The Beats and Jazz

The literary practice of the Beats owes as much to jazz as to any of the authors they admire, from Whitman to William Carlos Williams to Thomas Wolfe. Allen Ginsberg claims that he wrote the lines of "Howl" to scat along with Lester Young's composition, "Lester Leaps In." On the Road is a novel fueled as much by the jazz of its nightclubs as by the gasoline of its joyrides, an attempt to rejuvenate "all these tired faces [seen] in the dawn of Jazz America," as Kerouac writes.

Jack Kerouac calls himself a "jazz poet" at the outset of Mexico City Blues (1958) and asks the reader to consider the work as if he is "blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam on Sunday," a song with 242 choruses. Each chorus is limited to a single page, a choice that reflected how a jazz musician must improvise within the chord changes of a given composition. Jack Kerouac worshiped individual jazz musicians — in particular Lester Young and then Charlie Parker. In a late chapter of On the Road, Kerouac digresses to narrate the history of jazz from Armstrong to bebop. Kerouac rebooted an American Romanticism launched by Emerson and Whitman through the figure of the jazz musician, emphasizing personal experience over studied expertise and spontaneous elf-expression over formal composition. As Charlie Parker famously said "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."

Kerouac based his theory of literary style on improvisation and jazz practice. In his writing manifesto, "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," he aspired to the spontaneous creative production and stream-of-consciousness of the jazz solo; his objective was "bop prosody" (i.e., bebop prose). The hero of Mexico City Blues is alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, the primogenitor of bebop, and Kerouac introduces him in the 239th Chorus. "Charlie Parker looked like Buddha," Kerouac writes and presents him as the Pied Piper of nuclear apocalypse, either saving humankind through music or leading everyone off a cliff of their own making. In a complex plea built of admiration and guilt, Kerouac asks Parker to "lay the bane off me and everybody."

John Clellon Holmes' The Horn (1958) remains the most underrated and least known novel about jazz. Holmes learned jazz from Kerouac and crafted a novel based on the legends of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. The novel is a roman a clef with Edgar Poole as Lester Young, the dying father figure whose self-appointed Romantic sense of individual artistry fueled the dreams of all the younger musicians. In the novel, the saxophone figures as a complex symbol of art, freedom, individuality, dissent, and citizenship, as in this interior monologue of the young Walden Blue. In the opening pages, Blue wakes up and simply stares at his instrument:

Looking at it, he knew it to be also an emblem of some inner life of his own, something with which he could stand upright, at the flux and tempo of his powers…To Walden, the saxophone was, at once, his key to the world in which he found himself, and the way by which that world was rendered impotent to brand him either failure or madman or Negro or saint…[S]ometimes on the smoky stand, between solos, he hung it from his swinging shoulder like one bright, golden wing (5).

The black nationalist saxophonist Archie Shepp wrote a foreword to a reissue of The Horn and claimed it successfully conveyed "the basis, the source, of black music: a pain, a hurt, that is…an inexplicable pain," as well as the ways in which jazz provided an artistic forum to address this hurt for its audiences.