Jazz and Literature Criticism - Essay

Hugh L. Smith, Jr. (essay date 1958)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jazz in the American Novel,” in The English Journal, Vol. XLVII, No. 8, November, 1958, pp. 467-478.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the inclusion of jazz music from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ralph Ellison, John O'Hara, and Nelson Algren.]

Since the late thirties enough has been written about jazz as an art form to warrant its dignity with those who claim any real breadth of reading. And jazz has become an intellectual fad in the fifties, which is fortunate, for now the burden of disproof rests with the unbelievers: jazz is no longer a talented but naughty waif trying to slide in the temple door behind the tuxedoed respectability of classical music.

Jazz has been denotatively defined as successfully, at least, as poetry ever has. One such definition was arrived at by a roundtable conducted by professor Marshall Stearns of Hunter College and held at Music Inn, Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1951: “Jazz is an improvisational American music utilizing European instrumentation and fusing elements of European harmony, Euro-African melody, and African rhythm.” An introductory reading list of critical-historical books dealing with jazz as an art—and they were written for the most part by literary men to whom jazz owes a great deal—might contain Frederic Ramsey and Charles E. Smith's Jazzmen, Wilder Hobson's American Jazz Music, Robert Goffin's Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan, Rudi Blesh's Shining Trumpets, Barry Ulanov's A History of Jazz in America, Marshall Stearns' The Story of Jazz, and Andre Hodeir's Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence.

In the treatment of jazz by American novelists, three trends are apparent: a quantitative increase in jazz subject matter, a qualitative advancement in the accuracy of portrayal of the jazz world, and a consistently romantic treatment of jazz subject matter. The third development is a unique survival which defies the present age of conformity—a tiny literary revolution, a possible harbinger of the New Romanticism that may lie somewhere ahead as our inevitable anodyne. This Romanticism is American, a Transcendental brand which concerns celebration of self, expansiveness, high idealism, belief in art, anti-materialism, non-conformity, and—amazingly in our Eliot-Tate-ridden age—fearlessness and an acceptance of both life and death. Its major modification from the Transcendentalism of our great-grandfathers is its amorality.


Jazz in the American novel can be broken down into divisions based on the author's apparent purpose in using it: for atmosphere and mood; as a set of romantic symbols to the professional musician; and as a set of romantic symbols to the jazz listener. The use of jazz for mood first appeared in the twenties. Here the distinction between jazz and the treacly dance music of the day must be insisted upon, for the latter, borrowing its novelty from jazz percussive effects, was employed by novelists also. Literary treatment of popular music loses most of its power when the musical style portrayed goes out of vogue; this is not true of jazz, for no jazz style has been lost—each is still being played on records and in public. Young bands like those of Lu Watters in the forties and Bob Hodes in the fifties are representative of many which continue to use the earliest instrumentation, including banjo and tuba, to obtain authentic traditional jazz effects.

Though writers of the twenties struggled along with popular music for the most part, even a Michael Arlen might be affected by what seems to be a jazz form. The book is The Green Hat, and the setting is Paris, which was visited by several early jazz units:

They call this rhythm the Blues. It reminded you of past and passing things. … It reminded you of the scent tangled in the hair of she with whom you had last danced to that rhythm. … You mourned the presence of the dead. You mourned the memory of the living. They call this rhythm the Blues. It reminded you of regret.1

Although Scott Fitzgerald employed popular music in every novel he wrote, he gave us few passages that suggest jazz. One occurs in The Beautiful and Damned, when Anthony Patch is serving in a South Carolina army camp (Fitzgerald served in Alabama):

He liked Johnston's Gardens, where they danced, where a tragic negro made yearning, aching music on a saxophone until the garish hall became an enchanted jungle of barbaric rhythms and smoky laughter, where to forget the uneventful passage of time upon Dorothy's soft sighs and tender whisperings was the consummation of all aspiration, of all content.2

Toward the end of what he wrote of The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald shows an acquaintance with the “swing” enthusiam of the thirties, which America owed to Benny Goodman and the others who popularized Swing—a jazz style featuring a heavy four-four beat, driving ensembles, and improvised solos. Swing reached a public much larger than that of King Oliver and the little-known Negro jazz units of the twenties, handicapped as they were by race and by the social onus of the only places which would hire them. Fitzgerald employs Swing for a simile in the scene in which Monroe Stahr, the producer, uses the British writer Boxley to inspire a played-out group of screen writers working on a picture:

Suddenly they were at work again—taking up this new theme in turn like hepcats in a swing band and going to town with it. They might throw it out again tomorrow, but life had come back again for a moment.3

Fitzgerald, the “chronicler” of what was, paradoxically, a counterfeit Jazz Age, had only these things to say about jazz; yet what he said was approving, was romantic, and contained references to idealism, tragedy, and vitality.

Fitzgerald's “enchanted jungle of barbaric rhythms,” in The Beautiful and Damned, could bring to a number of minds Carl Van Vechten, that antic and romantic novelist and music critic of the twenties who has been accused by certain jazz critics4 of glorifying the Negro and his music for the insincere purpose of encouraging the “jungle” fad of the twenties, thereby offering himself and the sad young people the promise of id releases. Edward Lueders' recent book on Van Vechten5 leaves us instead with a man whose sincerity and musical taste remain unimpaired by any fads he may have started or become involved in. In the twenties he interested himself in a number of jazz musicians who have since become musical giants. His photographs of Bessie Smith, for example, remain the best we have of this remarkable singer. And Van Vechten's critical judgments on jazz remain closer to the truth of today than any of the surfeit of wild critical writing that concerned itself with “jazz” in the twenties. His 1926 novel Nigger Heaven offers an early example of the use of jazz to establish the Harlem atmosphere of its day. The following passages are typical:

Couples were dancing in such close proximity that their bodies melted together as they swayed and rocked to the tormented howling of the brass, and the barbaric beating of the drum.6

The drummer in complete abandon tossed his sticks in the air while he shook his head like a wild animal. … The band snored and snorted and whistled and laughed like a hyena.7

This idea of primitive emotion is carried further in a scene in which Mary analyzes her racial background:

Savages! Savages at heart! And she had lost or forfeited her birthright, this primitive birthright which was so valuable and important as an asset, a birthright that all the civilized races were struggling to get back to—this fact explained the art of a Picasso or Stravinsky. To be sure, she, too, felt this African beat. … This love of drums, of exciting rhythms. …8

The Picasso and Stravinsky references offer a basis of comparison for what Van Vechten feels is the valuable folk-art tradition expressed by jazz. What would appear to be condescension in others does not seem so in Van Vechten, for he approves unreservedly of the Negro's cultural heritage. He seems to have adopted an anthropological position which refuses to label cultures as “inferior,” and he felt that post-Victorian American needed some of the values of this heritage. Subsequent developments toward a non-Puritanistic moral code and a more primitivistic and subjective artistic expression would appear to reveal a prophecy in the direction of his thinking.

When Van Vechten's characters are serious or dejected, he often tends to employ a Blues or spiritual singer to help establish the mood. At one point Mary reflects on the faith of the people who wrote and sang the spirituals, and in another instance a powerful emotional effect is provoked in a small-minded audience (the Albrights and Orville Snodes of the Y.M.C.A.) by the unschooled Webb Leverett's singing of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.”

