Contemplating Jazz: Ginsberg and Bebop, Part 1 of 2
Section 1: The Beats and Jazz
A young man from a Columbian Dormitory, walks down a street belching smoke while on the corner waits his friend, Kerouac, producer of spontaneous prose.
Literary prophets couple together to reach a port of billows and descend to a small room of stale air
Metal cuts air and throws the room into the chaos of the bop apocalypse
Wide eyed Ginsberg sits in awe of the secret heroes that haunt the culture of the dark, the culture of the streets, the culture of the down and out
Kerouac sings and yells as if born in the smoke of brass and skin
Through his glasses G sees clearly for the first time the way in which to build his vision
The way in which to speak his own mind and the way in which to show the world the movement of the Beats.
The piano chimes of Ellington and the chatter of the crowd makes a nest for the horn to take flight
And G takes flight, in his mind, back in cold water flats, and soaks his mind with Benzedrine.
He rocks at his typewriter and absorbs Lester young with his Leaps and drive and spills them onto a page.
Pages make up the turning of time with Ginsberg’s typeface crawling, naked, through the decades of McCarthy, LSD, and Lennon.
Decades which transform G as much as he transforms them, as he grew from jazz hipster, to counter-culture god, to alternate professor of poetry.
A world movement, eventually commoditized and sold, once changed society by exposing and flipping it, was started with a bop note, played in the dark.
To Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beat Writers, bebop jazz was an exciting revelation in culture that had its own ethos and its own heroes. It created a feeling in the Beats of a new reality, one that they strove to recreate in their writings. The Beats wanted to take the attitudes and lifestyles of jazz greats, like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Lester Young, and enshrine the ways of these “secret heroes” into a unique style of poetry and prose. This use of music became integral to the Beats, especially in the work of the two most recognized figures within the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s poetry was influenced greatly by Jazz and that was, in part, due to the influence of Kerouac on Ginsberg. Kerouac was the Beat writer who incorporated jazz into his work the most fully, and this is evidenced in his novels and his manifesto, “Essentials for Spontaneous Prose”, which mentions jazz specifically, and relates it to the style of spontaneous writing that Kerouac wanted to create, which Ginsberg then incorporated into his own poetic writing. This technique allowed both writers to join and transform a well-established literary tradition.
Music and literature, specifically poetry, is a tradition that dates back to the very conception of the art. But these ideals of music that directly impact the form of Beat writing can be directly linked back to the Imagist movement of the early 20th century. In his essay, “A Retrospective”, Ezra Pound says to “Compose [poetic rhythm] in the sequence of the musical phrase”.[i] This opened up the poetic form into a much more fluid and free rhythmic form, not restricted by pentameter and traditional poetic rhythm; which Pound exemplified in poems like “In a Station at the Metro” and “The Encounter”(For more on Pound’s Imagism and its radical break with tradition, see “Breaking the Pentameter”). A further connection between the Imagist and the Beats can be made with the relationship of William Carlos Williams, a friend and colleague to both Pound and Ginsberg. Williams served as a hometown hero and mentor to Ginsberg and encouraged Ginsberg to expand and experiment with poetic form, especially when concerning the long line form or “cut-ups” that came later in Ginsberg’s career. Kerouac aimed to take this use of music even further and, instead of using classical music like Pound did, Kerouac used the modern style of Bebop Jazz to expand literary form. Kerouac believes that a more spontaneous and freeform literature, like that of improvisational jazz, was the key to purer literary expression. The key to spontaneous writing, according to Kerouac was, “undisturbed flow from the mind…blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject”.[ii] This fluidity is apparent throughout his novel, On the Road, and can be heard, in musical form, as improvised horn solos like that of Dizzy Gillespie in the chart “Night in Tunisia”. Another key element that Kerouac advocated was the abandonment of punctuation, instead opting for “vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outdrawn phrases).”[iii] The use of dashes in the place of traditional punctuation is something that is prominent in the prose of Kerouac and the poetry of Ginsberg, like, “Transcription of Organ Music”.
