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Bebop, Beats, and the Drive of Beat Literature

Bebop, Beats, and the Drive of Beat Literature

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Hammer horn pounding soul marks on unswinging gates.
—Bob Kaufman, Poet
"Mulberry-eyed girls in black stockings, Smelling vaguely of mint jelly and last night's bongo drummer... fling their arrow legs / To the heavens / Losing their doubts in the beat" of San Francisco nights, announced poet Bob Kaufman's "Bagel Shop Jazz." (Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, New Directions Publishing, 1965; Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, City Lights, 2019) "Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,.. floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...," proclaimed Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." (City Lights, 1956) "Believe in this. Young apple seeds, In blue skies, radiating young breast,.. Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz / Tearing the night into intricate shreds, / Putting it back together again,/In cool logical patterns," implored Kaufman's "Believe, Believe." (Cranial Guitar, Coffee House Press, 1996; Collected Poems)

"(I)t's all insane, then you look back, you look away, around, everything is coming in from everywhere in the sound of the jazz," observed Jack Kerouac in his novel Desolation Angels. " 'Hi,' 'Hey.' Bang, the little drummer takes a solo, reaching his young hands all over traps and kettles and cymbals and foot-peddle BOOM in a fantastic crash of sound."

Sets and scenes of bebop in the 1940s and continuing on through the 1950s into the 1960s propelled the energetic literature of the Beats, writers and poets who attempted to use language as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk explored music. In a post-World War II world, under the shadow of the atomic bomb, where others sought safety, the Beats were restless, critical of capitalist culture, and controversial. They disdained security, poet Robert Creeley recalled, holding it at a distance and thus ever further out of reach. They identified themselves as beat-down, beat-weary; agonized, lost, but beatified (blessed, blissed, saintly) in their probing: beatific. They were often characterized or caricatured as "beatniks," black-clad, espresso-sipping, wine-swilling, drug-taking, laid-back or sped-up non-conformists, seekers mad for jazz. Read our coverage.

Experiencing "The Other"

Bob Kaufman was one of the few mixed-race/Black poets among the beats. He placed Charlie Parker "In that jazz corner of life/Wrapped in a mist of sound/His legacy, our jazz-tinted dawn/Wailing his triumphs of oddly begotten dreams/Inviting the nerveless to feel once more/That fierce dying of humans consumed/In raging fires of love." Most of the beats were Caucasian, American-born, from varied backgrounds. Looking across the racial divide, they perceived an energy in Black America that was foreign to them, and chased after it in a quest for experience of "the other." Ginsberg's hipsters dragged themselves "through the Negro streets at dawn" and "saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated."

Kaufman positioned jazz as disruptive to oppressive norms. The blues were with him, and the palette of his vocabulary dipped often into the color blue. Throughout his work, he reflected upon race and the variations of jazz people. In "Battle Report," included in the New Directions and City Lights collections, musicians lay siege to a city, culture warriors hidden inside a thousand saxophones as in the Trojan Horse of Greek mythology, supported by a fleet of trumpets, ten waves of trombones, five hundred basses, and a hundred drummers.

In "Walking Parker Home," Kaufman imagined a history for Charlie Parker from Kansas City to New York:

"Sweet beats of jazz impaled on slivers of wind/ Kansas Black Morning/ First Horn Eyes/Historical sound pictures on New Bird wings/People shouts/ boy alto dreams/ Tomorrow's Gold belled pipe of stops and future Blues Times/Lurking Hawkins/ shadows of Lester/ realization/Bronze fingers—brain extensions seeking trapped sounds/Ghetto thoughts/ bandstand courage/ solo flight/Nerve-wracked suspicions of newer songs and doubts/New York altar city/ black tears/ secret disciples/Hammer horn pounding soul marks on unswinging gates/Culture gods/ mob sounds/ visions of spikes/Panic excursions to tribal Jazz wombs and transfusions/Heroin nights of birth/ and soaring/over boppy new ground./Smothered rage covering pyramids of notes spontaneously exploding/Cool revelations/ shrill hopes/ beauty speared into greedy ears/Birdland nights on bop mountains..."

—From Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness; Collected Poems


Kerouac mythologized bebop as if it occurred by magic, in the men's magazine Escapade in 1959. "Dizzy or Charlie or Thelonious was walking down the street, heard a noise, a sound—half Lester Young, half raw rainy fog, that has that chest shivering excitement of shack, or track, or empty lot; a sudden vast tiger head on the wood fence rainy no school Saturday morning dump yards—"Hey" and rushed off dancing...Talking eloquent like great poets of foreign languages singing in foreign countries with lyres by seas and no one understands because the language isn't alive in the land yet. Bop is the language from America's inevitable Africa."

Kerouac woke to a realization that Black Americans "are just like us," but more: ennobled. "We must look at them understanding the exact racial counterpart of what the man is—and figure it with histories and lost kings of immemorial tribes..." Kerouac sought to sanctify the new music, and also drew upon the Muslim analogy: "In white creamed afternoons of blue, Bird had leaned back dreamily in eternity as Dizzy outlined to him the importance of becoming Mohammedans in order to give a solid basis of race to their ceremony. 'Make that rug swing, mother. When you say Race, bow your head and close your eyes.'" In another metaphor, he stationed beboppers "like twelfth century monks high in winter belfries of the Gothic organ they wild eyed were listening to their own wild sound..."