Du Bose Heyward, the Charleston novelist who collaborated with George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess, employed spirituals for atmospheric effect in somewhat the same manner as Van Vechten, but in addition he wrote one passage in Mamba's Daughters which offers music that could be identified only as jazz variations on a theme. Heyward ascribes to it a powerful, affirmative effect:

Charlie rejoined the party just as the music flung its unifying rhythm into the discordant babel. … There were eight men in the orchestra, and Lissa noted … that they were all full-blooded negroes. There were two guitars, two banjos, a fiddle, a cornet, and trombone, and a man with drums and traps. The sound was unlike anything that the girl had ever heard. Strive as she might, she could not recognize the tune. As a matter of fact, it was not an orchestra in a strict interpretation of the term, but merely a collection of eight individuals who had taken some simple melody as a theme and were creating rhythm and harmony around it as they played. Her immediate sensation was one of shock at the crude and almost deafening uproar. Then, as she stood listening, a strange excitement commenced to possess her. Music had never moved her like this before. It had made her cry—and it had shaken her with delight, but this seemed to be breaking something loose deep within her—something that seethed hot through her veins and set her muscles jumping.9

At the end of Mamba's Daughters, however, Heyward succumbs to a popular attitude of the twenties: the book's climax suggests the symphonizing of jazz (a la Gershwin?) as a final hope for the Negro's music.

Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel utilizes vocal jazz briefly to round out the character of Pearl Hines, who sang with Helen Gant at rural moving picture theaters:

Pearl Hines was a heavily built girl with a meaty face and negroid lips. She was jolly and vital. She sang ragtime and nigger songs with a natural passion.10

Pearl's “happy and vital sensuality” and the gusto with which she sang occasionally led men to make passes at the girls, at which times Pearl was wounded and disappointed. Pearl's attitudes suggest a quality in “nigger music” that can be appreciated without debasing the performer or listener.

In Of Time and the River Captain Nicholl and some of his companions form a little band for their own entertainment:

They played nothing but American jazz music or sobbing crooner's rhapsodies or nigger blues. Their performance was astonishing. Although it was contrived solely for their own amusement, they hurled themselves into it with all the industrious earnestness of professional musicians employed by a night club or dance hall to furnish dance music for the patrons.11

Wolfe fills a page with the intensity of their performance. Their Blues are sincere but ineffective, for they do not feel the music (as did Pearl Hines); they are simply trying to escape from an inner emptiness by

… mouthing the words of negro blues … and with an obvious satisfaction, with an accent which was remarkably good, and yet which had something foreign and inept in it.12

Even Wolfe seems puzzled by the extremity of their need for this music, but he records it faithfully in an effective scene.

Since the arrival of the “bop” jazz style (which originated in Harlem in 1941), with its odd intervals, unusual chord extensions, vibrato-less tone, reverse percussion (featuring steady cymbal beat with snare and bass accents), and new demands on technique, jazz has again been revolutionized. By adding “progressive” effects Bop has evolved into a less tense “cool” style. The Greenwich Village novelists of the “beat generation” use “cool” music for mood and background in much the same manner as their predecessors. One passage in Clellon Holmes' Go (1952) offers this music as a symbol and a philosophy for young people dislocated by World War II:

In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them, and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life. …13

Chandler Brossard is another who has used up-tempo Bop musical settings to emphasize certain fast-paced and searching qualities in his characters:

I looked away from the Rouault and listened to Danny Blue. He was blowing all by himself now, without the orchestra, blowing on and on and up and up, blowing one variation after another … until I thought he was going to come right off the record. A real junkie. He was loaded with heroin on this record. He flipped his wig when it was finished and they took him to a sanitarium.14

The obvious reference is to Charlie Parker, the great alto saxophonist who suffered a breakdown after a record date for Dial on the West Coast. Against reality, Brossard's intellectual bravado comes off badly, for Parker's record (“Be-Bop”)—unlike Danny Blue's—shows that he was in no condition to play at all. A Harper's short story, Elliott Grennard's “Sparrow's...

(The entire section is 6099 words.)

Warren Tallman (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Kerouac's Sound,” in Evergreen Review, Vol. 4, No. 11, January-February, 1960, pp. 153-169.

[In the following excerpt, Tallman identifies jazz elements in the fiction of Jack Kerouac.]

It is always an implicit and frequently an explicit assumption of the Beat writers that we live, if we do at all, in something like the ruins of our civilization. When the Second World War was bombed out of existence in that long-ago '45 summer, two cities were in literal fact demolished. But psychically, all cities fell. And what the eye sees as intact is a lesser truth than what the psyche knows is actually in ruins. The psyche knows that the only sensible way to enter a...

(The entire section is 6587 words.)

Perle Epstein (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Swinging the Maelstrom: Malcolm Lowry and Jazz,” in Canadian Literature, Vol. 44, 1970, pp.57-66.

[In the following excerpt, Epstein explores Malcolm Lowry's implementation of jazz elements in his novel Under the Volcano.]

When during the course of treatment a psychiatrist asked Malcolm Lowry to free associate “anything that comes into your head that begin with B”, Lowry instantly replied, “Bix Beiderbecke.” For some reason the psychiatrist would not accept this answer; if he had, he would have learned a great deal about his patient in a short time. Had the therapist been a jazz fan himself, he would have known that Beiderbecke, one...

(The entire section is 4102 words.)

Kathleen Chase (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Anaïs Nin and Music: Jazz,” in Under the Sign of Pisces, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp.15-22.

[In the following excerpt, Chase explores Anaïs Nin's fascination with jazz music in her Diaries.]

For Anaïs Nin music was paramount. Both of her parents were musicians, and music surrounded her even before she was born, just as it pervaded her childhood and girlhood. Later, when she followed her younger brother's development as a composer and pianist and conductor, music became her constant companion throughout her life.

Her writings attest to this. In her Diary music is mentioned constantly. Music suffuses her fiction; it is...

(The entire section is 2337 words.)

John F. Szwed (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Josef Skvorecky and the Tradition of Jazz Literature” in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 4, Autumn, 1980, pp. 586-590.

[In the following excerpt, Szwed examines several works of jazz literature, focusing on Josef Skvorecky's The Bass Saxophone: Two Novellas.]

The idea of the universality of the black experience in the West is so common that it seems too banal to mention. It comprises a subtext in the writings of Twain, Melville, Faulkner, maybe half of American literature. A smaller group of writers—DuBois, those of the Harlem Renaissance, Norman Mailer—have told us that part of this experience is its ability to be communicated indirectly,...

(The entire section is 3926 words.)

Keith E. Byerman (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in ‘Sonny's Blues,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 367-372.

[In the following essay, Byerman discusses the aesthetics of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.]

“Sonny's Blues” has generally been accorded status as the best of James Baldwin's short stories. It tells of the developing relationship between Sonny, a musician and drug addict, and the narrator, his brother, who feels a conflict between the security of his middle-class life and the emotional risks of brotherhood with Sonny. The critics, who differ on whether the story is primarily Sonny's or the narrator's, generally...

(The entire section is 2654 words.)

Frank A. Salamone (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Force Primeval: An Image of Jazz in American Literature,” in Play & Culture Vol. 3, No. 3, August, 1990, pp. 256-266.

[In the following excerpt, Salamone discusses the representation of jazz music in works by Stanford Whitmore and Josef Skvorecky.]

All music was a solitary sound
To hollow rocks and murmuring fountains bound. (Andrew Marvel)

Vance Bourjaily (1987) rightly remarks on the peculiar paucity of novels featuring jazz musicians in even subordinate roles. This relative neglect is even more surprising in light of the music's uniquely American essence. Those novels that do treat jazz in any fashion at all, however, are quite...

(The entire section is 5372 words.)

Bill Moody (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jazz Fiction: It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing,” in Journal of American Culture, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 61-66.

[In the following essay, Moody examines jazz fiction from Dorothy Baker to William Kotzwinkle.]

The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than its performance—whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being played.

—Andre Previn

Despite its rich history, American origin and colorful characters with names such as Bird and Dizzy and Fats and Willie the...

(The entire section is 4573 words.)

Yusef Komunyakaa and William Matthews with Robert Kelly (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 645-661.

[In the following discussion, moderated by Robert Kelly, Komunyakaa and Matthews discuss the relationship between jazz music and their respective poetry.]