The personal and creative influence that Kerouac had over Ginsberg is famously documented, Ginsberg himself confessing, in the 1950’s his love for Kerouac and the belief that Kerouac was the greatest living writer. Allen took these guidelines that Kerouac laid out in “Essentials for Spontaneous Prose” and applied them to his own work. Before introducing Kerouac’s ideas into his own poetry, Ginsberg, while at Columbia University, under the instruction of Lionel Trilling, wrote traditionally formalistic poetry, lacking in the long line form that makes his poem like “Howl” and “Kaddish” so unique. An example of this would be an early, successful prose poem of Ginsberg’s, “the Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour”, which is full of proper punctuation and somewhat formal diction. It wasn’t until Ginsberg met with the preliminary Beat circle of Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Lucien Carr, that Ginsberg began to frequent the jazz clubs of New York. These people and experiences introduce him to the jazz-bohemian culture that would permeate his poetry and his life, as he ventured into the wider world.
The thriving Jazz scene of New York City in the 1940’s and 1950’s is one that held incredible cultural, social, and racial importance. Coming out of the Blues tradition, Jazz was a space for African Americans to express their own ideas of art and culture, outside of the white mainstream. When Bebop jazz was created, it came at a time of great racial tension and social divide and this music was used to reflect those frustrations. This vibrant and intense form of jazz appealed to the younger audiences and confused the older audiences. While young, new heroes of jazz, like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, used jazz as a social tool, older jazz stars, such as Louis Armstrong referred to bebop as weird chords “that don’t mean nothing”.[iv] Bebop forged its own tradition in the 1940’s by using complex harmonies, intense melodies, fast tempos, and pared down ensembles. These elements broke bebop from the preceding swing jazz genre, and thus situated bebop as an alternative to the establishment and its ideals. This new revolutionary and unstable music very much appealed to the Beats and they worked to incorporate these elements into their writings. As Paul Blake said, “Jazz is anarchic and chaotic because it is personal, it’s dangerous”.[v] This attitude of personal chaos is evident throughout the Beat’s writing and particularly in the poetry of Ginsberg. “Howl” is a piece that travels through the demented counterculture of drugs, sex, and isolation of mid-century New York and is full of personal and public chaos.
This improvisational style of music had a profound effect on the Beats. They saw value in its energy and its spontaneity. These similar core values established a type of relationship between the two forms of art. Where the Beats saw Bebop as a subversive escape from white middle class values which reflected the conservative McCarthy era turmoil of the country, the wider public saw the same escape in the Beats. The Beats “Did not appropriate African American style, they consumed it just as it seized upon their desires. They enacted its influence through their art”.[vi] Despite this consumption of African American culture, the Beats remained ignorant to the intricacies and struggles of Black America. They simply took the parts that furthered their artistic vision and left the true struggles to the African American population. It may be for this reason that the wider American population saw the Beats as an easier gateway into the world of jazz. Instead of authenticating the black jazz experience, the Beats used it as a way to improve their art and in doing so, the Beats present a twisted version of jazz, relevant to their own experiences, just as they present a twisted version of the world they live in through the writing of their own experiences.
Bebop was, at first, seen as a black art form, created by black performers for black audiences. In an artistic community that was reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance, New York once again became a center for black expression. In a time of intense racism and segregation, fostering an exclusive environment for African Americans was essential to the identity of many black citizens. This music constructed a new black identity figure, the “hipster”: one who is well versed in bebop culture and has a “cool attitude, intended to shield the vulnerable self from the hostile world”.[vii] In a jazz musician’s case, the shielding is to protect from a hostile world of racial tension and societal expectation. The Beats only needed and wanted shielding from societal expectation when they chose to mold themselves into Norman Mailer’s figure of the “White Negro”. Allen Ginsberg, especially, wanted to put himself into this culture that rejected social conventions, due to his own feelings of isolation due to his homosexuality and his desire to live in the class of the “down and out”. This exclusion of the true black experience is evident in the shocking and eroticized portrayal of black Americans throughout Beat literature, specifically in “On the Road” where African Americans are portrayed as one-dimensional characters, only there for the gaze or advancement of the white protagonist. Despite this, the Beats integrated themselves into jazz culture as completely as possible, while at the same time exposing jazz to a wider, whiter audience, who then used jazz as a cornerstone in a social “Beatnik” movement.
