation and arguably its most influential character, Jack Kerouac has a very real place in American literary history. On the Road has appeared on almost every published list of “greatest American novels,” since the 1960s and has become one of the most enduring American novels of the 20th Century.  


Jack Kerouac and Automatic Writing:

Kerouac wrote his seminal work in one frantic, frenzied burst that took him three weeks.  He had been taking notes for years, in preparation for what would become the novel, but when he actually sat down to write a book – he did it all at once.  He termed this particular style, “spontaneous prose” and compared it to his greatest influence, jazz music.  Kerouac believed that prose had the ability to capture truths, particularly “the truth of a moment,” but to be faithful to this, the writer could not revise or edit; these corrections, in Kerouac’s opinion, would be like lying – presenting an untrue prose, lacking truth of the moment. This was certainly a new concept, one which publishers were leery of, and it was partly because of this style (and partly because of the book’s content) that it took 6 years for anyone to publish On the Road

  “Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.”                  -Joyce Johnson

Biographical Information & Fun Facts:           

  • Kerouac’s birth name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac.
  • He began his writing career in the 1940s but his first success, On the Road, was not published until 1957.
  • Kerouac was a High School football star, at the position of running back. He always dreamed of becoming a writer but thought sports would be his best chance at getting himself and his parents out of hardship.
  • He received a football scholarship to Columbia University and moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1939, at the age of 17.
  • In New York, Kerouac would discover one of his first loves and greatest influences: Jazz music.
  • After breaking his leg and being benched by his football coaches, Kerouac quit the team, quit school, and started working odd jobs while writing more seriously.
  • He joined the U.S. Marines in 1943 but was honorably discharged after 10 days, for ‘strong schizoid trends.’
  • Kerouac returned to NYC and met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. The Beat Generation of writers began to form.
Clockwise from bottom left: Gregory Corso (in cap), the painter Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram (musician), and Allen Ginsberg.

Clockwise from bottom left: Gregory Corso (in cap), the painter Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram (musician), and Allen Ginsberg.

  • Kerouac and Cassady took several road trips across the country, from NYC to Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and Mexico.  These trips would inspire Kerouac to write On the Road.
  • In the late-1940s, Kerouac wrote his first novel, Town and City. It was published in 1950 (with help from Ginsberg).
  • Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951.  It took him just three weeks, and he wrote it on a single scroll of paper that was 120 feet long, though he had been taking notes for years.
  • Upon publication, On the Road became an instant classic, with The New York Times claiming that the book would do for The Beat Generation what Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises did for The Lost Generation.
  • Following On the Road, Kerouac published many books in rapid succession, including: The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans in 1958, and Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues, and Maggie Cassidy in 1959.
  • In the 1960s, Kerouac wrote and published other novels, such as Big Sur (1962), wrote poetry, including experiments with Japanese haiku and long-form free verse, and also released multiple albums of spoken-word poetry.
  • Kerouac did not handle fame well.  He spent most of his years post-On the Road in drunkenness and drug addiction. 
  • He was married three times (1944, 1950, and 1966) and divorced twice.
  • Kerouac died of an abdominal hemorrhage at the age of 47, just 12 years after publication of On the Road.

William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. September-October 1953. (Ginsberg Caption) c. Allen Ginsberg Estate.

Notable Quotes:

“My fault, my failure, is not in the passions I have, but in my lack of control of them.”

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles” (On the Road).

“One day I will find the right words, and  they will be simple” (The Dharma Bums).

“Happiness consists in realizing its all a great strange dream.”

“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness” (On the Road).

“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road” (On the Road).

2013 Challenges, Allen Ginsberg, American Lit, banned books, censorship, Classics, Classics Club, Drugs, Events, Fiction, Gay Lit, Giveaways, GLBT, Jack Kerouac, LGBT, Literature, Read-Alongs, Reading Challenges, Reading Event, Sexuality, William S. Burroughs

The Beats of Summer: A Reading Event! (Sign-Up Post)

Welcome to the sign-up post for:

BeatsOfSummer-ButtonThe Beats of Summer: A Reading Event!