Robert Kelly: Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection for jazz musicians. And James Baldwin reminds us in...

(The entire section is 6191 words.)

Lorenzo Thomas (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Communicating by Horns: Jazz and Redemption in the Poetry of the Beats and the Black Arts Movement,” in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 291-298.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the differing approaches to jazz music in the poetry of the Beats and African-American writers.]

For Langston Hughes and Rudolph Fisher, jazz is the backdrop for the desperate urbane comedy of the Harlem Renaissance. For the poets of the 1950s “Beat Generation” and the militant Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s, jazz is perceived as a more significant social critique of an oppressive social structure. Some of the works of Amiri Baraka...

(The entire section is 4058 words.)

Norman Weinstein (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jazz in the Caribbean Air,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 715-718.

[In the following essay, Weinstein explores the use of jazz rhythms and allusions in the poetry of Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite.]

If one could assemble in imagination an ultimate jazz band to honor the literary achievement of Kamau Brathwaite, one could not do better than to choose the four musicians his poetry heralds: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Duke Ellington. This jazz quartet particularly noteworthy in Brathwaite's poetic world has as much to do with the heroism Brathwaite finds in their lives as with the rich intellectual and...

(The entire section is 3495 words.)

Craig Hansen Werner (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Leon Forrest and the AACM: The Jazz Impulse and the Chicago Renaissance,” in Playing the Changes, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 241-262.

[In the following essay, Werner details the social and cultural background of Chicago contributing to the Chicago Renaissance and the Advancement of Creative Musicians.]

Leon Forrest's hometown of Chicago is in many ways the most paradoxical of American cities. By many measures the most segregated major American city (W. Wilson), Chicago nonetheless nurtured some of the most challenging, multiculturally inclusive black artists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Influenced by the interracial political and cultural...

(The entire section is 8626 words.)

James M. Harding (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Adorno, Ellison, and the Critique of Jazz,” in Cultural Critique, Vol. 31, Fall, 1995, pp. 129-158.

[In the following essay, Harding discusses the jazz criticism and theories of Theodor Adorno, which he then applies to Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man.]

All totaled, Theodor Adorno wrote seven essays on jazz: three in the thirties, two in the forties, and two in the early fifties. His portrait of jazz was never flattering and was highly idiosyncratic. In the thirties, Adorno's criticisms of jazz functioned as the negative critical movement in what can be described as his dialectical embrace of Walter Benjamin's classic essay “The Work of Art...

(The entire section is 11258 words.)

B. J. Leggett (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Larkin's Blues: Jazz and Modernism,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 258-276.

[In the following essay, Leggett explores British poet Philip Larkin's fascination with traditional jazz music.]

The wonderful music that swept the world during the first half of this century … was of limited appeal, but that appeal was new and definite: a certain area of musical and rhythmic sensibility was being played on for the first time.

—Larkin, “Wells or Gibbon?” in All What Jazz

Russell, Charles...

(The entire section is 8523 words.)

Josef Jarab (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “This Thing, the Bass Saxophone, Is Anything but Ordinary,” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 120-125.

[In the following essay, Jarab examines the importance of jazz music to author Josef Skvorecky.]

Josef Skvorecky's fascination with jazz is no new story for anyone who knows the author or has read his work. His writings and his private perception of the genuinely American musical phenomenon made it only logical and proper that he should be present at the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague during Bill Clinton's visit in January 1994, when the president of the United States brought his idea for a project called Partnership for...

(The entire section is 2660 words.)

Tracey Sherard (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sonny's Bebop: Baldwin's ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique,” in African American Review, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 691-705.

[In the following essay, Sherard traces the cultural significance of Baldwin's use of jazz music in his short story “Sonny's Blues.”]

In “Baldwin, Bebop, and ‘Sonny's Blues,’” Pancho Savery argues that, “although there have been interesting analyses of ‘Sonny's Blues,’ none of them has gotten to the specificities of the music and the wider cultural implications.” As Savery points out, most of these analyses tend to focus on music as “the bridge the narrator crosses to get closer to Sonny” or to...

(The entire section is 9148 words.)

Robert O'Brien Hokanson (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jazzing It UP: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes,” in Mosaic, Vol. 31, No. 4, December, 1998, pp. 61-82.

[In the following essay, Hokanson explores the uses of jazz be-bop as a Modernist technique in the literary works of Langston Hughes.]

Although few topics in literary studies these days are more complex and contested than the concept of “modernism,” it would seem that there remains a consensus that its dominant note is, “Make it new!” Similarly, critics tend to agree that modernist innovation entails breaking down boundaries between the arts, so that musical terms like “canto” and pictorial terms like “imagism” have come to be seen...

(The entire section is 7904 words.)

Douglas Malcolm (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: ‘Jazz America’: Jazz and African American Culture in Jack Kerouac's On the Road,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 85-110.

[In the following essay, Malcolm discusses Jack Kerouac's use of jazz and the deeper influence of African-American culture in his novel On the Road.]

In a 1995 review of Ann Charters's The Portable Jack Kerouac and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956, Ann Douglas comments that Jack Kerouac's work “represents the most extensive experiment in language and literary form undertaken by an American writer of his generation” (2). While Kerouac's poetics, articulated in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” have literary antecedents—he admired writers as different as William Carlos Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and William S. Burroughs—his literary experimentation was also modeled on his understanding of jazz improvisation. A number of Kerouac's biographers and critics, of course, have recognized this source; however, while their views differ on the value of the influence of jazz on Kerouac's work, they share the assumption that a direct transposition of theory and practice from music to literature can be accomplished in the fashion that Kerouac proposes. The purpose of this study is to examine Kerouac's poetics and his best known work, On the Road, which was initially typed on a roll of paper in one “250-foot single paragraph” (Weinreich 41), in the light of the various generic rules that distinguish jazz from other types of music. While jazz does play a significant role in the novel, its impact lies in the music's ideological, behavioral, and semiotic implications—in particular their roots in African American culture—rather than in the direct application of its formal rules.

Critical treatment of the jazz influence on Kerouac's prose and poetry has tended to explicate Kerouac's goals rather than to ask fundamental generic questions about what constitutes jazz and whether it might reasonably serve as a literary model. Mike Janssen, following other critics like Edward Foster and Bruce Cook, notes that the Beats “used the principal ideas of bebop playing and applied it [sic] to prose and poetry writing, creating a style sometimes called ‘bop prosody’” (2). Robert Hipkiss is not entirely sanguine about the effect of jazz on the Beats' work: “The jazz idiom with which Kerouac and the Beats operated is … in great measure responsible for his uninspired blowing as well as the occasionally ecstatic outbursts of poetic statement” (93). Malcolm Cowley, who persuaded Viking to publish On the Road, observes that the poems in Mexico City Blues demonstrate that “Kerouac's analogy with jazz is exact. Some of the choruses read like scat singing played back at slow speed, words ‘blown’ for their musical values or their primary link to the subject matter” (qtd. in Gifford 190). Gerald Nicosia reports that Kerouac's Book of Blues is “one of the most important poetic works in the second half of the twentieth century” and further can be regarded as “one of the best literary equivalents of musical blues” (412). In her discussion of On the Road, Regina Weinreich, who along with Tim Hunt examines the jazz influence on the novel in some detail, argues that Kerouac's “notion of improvisation informs the language of [his] writing at an exact technical level. Though Kerouac had neither the knowledge of a musician nor the critical vocabulary of a person learned in the subject of music, he clearly demonstrates a profound identification of the creation of music with that of literary works” (8-9).