The goal of this two part series is to examine the extent that jazz affected the poetry of Allen Ginsberg as he moved through his career and through the cities of San Francisco and New York, while embracing the Beat ideals of spontaneity, candor, and literary honesty as fully as possible in an academic type work. It will also attempt to illustrate the importance of jazz to Beat writing and culture. The poems for consideration are “Sunflower Sutra” and “Laughing Gas”. These poems were chosen as representatives of the production periods that Ginsberg undertook in both San Francisco and New York. Comparisons and connections will be made using the jazz album “the definitive Lester Young” when looking at “Sunflower Sutra” and the residency of Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Club in New York City in 1958, when looking at “Laughing Gas”.
Section 2: Ginsberg and the San Francisco Renaissance
Beat prophets walking through the hills of the bay, wander down into the dustbowl depot and see rage breathing locomotives.
Settled in the dust like a golden city in a paranoid republican apocalypse, sits a defiant sunflower, beaming its golden naked head out from its rough husk.
Held proudly like a scepter, the sunflower is paraded through North Beach and is introduced to the bay area scene of jazz, poetry, and visual art.
Ginsberg affected by the sunflower, opens his head to the east and composes in honour of the sunflower.
The sunflower opened up a new cosmos and has since passed into those cosmos but G carries the flower with him to its final memorial, the lungs, lips, belly, and heart of west coast poetry.
Poet and musician walk up to their dark and sweat soaked stages with smoke, fire, sex, shouts and murmurs in the air of darkness.
The stages, similar, but separate, are before small but lively crowds, buzzing with the anticipation of electric wind or projected thoughts.
Clink from the round tables with ash trays, candles, and cold cheese atop, the eyes of the crowd rise to meet the rising messiah of mid century hipsterdom.
The hush of attention spreads and leaks throughout both rooms of poet and musician, the lights and candles refocused on the wall where art will scream.
Pregnant and waiting silence bursting from Kerouac and Rexroth, Hawkins and Haynes as the pause before birthing art is held in the throats of the sonic prophets.
A crash, a scream, the howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling howling of life
The trumpet is howling, the poet is howling, his page is howling, the drummer, while sweating and beating is howling, Kerouac, “GO GO GO” is howling, black and white lips are howling, stage manager howling, laughter is howling, women are howling, leapers are howling, sunflowers and cigarettes are howling, pounding of drums, keys, and tables are under the howling of the dark misty midnights in the holy center breath.
Sinatra’s furrowed brow is ignored by the chaos of organic machinery in the jazz bop of the underground and the lingual fluid of the café.
In a final push of breath the art exhales and is dead. The cymbals of an era simmer to silence and the poet’s footsteps fall from earshot.
Ellington and Ginsberg, across country from one another, sit at a bar and shaking hands and speaking of eye opening inspiration.
The stages they each have left are forever changed.
San Francisco was the home of a thriving arts culture, known as the San Francisco Renaissance, which included literary, musical, and visual arts. This movement was in full swing before Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the beats descended upon it in the early 1950’s. Despite bringing international attention with them, the already established artists, like Kenneth Rexroth, ruth weiss, and Bob Kaufman, felt both comradery and disdain for the Beats and wanted to put a distance between their work and the Beats hedonism. These other poets who would become peripherally associated with the Beat movement wanted to maintain their established reputations while avoiding becoming a part of the cultural caricature that was the Beats. Rexroth, despite holding this feeling, worked to help establish the Beats, particularly Ginsberg, in the San Francisco scene. Rexroth would go on to be the latest link in the chain of Ginsberg’s most influential mentors, following the likes of William Carlos Williams and Kerouac.