Summertime is coming, and what better time than Summer to immerse ourselves in the works of the most rebellious, daring, and “hot” generation of American writers??

For this event, the goal is to read as many pieces of “Beat Generation” literature as you want to, from June 1st through July 14th. Audiobooks, fiction, poetry, and non-fiction all count, as long as the writer is considered to be a part of the Beat Generation.  Memoirs, biographies, essays, theory/criticism or other works of non-fiction written about The Beats are also acceptable!

Update: We are looking for volunteers to provide Guest Posts and/or offer Giveaways throughout the event. If you would be interesting in participating in this capacity, please fill out This Form. And Thanks!

What is the Beat Generation?

“In American in the 1950s, a new cultural and literary movement staked its claim on the nation’s consciousness. The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other competing aesthetic. The Beat Generation saw runaway capitalism as destructive to the human spirit and antithetical to social equality. In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats railed against the stifling prudery of their parents’ generation. The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists. They fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before.”  –The Literature Network

I will post throughout the event to  discuss different subjects related to The Beat Generation, its writers, and its influences on later movements in literature, film, and music, as well as my own reviews of the Beat Generation books that I finish.  I will also be offering giveaways, and I am hopeful that some participants will be interested in writing guest posts or hosting giveaways of their own, to make this more interactive!

Below is a  list of writers and works of The Beat Generation.  This list is by no means comprehensive, it is simply a starting point.

Major Writers:
Richard Brautigan
William S. Burroughs
Neal Cassady
Gregory Corso
Diane DiPrima
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Allen Ginsberg
John Clellon Holmes
Joyce Johnson
Hettie Jones
Jack Kerouac
Joanne Kyger
Gary Snyder
Carl Solomon

Important Works:
Dharma Bums
Gasoline (poetry)
Howl (poetry)
Minor Characters (memoir)
Naked Lunch
On the Road
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (memoir)

Affiliated Writers/Biographers:
James Campbell (This is the Beat Generation)
Carolyn Cassady (Off the Road)
Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Brenda Knight (Women of the Beat Generation)
Matt Theado (The Beats: A Literary Reference)
Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

In the meantime, if you would like to host a giveaway or provide a guest post, please: CLICK HERE.

And if you want to sign-up to participate in The Beats of Summer (yay!), just leave a comment on this post saying YOU’RE IN! Maybe include some of the books you hope to read.  I plan to read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.

Please also post the button somewhere on your blog (in an announcement post or in your blog’s side-bar) so that we can spread the word, gather excitement, and encourage participation.  It goes without saying that this is meant to be a positive, fun, and educational event – it’s an at-will project, so negativity is a no-go!

Sign-ups are open from now through June 15th.  If you sign-up after June 15th, you can still absolutely participate, but you may not be eligible for some of the early giveaway prizes.

To Share/Discuss on Twitter, Use Hashatag #BeatsOfSummer

Cormac McCarthy, Craig Thompson, Dennis Cooper, Fiction, Gay Lit, Graphic Novel, Jack Kerouac, Kristin Kladstrup, Orson Scott Card, William S. Burroughs, Yann Martel

Reviews: The Earlies, Part 11

Try by Dennis Cooper

Pleasureably shocking.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I found this book incredibly self-centered and over-rated. Hate mail, come and get me.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Very good, disturbing book about a possible post-apocolyptic future. Unique style – the blunt simpleness of it matches perfectly with the world about which McCarthy writes.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Wonderful graphic novel. Probably the only graphic novel I’ll ever read all the way through – and possibly again.

Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1) by Orson Scott Card

Such a great sci-fi/fantasy book. Takes place in early-American history. A young boy and ‘seventh son’ is born with special powers. Beginning of the ‘Alvin Maker’ series. Very entertaining.

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Insanely disgusting. Shocking for the sake of shock.. but maybe that’s why it’s worth reading.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel


The Book of Story Beginnings by Kristin Kladstrup

Interesting plot but not very well affected. Probably better for younger readers.