What is striking about this commentary is how little formal terminology is employed by either the critics or Kerouac. Hipkiss, for example, notes that in articulating his poetics Kerouac “inevitably uses the vocabulary of jazz to illustrate what he is trying to do” (79). Yet in the passage from “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” that follows, the so-called jazz vocabulary is colloquial and vague, as Kerouac exhorts his fellow writers to “blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement” (qtd. in Hipkiss 79). In his piece on Charlie Christian in Shadow and Act, a collection of essays from the 1950s and early 1960s, Ralph Ellison argues that jazz is much more than just musical technique and is, in fact, integral to African American culture, wherein each musician's improvisation “represents … a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition” (234). Ellison calls for “more serious critical intelligence” to be brought to the subject (240), and subsequent studies, like Amiri Baraka's (LeRoi Jones's) Blues People, Ben Sidran's Black Talk, Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues, and Craig Hansen Werner's Playing the Changes, have built upon his central observation. In Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Simon Frith follows the same tradition and offers a cultural theory of musical genre that can help explain Kerouac's use of jazz in On the Road because it codifies the concept of genre to embrace elements outside of the strictly formal. Frith argues that music can be regarded “as a coded expression of the social aims and values of the people to whom it appeals” (62). The cultural code can be broken down into the various elements that constitute a musical genre, which Frith, adapting Franco Fabbri's theory, terms “a set of musical events … whose course is governed by a definite set of socially accepted rules” (91). The formal and technical rule is obviously important, but Frith itemizes four others: the social and ideological, the behavioral, the semiotic, and the commercial. These genre rules, except for the commercial, which is concerned with “questions of ownership, copyright, financial reward and so on” (93), provide a useful tool for comparing jazz and Kerouac's simulation of it in his writing and in On the Road in particular.

The formal rules of jazz are of particular significance here since they would presumably be the model for Kerouac's improvisations. According to Frith, “the rules of musical form … include playing conventions—what skills the musicians must have; what instruments are used, how they are played, whether they are amplified or acoustic; rhythmic rules; melodic rules” (91). Improvisation is the principal formal rule which distinguishes jazz from other types of music. Leroy Ostransky defines jazz as “a variety of specific musical styles [New Orleans, pre-swing, swing, bop, free jazz, and fusion] generally characterized by attempts at creative improvisation on a given theme (melodic or harmonic), over a foundation of complex, steadily flowing rhythm (melodic or percussive) and European harmonies” (Understanding Jazz 40). Composed works that have a jazz flavor, such as George Gershwin's Rhadsody in Blue, are not jazz because they lack the essential quality of spontaneous improvisation. “[J]azz,” Ostransky laconically comments in The Anatomy of Jazz, “did more for Gershwin than Gershwin did for jazz” (26).

Although bop, the style of jazz that Kerouac tried to emulate, is different from swing, which preceded it, the two styles are nonetheless founded in a very similar concept of improvisation that is based on what in jazz is referred to as the chorus: “What musicians meant by the term chorus was simply that segment of a solo which used the entire thirty-two measure AABA chord progression or entire twelve measure blues progression. A soloist might take only a chorus or perhaps take ten to twenty choruses” (Gridley 41). “Chord progression” refers to the harmonic structure that underlies a melody; for instance, the traditional twelve-bar blues typically involves harmonic movement from a tonic chord, C major, say, to chords based on the fourth and fifth scale degrees of C major. The composed melody is written in notes derived from these chords and is usually played at the beginning and ending, the head and tail as they are known in jazz, of a performance. Between the head and the tail, the musician improvises on the tune's chord progression: “The chord progression to the tune is usually retained with exactness throughout the selection, even during the improvised solos, simply by repeating the entire progression … over and over” (Coker 9).

In Understanding Jazz, Ostransky points out that the jazz solo may appear to be spontaneous but requires a high degree of skill and training. The improviser follows the chord progression of the notated melody and

modifies and adapts, to his individual conception of jazz, melodic fragments, rhythmic patterns, and even entire phrases he has heard and admired. All these memories and impressions are assimilated and transformed into music that is fresh, and often, when it is coupled with the spirit of spontaneity, music that is new. The performer's task is to organize his material—however spontaneous his performance may seem—in such a way as to make it appear that the material is, in truth, his own.


Even so-called free jazz, it is worth noting, is governed by rules that impose order on improvisation. In Jazz Styles, Mark Gridley observes that “even the most adventuresome, free-form improvisations are usually organized around tone centers, keys, modes, or shifting tone centers” (218). An untrained individual may attempt to improvise with absolute abandon, but whatever he or she produces will not be jazz or even music, for that matter, because it is excluded by physical, technical, and aesthetic rules.

“In a sense,” writes Stephen Nachmanovitch in Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, “all art is improvisation. Some improvisations are presented as is, whole and at once; others are ‘doctored improvisations’ that have been revised and restructured over a period of time” (6). Jazz, of course, embodies the former type of improvisation and writing the latter. However, there is, as the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz makes clear, a close similarity between spoken language and jazz: “It's like a language. You learn the alphabet, which are the scales. You learn sentences, which are the chords. And then you talk extemporaneously with the horn” (qtd. in Maggin v). But while musical improvisation is like speaking a language, the musician alone understands its grammar; although clearly he or she is able to communicate to a listener, the listener is much freer than in language discourse to interpret the sounds autonomously. Moreover, the listener, unless a musician as well, cannot respond in a like fashion. Users of a particular language, however, understand its grammar and employ it verbally and in writing to communicate and to exchange specific ideas in an enormous range of contexts, of which literature is only one. As poststructuralists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes have pointed out, language is the chief means through which we as human beings bring signification to our lives, although the consequence is that “The individual is always already inscribed within a discourse that prescribes its own continuation, and his entrapment” (Patterson 261). Language texts are always compromised by a host of social and economic factors, but they are nonetheless structured by grammatical rules that are incomprehensible to those who don't understand a particular language. In “Miles Davis Meets Noam Chomsky: Some Observations on Jazz Improvisation and Language Structure,” linguists Alan Perlman and Daniel Greenblatt argue that these rules are similar to those used in jazz improvisation: “Improvising musicians are in much the same position as speakers of a language. … Their improvisations are facilitated by their knowledge of the available harmonic and melodic possibilities and by their technical skill and imagination in combining and recombining these possibilities in novel ways” (182).

While writing generally follows grammatical rules—it is arguably even more reliant on them than speech since there are no visual or aural clues to meaning—literary writing is a privileged use of language whose chief purpose is not necessarily communication. In addition to the rules of grammar, it is governed by conventions pertaining to genre and to narration, plot, characterization, and so on. Literary writing, as Linda Hutcheon notes in A Poetics of Postmodernism, can even deliberately subvert itself so as to contest the surface intent of the language. Literature may be improvised, but before it is presented to an audience it is almost always “revised and restructured over a period of time.” Written poetry that is read aloud is not improvised by jazz standards, since reading from an extant poem is conceptually the same as reading notated music. Even the poets of the oral tradition, much like improvising jazz musicians, did not make up their songs extemporaneously but relied heavily on stock phrases and chose “forms in accordance with their immediate need” (DeVries 8). The writer, therefore, perhaps even more than the jazz improviser whose language by comparison is much less precise, works within a highly sophisticated set of rules in order to convey meaning to his or her audience.

In “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” written in 1953, Kerouac apparently instructs the writer to simply allow language to spill out without regard for rules, a practice which will, paradoxically, allow a deeper meaning to emerge:

Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion. … Never afterthink to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind.


Although Kerouac mentions sketching in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” most critics have focused on its jazz references as the guiding principle for his spontaneity. He refers several times to “blowing (as per jazz musician)” and to “the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)” (57). In a Paris Review interview some years later, Kerouac explains this idea in more detail: “Jazz and bop, in the sense of a, say, 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 … that's how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind” (qtd. in Weinreich 9).