Rexroth and wiess already considered themselves “Jazz poets” and used jazz with their poetry to create something new and exciting within the San Francisco Renaissance. Both poets would famously recite poetry backed by a jazz combo in the jazz clubs of the North Beach area of San Francisco. This connection of live reading with live jazz would create a ritualistic significance for both art forms and their live performance arenas. Ginsberg, having an interest in jazz poetry, was drawn to Rexroth, as he was the patriarch of the San Francisco scene, and Rexroth was aware that Ginsberg was arriving, due to a letter written to him by William Carlos Williams. Rexroth ran poetry workshops once a week, which Ginsberg attended when he arrived in San Francisco. It was in these workshops that Rexroth urged Ginsberg to drop the poetic formalities that he had learned at Columbia University and to embrace a more musical poetic line. This urging, along with “The Essentials for Spontaneous Prose” tacked “to the wall in his room”[viii] opened up a new experimentation with form for Ginsberg. This form offered a more free flowing style that is apparent throughout Ginsberg’s poems that accompany “Howl”, such as “Sunflower Sutra” and “America”. After hearing “Howl” at the famed Six Gallery reading, Rexroth attempted to have Ginsberg record the poem with a jazz combo, just as he had done with his own poetry, trying to intensify the Beat connection to jazz.
The west coast Jazz scene was a unique and short-lived movement within the Bebop tradition; much like the west coast Beat was within the San Francisco Renaissance. The figure head of this movement was pianist Dave Brubeck. Brubeck encapsulated everything that made the West Coast jazz unique. He was fresh and innovative, he took bebop to new places with more eccentric rhythms and melodies, he cut his teeth in west coast clubs in San Francisco, he was hip, and he was white. Just like the Beats, Brubeck took inspiration from both high and popular culture, like when he took “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and transformed it into one of the most idolized jazz explorations in the bop repertoire. He worked in lyrical and simple melodic lines, like the original song, but introduced complex jazz and classical techniques, rhythms, and harmonies to transform the tune into a legendary piece of high music. Brubeck’s blend of high and popular culture drew both criticism and praise, just as the Beats did when they combined street vernacular with Shakespearean dialogue.
The west coast scene had an abundance of white performers and this, in the jazz war of east and west, was enough for some critics to delegitimize the west coast scene. For others it proved jazz to be an art form with no boundaries. These white performers were seen as a breach of Bebop ideals by east coast purists, although many prominent black artists, like Charlie Parker, willingly and enthusiastically mingled in the scene with white performers. While this new scene on the west coast burned brightly for a time, it did eventually lose out to the New York Scene as many West Coat performers either moved to New York to find more success or just stopped playing music all together. This is reflective of Ginsberg’s own career when he returned to New York, after a brief voyage abroad, just as Thelonious Monk did after making the rounds on the west coast.
It was in this highly creative and energetic scene where Allen Ginsberg began to write his most famed poem, “Howl” and the poems that would accompany “Howl” in his first collection. In this whirlwind of creative power, centered on bebop, Ginsberg realised that “the key [to his poetry] is jazz choruses to some extent…with a long line comes a return to expressive human feeling”.[ix] This long line, inspired by Walt Whitman and Kerouac’s jazz obsession, and encouraged under Rexroth’s guidance, is very evident in the Ginsberg poem “Sunflower Sutra” and is evident, in its musical form, in the work of Lester Young.
Analysis of “Sunflower Sutra” and the music of Lester Young
The poem “Sunflower Sutra”, written in 1955 while Ginsberg was at the center of the San Francisco art scene, is one of his best known poems, and exemplifies the Beat writing techniques inspired by bebop jazz. This is strikingly evident when compared to the work of Lester Young, saxophonist and pioneer of bebop. Like Kerouac, Allen tried to incorporate jazz music into his writing. Ginsberg said of “Howl”:
“The ideal was…the legend of Lester Young playing through something like sixty-nine to seventy choruses of ‘Lady Be Good’… mounting and mounting and building and building more and more intelligence into the improvisation as chorus after chorus went on…so that it was a sort of ecstatic orgasmic expostulation of music….each verse being like a little saxophone obbligato or a little saxophone chorus.”[x]
This concept could also be applied to “Sunflower Sutra” as it was written in the same period as “Howl” and uses the same long line “saxophone chorus” structure. By incorporating this technique, Ginsberg, in “Sunflower Sutra”, transcends the page. Instead of writing about jazz, like many jazz poets did, he writes as jazz. While the poem has no mention of the jazz form, it is written with the technique of language equivalent to jazz musicianship.
