Jazz Musicians the Beat Poets and French Existentialists Loved

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When the word “beat” is used in the context of the arts, it’s usually in reference to the Beat Generation writers: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs are the most well-known. Michael McClure won fame for writing the poem “Mercedes Benz” that Janis Joplin popularized, Gary Snyder was a forest ranger who wrote while stationed in treetops, and there were lesser-known figures like Peter Orlovsky, Lucien Carr, and John Clellon Holmes. There is of course novelist Paul Bowles, too. Ferlinghetti was very important for the other writers because he started City Lights Books as both a publisher and book store in San Francisco, printing books that few other publishers would touch.

The Beats were very much influenced by jazz music and musicians. Kerouac would emulate bebop and cool jazz, and like other Beats, wanted his poetry and prose to have a similar musical language, rhythmic feeling and flow to what he heard in modern jazz. The Beats didn’t want Dixieland.

Who are the jazz musicians who influenced the Beats? I’ll single out a few that I have always liked, who use a similarly oblique musical language to get their musical points across. At the top of the list would be Charlie Parker (aka “Bird”), who reinvented jazz music, established a new harmonic system, and blew everybody’s minds with his improvisations. Kerouac wrote a poem about him titled, what else, “Charlie Parker.” There is Lennie Tristano, who devised a new way of playing piano, adapting Bird’s improvisations to the piano keyboard and influencing generations of other musicians. Saxophonist Warne Marsh was part of the Tristano school, and taught generations of young horn players the new style of blowing.

415bv6vnbxlLee Konitz and Miles Davis were part of the cool style that emerged in the late 1940’s. Konitz had a new, more economical way of playing alto sax, in contrast to Parker’s more frenetic bebop style. Miles Davis recorded Birth of the Cool in 1949 with the great composer/arranger Gil Evans, who has to be included in this select group. Miles Davis’ 1957 soundtrack album l’Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold), Louis Malle’s first film, is a masterpiece of cool understatement. Ditto for Paul Bley, the Canadian-born piano player who recorded his first domestic side with Charles Mingus and Art Blakey in 1953. He played bebop with a very modern twist, forging unusual harmonies and elements borrowed from modern classical music, which he studied in Paris as a young musician.

Let us not forget George Russell, a composer/pianist who devised a new harmonic theory based on the Lydian mode. His book, the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, was a reference book for many musicians. Russell recorded with Bill Evans, Jon Hendricks, and other jazz musicians.  Coltrane was also a follower of Russell’s harmonic concepts.

51h8nav2wdlFinally, perhaps the most über of them all is Thelonious Sphere Monk, who with John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie started the bebop craze in Harlem’s Minton Playhouse in the early 1940’s. Songs like “Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” and “Well You Needn’t” explored a very different side of music. There’s the old joke, “Why was Monk’s middle name “Sphere”? Answer: Because he wasn’t square.”

Beat literature and bebop/cool jazz were both existential, outside the mainstream. It was in a way like outsider art, and the French understood it. The postwar French left-bank existentialist intellectuals like Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Boris Vian went wild for the new music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Louis Malle’s young hero in the 1971 film Le Souffle du Coeur (Murmur of the Heart) was likewise smitten by the new music of Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, and Charlie Parker.

The musicians mentioned here had lots in common with the Beat writers; they felt alienated from the mainstream music fans (who wanted music less opaque and insular as what Monk and Parker were playing) as well as from the racism of the day. Young bebop musicians who got drafted had to fight and maybe get injured/killed in segregated military units, but would return to segregation in the U.S. Miles Davis, returning from a successful Paris stint (and a love affair with Juliette Greco), turned to heroin when facing the rampant racism in America. The Beat poets felt similarly alientated when the Korean War started in 1950 and with the rise of the military-industrial complex, The Cold War and the Republican administration that ruled the country from 1952-1960. The poets, like the musicians, challenged mores and the mainstream. At the end of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, he exclaims, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” And this was from 1956.

Here is a terrific recording of Jack Keroucac paying tribute to Charlie Parker:

71zrmzsjsil-_sx522_I’ve illustrated this post with some albums I really like. The “Quintet” album, recorded in Toronto in 1953 at Massey Hall, is considered by many the greatest bebop record ever made. I recommend all of them!

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