Since Kerouac's claim here is used by Weinreich to demonstrate “the equivalence of his writing and jazz at the technical level” (9), it needs to be examined in more detail. Oddly, Kerouac's comments about saxophonists do not take into account other musicians—pianists, bassists, guitarists, drummers—whose instruments do not rely at all on breathing. It seems peculiar that these musicians would be concerned with using their vocabulary to construct musical phrases, while the sax player's musical phrasing is limited by his or her breath. Larry Teal, in The Art of Saxophone Playing, notes, in fact, that “methods must be devised to disguise breaks in the tone line lest they detract from the total effect. The aim of good breathing habits is to improve the meaning of a phrase, rather than lessen its force” (92). An examination of transcribed solos from Charlie Parker improvisations, albeit on alto rather than tenor sax, indicates that musical phrasing was Parker's paramount concern, and that his breathing was concealed in musical rests. A 1946 version of “Anthropology,” which has an AABA structure, is played in 4/4 time at a metronome setting of three hundred beats per minute. In the B section of the first improvised chorus, Parker plays the entire eight bars without a rest, the longest section without a rest in the transcribed solo (Parker 11). Played at this speed, the eight bars, broken down into thirty-two beats, would be performed in just over six seconds, an insignificant time for a professional sax player.

Kerouac's conception of improvisation relies more on material support than it does on a musical vocabulary. Breathing punctuates his sentences, and the primary structure that controls his spontaneity is the physical dimensions of his writing surface. On the Road, for instance, was initially written on the legendary roll of paper so as to be composed in an unavoidably linear fashion. His jazz poems, Kerouac argues in the preface to Book of Blues, were “limited by the small page of the breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus” (Blues 1). The claim that the physical limits of a roll of paper or the page of a notebook act as the chorus that limits his improvisation shows a misunderstanding of the harmonic function of the chorus in jazz improvisation and, for that matter, the purpose of grammatical rules in language use. To argue that the paper limits his spontaneity is like saying that the physical properties of a particular instrument limit one's improvisation. While it may be less difficult to play certain music on a saxophone, say, than on a trumpet, such a comparison has to do with an instrument's mechanics rather than with musical improvisation.

Both Tim Hunt and Regina Weinreich argue that jazz techniques, despite Kerouac's declaration of abandon, do order his prose. Hunt quite rightly notes, “Any jazz improviser, even the most inventive, a Lester Young or a Charlie Parker, comes to have not only his sound but phrases, rhythmic ideas, and ways of attack that are peculiarly and recognizably his own” (146). Such characteristics, however, are not structural like the chorus but are rather peculiarities of usage; the same could be said with equal validity of the writing styles of the authors Kerouac most admired. While Hunt mentions vaguely that the chorus is “roughly equivalent to the role of the ‘image-object’ in Spontaneous Prose” (146), Weinreich makes “the notion of repeated forms that become redefined and redeveloped through each rendition of the series” (43-44) central to her argument. Repetition, she argues, becomes Kerouac's organizing principle, since it “suggests a double movement in the act of composition, a movement that progresses and repeats at the same time. … Recurrence also marks the interior structure of Kerouac's very language so that the pattern of his whole career reflected in large the more microscopic structure of his language from book to book” (5). Although the chord progression, which this insight is based on, remains constant and is indeed repeated, the improvising musician is not melodically confined by the notated melody or by other musicians' improvisations; in other words, what emerges is far from repetitious. It was a practice of bop musicians, as I shall discuss later, to create new melodies based on preexisting chord progressions. Parker's “Koko,” for instance, follows the chord structure of the standard “Cherokee,” but the melody is completely different (Coker 13). Similarly, two novels might be founded on the same literary convention, the quest myth, for example, but be as different as On the Road and Don Quixote. The chord progression may be repeated, moreover, but the improvisation, whether of one or more choruses, is structured much like a literary narrative: “a solo should tell a story. This means it should have a clear exposition, development, climax, and release” (Sabatella 54).

Kerouac's justification for his advocacy of spontaneous prose is described by Robert Hipkiss as “the Romantic belief that the seat of truth is in the basic human emotions [which] makes of spontaneity a primary value. The Romantic writer believes the closer one comes to those emotions and the more purely they are communicated the more affecting will be his statement” (93). This spontaneous production of written language is similar to the technique of automatic writing designed to delve into the writer's unconsciousness that was developed during the nineteenth century and later practiced by a variety of different writers, among them the surrealists (Weinreich 3). The writer simply writes, not paying attention to spelling, punctuation, or syntax and not following any present plan. Authorial intent alone, however, is not sufficient cause to treat a piece of writing as literature rather than, say, as a diary or a disconnected group of words. Such an approach also makes the writer more vulnerable to repeating cultural biases—as Ann Charters remarks about Kerouac's attitudes toward women and racial minorities in her introduction to On the Road (xxx)—rather than contesting them. Interestingly, Jung developed a similar method for unlocking the unconscious that he called active imagination, which he was adamant be conducted strictly for therapeutic purposes, not for artistic ones (Hillman 133).

Clearly, Kerouac's use of jazz as a means of structuring his prose was less formal than it was inspirational; indeed, it is possible that “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” has caused more obfuscation than it has brought clarity. While beyond the scope of this study, there are compelling reasons to view Kerouac's prose, regardless of how it was composed initially, with its run-on sentences, its capitalizations, its eccentric punctuation, its poetic repetition of sounds, as developing out of the techniques of modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner (Bartlett 125). Even Weinreich resorts to conventional literary terminology in her analysis of Kerouac's prose (46-48). On the Road, moreover, is far less stylistically adventurous than later works and is usually regarded as representing a transition between Kerouac's conventional first novel, The Town and the City, and later ones like The Subterraneans and Visions of Cody (Bartlett 123). On the Road “was probably the most heavily edited of Kerouac's works” (French xii), and it shows considerable evidence of being shaped in the manner of a traditionally revised novel, of being “doctored,” to use Nachmanovitch's term, rather than spontaneously created. Although it was not published until 1957, the final text is a thinly disguised portrait of a period in Kerouac's life that began in the late 1940s and ended in the early 1950s. It was originally typed on the roll of paper in April 1951, but on a later occasion Kerouac wrote it out by hand (Nicosia 355). After it was accepted, in order “[t]o restore the novel's freshness,” Kerouac “typed up a final version directly from the 120-foot roll [sic]” (Nicosia 536). Finally, the novel was substantially edited by his publisher, Viking; Kerouac later charged that the published version was an emasculation of the 1951 book (Clark 152).

Kerouac was most attracted to jazz because of its ideological associations with African American culture, although as I shall discuss later he does use the behavioral and semiotic aspects of the music to reflect his characters' development. Kerouac and friends of his like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs typified the hipsters whom Norman Mailer, in his famous 1957 article “The White Negro,” characterized as outsiders to American life who were treated by white culture as though they were black: “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro” (341). In a contemporary response to Mailer's article, Ned Polsky comments, “The white Negro accepts the real Negro not as a human being in his totality, but as the bringer of a highly specified and restricted ‘cultural dowry,’ to use Mailer's phrase” (qtd. in Mailer, “Note” 369). However much he identifies with African Americans, Kerouac is more interested in the ideology of their “cultural dowry” than he is in the circumstances that produced it. Indeed, his primitivist view of black culture, one that shapes his use of jazz in On the Road, often misrepresents, exaggerates, and suppresses important elements of the music and the culture in which it originated.

In part 3 of On the Road, while listening to jazz in a Chicago club, Sal provides a brief but telling description of how bop developed out of the music's history. Bop emerged through the influence of innovative musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk and by 1945 had pushed swing aside by offering listeners a completely different, more complex kind of jazz:

Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety—leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs … coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest—Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonius Monk and madder Gillespie—Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped. …


He begins this history by identifying the musicians in the novel's present as “the children of the great bop innovators” (239), the inheritors of jazz tradition.