Ginsberg transformed jazz poetry from something describing jazz, like James Emmanuel’s poem “Four Letter Word”, to something that existed as jazz. By doing this, Ginsberg is able to get past “struggling with the adjective”, as Roland Barthes puts it.[xi] Ginsberg finds his way around the “adjective” by embodying jazz rhythms, attitude, and breath, just as Kerouac set out to do in “Essentials for Spontaneous Prose”. Instead being stuck with the “adjective” to describe music in a way that Barthes describes as “a conversation ‘on’ music”,[xii] Ginsberg forgoes talking of music and instead writes as his own instrument and using the breath as a measuring device, creates fluid lines of work, similar to the introductory saxophone solo on the Lester Young song, “If Dreams Came True”. This technique is seen throughout the poem but is strikingly evident in the opening line of, “I walked on the banks of the tin can banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry”[xiii]. This opening line establishes the rhythm and breath tempo of the poem and introduces themes and sounds that return throughout the poem, like variation on a melody.
The opening line of the poem sets up motifs that return throughout the poem, but the most inspiring return is in the final long line, or breath, of the poem, which one must read in an increasing crescendo in order to get all the words out before running out of air. Ginsberg takes the notes of the “Locomotive”, the “sun”, “hills”, and even “tin can” that are established on the opening line and reworks them into something much grander and more emotionally stirring. This reestablishment of themes is the magical moment of breaking the quotidian within the poem, especially when Ginsberg reveals “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside”. This can be seen as a recapitulation of theme like that in Young’s performance of “Honey Suckle Rose” where the piano theme from the intro is reestablished in the final moments of the piece to round out the structure and create the feel of a journey.
The end of this poem also introduces a feeling of community and human connection. The narrative voice that address either themselves as “I” or the sunflower as a singular “you” then shifts in this final breath to a communal “we”. This climactic “sermon” is delivered to an audience and reveals the true identity of what it is to be human, that is “a beautiful golden sunflower”. This switch from individual to community reflects the shift from individual to community that Ginsberg himself felt while going from a young loner to a part of a wider artistic community. This shift is also present in the song, “Every Tub”. Approximately a minute into the tune, after the trumpet and piano solos, an ensemble horn line is played and establishes a type of camaraderie between the musical parts and between the musicians playing them. After this communal horn melody, another horn solo follows, but this time, instead of minimal accompaniment by the drums and piano, the full horn ensemble is involved in the accompaniment. This creates a much more lively, energetic, and communal climax to the song. The supporting horns create an audience for the horn solo “sermon” to preach to. This opens the texture of the song and takes it to new places; much like the communal element does in “Sunflower Sutra”.
It is apparent that many common techniques are used between these two pieces from different disciplines. Ginsberg has taken jazz, particularly the music of Lester Young, and used it as a way to compose, rather than as an object to compose about. In doing so he created a unique line and energy in his poetry, exemplified in “Sunflower Sutra”, a poem that is reflective of the energy and symbiotic relationship of Jazz and poetry in the San Francisco Renaissance.
[For part 2, click here]
[i] Ezra Pound, “Extract from “A Retrospective” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8.
[ii] Jack Kerouac, “Essentials for Spontaneous Prose”
[iv] Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960 (Berkeley: University of California press, 1992) p. 68
[v] Preston Whaley Jr., Blows Like A Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of U.S. Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) P. 42
[vi] Ibid P. 5
[vii] James Campbell, This Is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999) p. 80
[viii] Preston Whaley Jr., Blows Like A Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of U.S. Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) P. 83
[ix] James Campbell, This Is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999) p. 161
[x] David H. Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p.78
[xi] Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice” in Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977) p.180
[xii] Ibid p.179
[xiii] Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959) p. 35
Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.