Improvisation in Words and Music

Kerouac styled his writing after what he heard as the immediacy and spontaneity of jazz improvisation. "Bop prosody," he called it: spontaneous writing. He sought language as undisturbed flow, "blowing" as in a horn solo, to the point of full exclamation, exultation, and exhalation. He read live from written verse in café settings with multi-instrumentalist David Amram, and recorded Poetry for the Beat Generation accompanied by pianist and television host Steve Allen, and Blues and Haikus with sax players Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, both released on the Hanover label in 1959. A solo reading, Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation was released on Verve in 1960. Reissue labels including Rhino and Real Gone now offer the material in varied compilations and packaging.

In "Essentials for Spontaneous Prose" for Evergreen Review in 1958, Kerouac chased free association undeterred by punctuation, "swimming in a sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement..." He urged "Blow as deep as you want—write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning...Blow! Now! Your way is the only way..." In the Paris Review in 1968, he explained that he had tried to phrase his sentences and punctuation as if by "breath separations of the mind," as he heard a "tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement's been made."

In his enthusiasm and spontaneity, Kerouac understated the intelligence and construction that underlay jazz improvisation. Albert DeGenova, a Chicago-based saxophonist, poet, and publisher of After Hours, a journal of writing and art, has considered spontaneity in writing and jazz improvisation. Improvisation arises in the moment, but from a known vocabulary and technique, he states in his essay "Bop Prosody, Jazz, and the Practice of Spontaneous Poetics." It is not unrehearsed, springing from nowhere. It is a recall and application of a vocabulary and library of learned sounds, emerging after much training and practice, not untutored primitivism.

"Spontaneous" performances necessarily were in part pre-composed, professor Thomas Owens analyzed in Bebop: The Music and Its Players (Oxford University Press, 1996), as no one "can create fluent, coherent, melodies in real time," especially as Parker in the vicinity of 355 beats per minute, without a well-rehearsed storehouse of well-practiced melodic patterns, reshaped and combined in many different ways. Eric Nisenson's Ascension (Hachette/DaCapo Press, 1995), an analysis of John Coltrane after bebop, explains that jazz improvisation is based on a paradox that is at the heart of jazz: preparation that is so thorough that a musician can fly "through instinct and sheer musical bravery into the musical unknown."

Kerouac recounted in Escapade bebop as he heard it composed in performance. "The tune they were playing was 'All the Things You Are...,' they slowed it down and dragged behind it at half tempo dinosaur proportions—changed the placing of the note in the middle of the harmony to an outer more precarious position where also, its sense of not belonging was enhanced by the general atonality produced with everyone exteriorizing the tunes harmony, the clonk of the millennial piano like anvils in Petrograd. 'Blow' said Diz and Charlie Parker came in for a solo with a squeaky innocent cry. Monk punched, anguished, nub fingers crawling at the keyboard to tear up foundations and guts of jazz from the big masterbox to make Charlie Parker hear his cry and sigh, to jar the orchestra into vibrations...He stared down wild eyed at his keys like a matador at the bull's head."

Kerouac did perceive the set-up required for improvisation, and experienced being swept up by improvisation's transformation of a moment in time. In On the Road (Viking Press, 1957), an alto player starts "the first chorus, then lines up his ideas... All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives...remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing... with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT."

Kaufman's vision came from the streets, with a Buddhist-duality of yin/yang, is/not is, sound/not sound. He heard "IT" in the spaces between sounds. "That silent beat makes the drumbeat, it makes the drum, it makes the beat. Without it there is no drum, no beat. It is not the beat played by who is beating the drum. His is a noisy loud one, the silent beat is beaten by who is not beating on the drum, his silent beat drowns out all the notes, it comes before and after every beat, you hear it in between, the sound is" ("Oct. 5, 1963," Golden Sardine, City Lights, 1967; Collected Poems)

Comprehending the Beat of America

The Beats were not the first to fuse jazz and poetry. Langston Hughes had depicted similar scenes during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s as exemplars of black consciousness, writing from the inside. His "Harlem Night Club" is a place alive with vitality, a place of fervent dancing and racial mixing, the temptations of "Eve's charms" ahead of a dark and unknown tomorrow. "Jazz-band, jazz-band,/Play, plAY, PLAY!," he exclaims, letters rising to upper case for emphasis.

In "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes also traced his origins through Africa, Mesopotamia, and the American South. Amid "rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins," he wrote, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers./I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young./I danced in the Nile when I was old./I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep./I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it./I heard the singing of the Mississippi..., and I've seen it's muddy/bosom turn all golden in the sunset."

Beat writing contemplates broader landscapes of America than urban nights. Another of their number, Gary Snyder, is still living, a poet of the natural world. As Kerouac set off to man a fire lookout station in Desolation Angels, through Snyder's guidance the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest "began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it...wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging...the Cascades on the northeast horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities..." Even Ginsberg's "Howl" had an appreciation for the nighttime sky, that "starry dynamo."