Kerouac's conception of jazz history is conspicuous for being based on individual stars rather than, say, the bands in which they played or the cities in which their distinctive sounds originated. As Leroy Ostransky makes clear in Jazz City, the musicians named by Kerouac derived their styles in major part from the jazz communities in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. While he does mention Count Basie in connection with Kansas City and Charlie Parker, there is no mention of Duke Ellington. Albert Murray, who regards jazz as developing out of “blues-break riffing and improvisation” (63), remarks that Ellington “achieved the most comprehensive synthesis, extension, and refinement to date of all the elements of blues musicianship” (214), and that his work is “by far the most comprehensive orchestration of the actual sound and beat of life in the United States ever accomplished by a single composer” (224). Although Ellington played the piano, his genius manifested itself collectively in his bands rather than as an individual performer. Kerouac also seems to elide the New Orleans jazz from which Louis Armstrong emerged, perhaps because unlike the styles that followed—pre-swing, swing, and bop—the innovation of the individual performer was not as significant in New Orleans jazz, which was founded on “collective improvisation” (Ostransky, Understanding Jazz 134). The characteristic which in Kerouac's mind unites the historic musicians above all is their “madness”; the unavoidable implication is that the music they create derives not from rational thought but from visceral spontaneity. Hence Louis Armstrong springs like Adam from the “muds of New Orleans” and literally erupts playing with the “mad musicians” of his hometown. Roy Eldridge's music, although suggestive of “logic,” comes in “waves of power.” Charlie Parker was “flipped” out of his mind, and Lester Young is depicted as “the saintly goof.”

Kerouac regards these musicians not so much as innovators of a musical style—it is noteworthy that there is not one reference in the passage to any formal musical advances—but as purveyors of a particular way of thinking, a vitalism which for him is the dominant trait of bop. Ted Gioia, in The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, demonstrates that this way of viewing jazz, what he calls the primitivist myth, is central to how much of white culture has consistently viewed the music. Gioia traces the origin of this attitude back to the “idealization and theorization of primitivism in French culture” (21), which as early as Montaigne and Rousseau had elevated the idea of the “noble savage.” Gioia discovers this attitude in the works of influential French critics Hugues Panaisse, Charles Delaunay, and Robert Goffin, whom he calls “the founding fathers of jazz studies” (28), and who helped shape jazz criticism in America. He finds it present in assumptions about jazz performers as disparate as Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman and notes that “its impact is all the more damaging, given that its influence is rarely stated openly. Rather … it colors critical judgments while rarely submitting itself to critical scrutiny” (47). As though to confirm this connection between jazz and the Romantic tradition of primitivism, Kerouac makes a direct reference in his history to Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Roy Eldridge's “glittering eyes” echo the “glittering eye” of the Ancient Mariner as he stops a wedding guest to tell his story.

The chief ideological characteristic of jazz for Kerouac, the music's apparent “madness,” derives not so much from bop itself as from white cultural assumptions about the music and about black culture. It is jazz's restless energy, bop being simply its most recent incarnation, that Sal Paradise discovers wherever he travels, and which comes to symbolize for him the America of his generation, what he calls “Jazz America” (204). In Chicago, at the beginning of the novel, for instance, Sal directly links bop and the aimless traveling of himself and his friends: “And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of all my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about” (14). It is the “frantic and rushing-about” quality that Sal finds whenever he encounters jazz; significantly, he finds it played on both coasts, thus geographically embracing the nation. In New York, for instance, George Shearing plays while “a smile broke over his ecstatic face” (128), and later a black alto saxophonist in San Francisco “hopped and monkey-danced with his magic horn and blew two hundred choruses of blues, each one more frantic than the other” (202). In San Francisco, Sal also hears Slim Galliard, a madman, perform and at “wild jazz sessions at Jamson's Nook” thinks, “I never saw such crazy musicians. Everybody in Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent; they didn't give a damn” (177). Even the records he and his friends listen to, like “The Hunt” by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, have a “fantastic frenzied” quality (113).

Of course, Kerouac, as a young white male, was hardly alone in his fascination with jazz. Almost as soon as jazz became popular in the early 1920s, young men who considered themselves outsiders identified with jazz musicians' marginal social status in hegemonic white culture. While bop was more complex and the musicians more rebellious than their antecedents, the impulse of these young white men toward jazz had as much to do with ideology as it did with a particular style of music: “The white beboppers of the forties were as removed from the society as Negroes, but as a matter of choice,” as Amiri Baraka puts it (188). This white identification with African American experience, moreover, was far from exclusive to the Beats. Lawrence Levine sees a correspondence to the Austin High gang in Chicago in the 1920s—made up of musicians such as Jimmy McPartland and Eddie Condon—who embraced New Orleans jazz and black culture with an abandon similar to that of the disaffected youth of thirty years later: “There was a direct line between this group of white jazz musicians in the 1920s and the alienated youth of the 1950s and 1960s whose rebellion owed so much, directly and indirectly, to aspects of Afro-American culture, particularly its music” (Black Culture 296). Ben Sidran explains this appeal by arguing that black music, by its very nature, is “revolutionary, if only because it maintained a non-Western orientation in the realms of perception and communication” (14).

Kerouac, as a French Canadian outsider whose first language was French (Charters 24), seems to use jazz to serve his purposes as an alienated white; as much and perhaps more than the music itself, it is the ideological implications of bop and its performers, as perceived by white culture, that attract him. Certainly, there is little evidence in On the Road that Sal Paradise recognizes that the spirit of jazz with which he identifies derives in good measure from the African American history of slavery and racial prejudice. In part 3 of On the Road, Sal walks through Denver “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night” (180). Earlier, while Sal is living with his girlfriend Terry in southern California, he picks cotton for a week or so as a way of earning some money. Sal has difficulty doing the work, but he notices an aging black couple who “picked cotton with the same Godblessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama” (96). What is interesting is how he seems to appropriate the experience, without demonstrating any understanding of the harsh world that would have produced such expertise: “But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth. If I felt like resting I did, with my face on the pillow of brown moist earth. Birds sang an accompaniment. I thought I had found my life's work” (96). He celebrates manual labor while seemingly utterly unaware of slavery. At roughly the same time as Kerouac was writing this scene in the early 1950s, blues musician James Cotton was recording “Cotton Crop Blues” (Levine, Black Culture, 253).

Calling it a lament for “the loss of the Garden of Eden,” James Baldwin commented insightfully on the Denver episode from On the Road several years after the novel's publication. After quoting the passage cited above, Baldwin remarks, “this is absolute nonsense … objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that. … And yet there is real pain in it, and real loss, however thin; and it is thin … thin because it does not refer to reality but to a dream” (182). Black musicians, who often relied on white culture for employment, were usually less direct than Baldwin in their disparagement of such appropriative attitudes as Kerouac's. Instead, they would use music to engage in a subtle, often amusing commentary that white audiences would rerely understand. This tradition originated in antebellum America when slaves used music as a tool “to get around and deceive the whites” (Levine, Black Culture 11). Bop musicians often took advantage of the chorus's structure to augment this kind of ironic observation. For them, improvisation would mean creating something that was entirely different from the notated melody but still based on the same chord progression:

For swing musicians, improvisation on “I Got Rhythm” meant a creation based on the melodic [notated] outline as well as the harmonic foundation; when a bop musician said “Rhythm”—an abbreviation—he spoke only of the harmonic foundation, a foundation that could serve for any number of original compositions. In Charlie Parker's recordings of “Bird Lore” and “Ornithology,” for example, both numbers have their harmonic basis in “How High the Moon.”

(Ostransky, Understanding Jazz 203)

Bop musicians, like Parker and particularly Dexter Gordon, developed to a high degree the use of musical quotations as parodic devices. In Dexter Gordon: A Musical Biography, Stan Britt remarks, “Gordon's repeated recourse to brief excerpts from cornball pop standards, and even an occasional snatch of a classic, has been … judicious in execution, and genuinely funny in impact” (126).

While Kerouac seems unaware of the music's cultural and historical associations, not to mention its irony, he does fashion a discourse based on jazz's appeal to marginalized white males. For him and his fellows, jazz and jazz musicians provided an insider's world of arcane knowledge that distinguished them from straight society. “Genres,” as Simon Frith notes, “initially flourish on a sense of exclusivity; they are as much (if not more) concerned to keep people out as in” (88). At Sal's brother's house in Virginia, Dean plays “The Hunt” to the delight of his friends and the bewilderment of the other listeners:

The Southern folk looked at one another and shook their heads in awe. “What kinds of friends does Sal have, anyway?” they said to my brother. He was stumped for an answer. Southerners don't like madness the least bit, not Dean's kind.


Kerouac is knowledgeable about certain aspects of bop and frequently makes allusions that deliberately test his audience's understanding. At the beginning of the book, for example, he refers to bop being “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis” (14). For the jazz cognoscenti, this reference would place the time between the 1946 release on Dial of Parker's “Ornithology” and the appearance of Davis's album Birth of the Cool in 1950 (Cook and Morton 1009, 324). Later, Kerouac elliptically refers to the death of a “bop clarinetist” who “had died in an Illinois car-crash recently” (236). This can only be Stan Hasselgard, who died outside Decatur, Illinois, in November 1948 (Collier 333). And making it clear to the reader that “these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial” (128), Sal listens to George Shearing.

Kerouac's Romantic view of jazz also affects his presentation of the behavioral rules of the genre which, according to Frith,

cover performance rituals in a widely defined sense. These are gestural rules [that] … determine the ways in which musical skill and technique, on the one hand, and musical personality, on the other, are displayed. … Behavioral rules apply to audiences as well.


Aside from a number of unnamed ones in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, the two actual musicians whom Sal and Dean hear in On the Road are Shearing and Slim Galliard. They hear Shearing both in New York and later in Chicago, when he sits in with the band. On the first occasion, which takes place as part of an extended New Year's Eve party ushering in 1949, they go “to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend” (128). It is worth pointing out that Kerouac seems to be conflating a later performance with his desired chronology, since Birdland did not open until almost a year later, on December 15, 1949 (Russell 276). They see Galliard perform later in San Francisco. It is curious that Kerouac, who, Nicosia reports, saw such greats as Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker perform—a Parker performance is described in The Subterraneans, and Kerouac wrote several choruses to Parker in Mexico City Blues—should use Shearing and Galliard as representative musicians, since neither one is central to the bop movement. Shearing, moreover, is white and English. What they do share, however, is a performance style that accentuates the appearance of musical possession, consistent with Kerouac's primitivist ideology.

At his Birdland performance, George Shearing seems actually to control the natural elements: “Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea” (128). Later, when Sal and Dean are in Chicago, Shearing “played innumerable choruses with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher … and everybody listened in awe and fright” (241). On both occasions, the music prompts Dean to call Shearing a god: “There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes!” (128); “Sal, God has arrived” (241). Leonard Feather, who was Shearing's record producer in 1949 and a pianist himself, describes Shearing's technique at this time in more prosaic language: “By the time we were due to make the first MGM recordings on 17 February [1949], George had developed a new and unprecedented blend for this instrumentation. He would play four-note chords in the right hand, with the left hand doubling the right hand's top-note melody line, the guitar doubling the melody, and the vibes playing it in the upper register” (195). Kerouac, who as Weinreich notes had little formal foundation in music, sacralizes an effect that was created in an inspired but explicable manner. Shearing, moreover, is blind and like other blind pianists—Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Marcus Roberts, for instance—seems to be wholly possessed by the music; the blind have no visual models to pattern their stage mannerisms on and to the sighted appear to be responding in an exaggerated way to the music.

Slim Galliard's performance in San Francisco is even more impassioned than that of Shearing. Galliard begins with verbal invention in which he attaches the three-syllable line “orooni” to everything he says. Then he plays Ellington's “C-Jam Blues” on the piano, after which “Slim goes mad and grabs the bongos and plays tremendous rapid Cubana beats and yells crazy things in Spanish, in Arabic, in Peruvian dialect, in Egyptian, in every language he knows, and he knows innumerable languages” (176). As with Shearing, Dean regards him as a divinity: “Now, Dean approached him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God” (177). While he played on Charlie Parker's Savoy recordings, Galliard was most noted for his eccentricity, both musical and verbal. Early in his career, for instance, “he worked as a solo variety act, playing guitar and tapdancing simultaneously: a bizarre combination which … reflected Galliard's comedic view of life” (Carr et al. 178). Thus Kerouac seems to have selected both musicians because they are best suited to his Romantic notion of bop.

The behavioral aspect of jazz performance is one of the devices used by Kerouac to help shape the novel's narrative. On the Road involves the quest of Sal Paradise for transcendent signification in his life, what one critic calls the “Dionysian ideal” (Bartlett 122). “This can't go on all the time—this franticness and jumping around,” he says to Dean. “We've got to go someplace, find something” (116). In part this frantic search is characterized physically through travel, but it is also apparent in their drug experiences, in their conversations, in their relations with each other and with women, and, of course, in jazz. Each of these circumstances reflects a definite shape that is characterized by increasingly frantic behavior which ultimately leads to a kind of deflation. Warren French, for instance, argues that “the repetition of the inflation-deflation pattern of the individual sections and the work as a whole” gives the novel much of its power (88). Each of the novel's first four parts concludes with Sal, after having set out in pursuit of truth—“somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” (11)—returning home disillusioned. At the end of part 1, Sal has to beg money for the bus to get home. Part 2 ends with Dean and Sal parting: “It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we'd never see one another again and we didn't care” (178). Sal and Dean at the end of part 3 have been reduced to a state of debauchery in which they are almost swept away in the debris of a “horror-hole” theater where they have spent the night (245), and at the end of part 4, Sal, who is sick in Mexico City, is deserted by Dean: “When I got better I realized what a rat he was” (303).

In part 5, Sal meets Laura, agrees to settle down, and renounces Dean much as Peter renounces Christ after his arrest. They are on their way to a “Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera” (308) and, because his friend Remi won't cooperate, are unable to give Dean a ride. It is noteworthy that this incident should take place as they are on their way to see Ellington. The African American culture from which jazz derived favored communal music which was participatory, unlike the Western tradition of classical music, which has sacralized the performer and proscribed audience involvement (Levine, Black Culture 203). In jazz clubs, audience and performers were not separated from one another; audience participation in the music was expected. Craig Hansen Werner explains that this attitude derives from the call-and-response patterning of African American sacred music and work songs, which allows listeners to be “understood as collaborators rather than an ‘audience’ in the Euro-American sense” (207). For Sal, however, this fracture in the rules of performer-audience separation governing white music is another indication of jazz's franticness. At the Shearing Birdland performance, for instance, the pianist “was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps and imprecations” (128). Slim Galliard, after playing, actually sits with Dean and Sal: “I sat there with these two madmen” (177). The black audiences are also highly participatory: “it was a mad crowd. They were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes. … A six-foot skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell, and he just jabbed it at her, ‘Ee! ee! ee!’” (197).