Other poets, after the Beats, neither Beats themselves nor even Americans, comprehend the American terrain and history through jazz performance. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote of Louis Armstrong: "Great Satchmo plays all bathed in sweat/A salty Niagara pours from his brow/...this kid stolen from an orphanage in the town of New Orleans." (The Collected Poems 1952-1990, Henry Holt and Company, 1991)

Michael Harper, late director of the graduate writing program at Brown University, and author of the poem "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," divided pre-Beat, classical American poetry such as Wordsworth and Coleridge as English in nature, going back to Chaucer, but jazz-influenced poetry as something new. Harper distinguished "American language" from "English," with components that don't exist in England, and this "American language" is necessary to understanding America. People who say they "don't like jazz," he suggested, don't have a choice, if they want to speak and understand "American."

"Jazz music is so indigenous to American culture that even if you have a predilection not to like it you have to really be informed about it if you want to be informed about American culture." Harper described his own poems as based on a natural rhythm rather than formal meter. "The pulse is jazz; the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians who taught me to see about experience, pain and love, and who made it artful and archetypal." (Jazz Poetry Anthology, Feinstein & Komunyakaa, Indiana University Press, 1991)

A Continuing Influence

Kerouac was born a hundred years ago, in March 1922. While the Beats existed within a certain time frame, the combination of jazz and poetry remains, and expands into new directions. LeRoi Jones was a black poet/playwright associated with the beats early in his career; later, as Amiri Baraka, his writings and political work placed him more definitively in Black activism. His Blues People (William Morrow, 1963) remains a landmark analysis of Afro-American music and culture. Ted Joans was also a Black contemporary of the beats, whom Baraka called "the world's most Bohemian Beat, Outside Brother." Joans was outside, outside of the United States, and outside of Beat stylings.

Joans had lived abroad for decades from the early 1960s, as had Black authors James Baldwin and Richard Wright years before and jazz musicians Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster who abandoned the U.S. for more welcoming receptions in Europe and Africa. Joans did not limit himself to writing: he played trumpet, was a visual artist and filmmaker, and actively performed in avant-garde situations with musicians including Archie Shepp and Jimmy Garrison. He linked back to Langston Hughes and the European Surrealists of the 1920s, to Black-identified arts, and forward to Pan-Africanism. His union of poetry and jazz kept included him within the Beat category, and he did not disavow the connection, but emphasized his unique racial perspective.

Sound and rhythm, he said, were his first concerns in oral readings, and each reading would be different. "I do not change the words, it is the sound and rhythm and the whole atmosphere. It is not so much the word, but the wording itself because of the way we black people handle words." (Liner notes, Jazzpoems, S Press Tapes, 1979).

In "The Sax Bit," he ascribed the power of African shamanism to the saxophone, and lamented that the instrument had been invented by a Caucasian and played by Belgian colonialists before Coleman Hawkins was born:

"This golden mine of a million marvelous sounds/black notes with myriad shadows...white man made machine saved from zero by Coleman Hawkins!/This saxophone salvation/modern gri gri hanging from/jazzmen's necks placed there by Coleman Hawkins/a full body & soul sorcerer whose spirit dwells eternally/in every saxophone NOW and all those sound-a-phones/to be"

Teducation, Coffee House Press, 1999)


In the next generation, Gil Scott-Heron spat angry and heart-felt sound-backed verses of protest in "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" on Pieces of A Man (Flying Dutchman, 1971). On the same album, a more soothing "John Coltrane and Lady Day" conveyed the power of rhythmic reiteration, almost two dozen hypnotizing repetitions of how music could "wash your troubles, your troubles, your troubles, your troubles, away..." "Spoken word," rap, and hip-hop were not distant, as well as more melodious overtures.

Pianist Helen Sung collaborated with former California poet laureate Dana Gioia, where Gioia's poems became lyrics, and his words inspired instrumental pieces. (Sung With Words, Stricker Street Records, 2018) Contrasted to Kerouac, Gioia asserts that revision is a part of the creative process following spontaneity. Brazilian vocalist/composer Luciana Souza has scored music to verses by Pablo Neruda, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, and others. (Book of Longing, Sunnyside, 2018) On her album Speaking in Tongues (Sunnyside, 2015), with musicians from five countries, only two of the songs had actual lyrics. The others were "wordless poems" of sound, her voice as an instrument of notes: a duality of words/not words.

California saxophonist Benjamin Boone has released three albums of collaborations with poets, including U.S. Poet Laureates Philip Levine and Juan Felipe Herrera. Read our coverage. In Boone's The Poets are Gathering (Origin, 2020), T.R. Hummer's homage "The Sun One" to bandleader Sun Ra conjures an orchestra emerging from "an overgrown lot" in Chicago after the "miraculous portage" from Africa, with "chisels, shovels, straight razors, and saxophones" to "reinvent the universe, ballroom by roadhouse by bar...It's a gift to wake with the light in your face, such brilliance everywhere." The vision is as beatific as that of the Beats.

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