The Ellington concert at the Met, however, suggests that by the end of the novel such wildness has been eliminated from Sal's life. Lawrence Levine argues that as the United States experienced an enormous influx of immigrants during the latter half of the nineteenth century, social elites used culture as a means of organizing and making sense of the newcomers: “the response of the elites was a tripartite one: to retreat into their own private spaces whenever possible; to transform public spaces by rules, systems of taste, and canons of behavior of their own choosing; and, finally, to convert the strangers so that their modes of behavior and cultural predilections emulated those of the elites” (Highbrow 177). What evolved was a hierarchical system of highbrow culture in which audiences, as well as readers and visitors to art galleries and museums, were taught “to approach the masters and their works with proper respect and proper seriousness, for aesthetic and spiritual elevation rather than mere entertainment was the goal” (146). The sacralization of culture was accompanied by a system of rules that, in the case of classical musical expression, for instance, prevented latecomers from immediately taking their seats, forced women to take off large hats, and frowned on applause after arias (190).

Ellington's performance in the early 1950s at the Metropolitan Opera, one of the bastions of highbrow culture, occurs roughly at the historical moment when jazz was being transformed from the lowbrow to the highbrow. Ellington's swing audience had mostly evaporated by then, and jazz, as David Hajdu, the biographer of Ellington's arranger Billy Strayhorn, notes, “was evolving into an elite music” (150); while it marked the direction of jazz for the remainder of the decade, bop attracted a much smaller audience than swing. “[E]xoteric or popular art,” Levine comments, “is transformed into esoteric or high art at precisely that time when it in fact becomes esoteric, that is, when it becomes or is rendered inaccessible to the types of people who appreciated it earlier” (Highbrow 234). Ellington's Met appearance suggests that jazz has been accepted as highbrow culture, and that its performance is governed by regulations similar to those of classical music. The institutionalization of jazz at the conclusion of On the Road mirrors Sal's commitment to Laura and to a more conventional life.

Although jazz and Sal have changed substantially by the end of the novel, Sal's attendance at the Ellington concert is consistent with his sacralization of jazz throughout On the Road. Characteristic of his Romantic instincts, Kerouac makes the music meaningful by discovering transcendent qualities in jazz improvisation. This process belongs to Frith's final category of genre, the semiotic. Its rules are

essentially rules of communication, how music works as rhetoric; such rules refer to the ways in which “meaning” is conveyed. … How is “truth” or “sincerity” indicated musically? … Rules here, in other words, concern musical expressivity and emotion.


It is noteworthy that the way Kerouac invests jazz music with meaning is not exceptional but is, in fact, part of a broader historical phenomenon. “Romanticism, which has stimulated our aesthetic consciousness in so many respects,” wrote John Huizinga in 1949, “has also been the chief promoter of an ever-widening appreciation of music as a thing of the deepest value in life” (188).

The sacralized quality of jazz for Sal and Dean clearly emerges in two incidents, in San Francisco and then in Chicago, when they go to jazz clubs. Both places feature many of the behavior characteristics, such as audience participation, of traditional jazz performance. In San Francisco, the crowd is anarchic—“Everybody was rocking and roaring” (197)—and in Chicago, the musicians are apparently maniacal, entirely taken over by the music: “The sad drummer … completely goofed, staring into space, chewing gum, wide-eyed, rocking the neck with Reich kick and complacent ecstasy” (240). And yet the music is not entirely without order and meaning. A tenor saxophone player in San Francisco, for instance, sings “Close Your Eyes” in a way that expresses the “pit and prunejuice of poor beat life itself in the god-awful streets of man” (199); afterward, he sits in a corner and cries. Both he and an alto player in the same club possess a more mysterious quality: “the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it” (197). The next day Dean remarks that the alto player was able to hold “IT” for longer than anyone he has seen. He explains that as the player improvises, suddenly

“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, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT—” Dean could go no further; he was sweating telling about it.


“IT” then appears to be some enigmatic aspect of the music that unites the musicians and listeners in a common purpose and apparently raises the moment to transcendent heights.

Stephen Nachmanovitch remarks that such a union is characteristic of all improvisation: “The time of inspiration, the time of technically structuring and realizing the music, the time of playing it, and the time of communicating with the audience, as well as ordinary clock time, are all one. Memory and intention (which postulate past and future) and intuition (which indicates the eternal present) are fused” (18). Nachmanovitch also remarks on the similarity between what is produced by improvisation and by Buddhism: “Buddhists call this state of absorbed, selfless, absolute concentration samadhi” (52). In Mexico City Blues, Kerouac, who according to Charters was “a self-taught student of Buddhism” (190), even compares Charlie Parker to Buddha (Nicosia 488). What Kerouac is intuitively recognizing in his celebration of “IT” is that order is, indeed, an important part of the jazz improvisation which appears to emerge out of nothingness. Anthony Storr makes a similar point: “Although both art and play have a necessary element of spontaneity, both are also concerned with order and with form” (116). It is the paradoxical balance of freedom and order, what Nachmanovitch calls “a harmony of opposite tensions” (12), not abandonment, that creates through improvisation the elevated spiritual moment described by Dean. Improvised jazz represents for Dean and Sal the epiphanal moment, a state of being that Kerouac was continually striving for in one way or another in both his writing and his life. The intuitive awareness of the need for an order to shape improvisation that is evident in Dean's description of how “IT” is produced can be likened to Ostransky's portrayal of jazz improvisation as a form of bricolage that unites disparate elements into a musical narrative.

Jack Kerouac's treatment of jazz in On the Road is consistent with what Christopher Miller calls Africanist discourse, the ways white Western culture has traditionally viewed Africa and, in this case, African Americans. Kerouac bases his argument for spontaneity in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” on his understanding of jazz improvisation, but he misunderstands and simplifies the formal rules that distinguish jazz as a musical genre. Jazz does influence On the Road, but it is largely through Kerouac's Romantic identification with the ideology of the African American jazz musician whose music is visceral and who has been marginalized by white culture. The behavioral aspects of the music are also significant in the novel, but again Kerouac views them largely through the eyes of white culture; the communal nature of the music and the exchange between audience and performer he regards as further evidence of the music's franticness rather than as characteristic of African American culture. Finally, Kerouac discovers epiphanal moments in improvised jazz, ironically, not because they are utterly free and abandoned but because their spontaneity is shaped by an underlying order. “[The] work suffers—or is at least peculiar,” as Edward Said has noted in reference to a similar instance of appropriation, Verdi's treatment of Egyptian culture in Aida, “because of the selectivity of and emphases in what is included and, by implication, excluded” (122).

On the Road, as a narrative, shows an adherence to traditional literary form which is often at odds with the theoretical views espoused by Kerouac. The run-on sentence that ends the novel owes more to the modernist notion of stream of consciousness developed by writers like Joyce and Woolf than to jazz improvisation. While jazz does not formally hold up as a thoroughgoing structural model for the novel, it is important as an ideological, behavioral, and semiotic source for Kerouac's vision of America, even though his debt to African American culture is not acknowledged. On the Road, then, is a novel of contradictions. The Romantic ideology of primitivism through which Kerouac views jazz prevents him from recognizing the irony and self-reflection that is at the music's core. Moreover, the Romanticism through which he views his own life and those of his friends prevents him from achieving a postmodernist vision even though many of his materials—the autobiographical nature of the work and later the “Frisco: The Tape” section in Visions of Cody—point in this direction. The achievement of On the Road, finally, is that, like the early works of realism, it enlarges the scope of suitable fictional subject material to include alcoholics, junkies, and jazz musicians and fashions a distinctive prose style to depict their lives.

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Douglas Malcolm (essay date 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Solos and Chorus: Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Politics/Poetics,” Mosaic, Vol. 32, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 131-148.

[In the following essay, Malcolm identifies jazz references and influences in the fiction of Michael Ondaatje.]

Given that jazz is a relatively recent musical form, it is not surprising that studies of its connection to literature are few in comparison to the discussions of the relations between literature and classical music, where indeed the proliferation of such discussion has developed to the point of occasioning some specialists to define and insist upon criteria for “valid” comparisons. Thus in the section on “Literature and...

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