Contemplating Jazz: Ginsberg and Bebop, Part 2 of 2
[This is part 2 is a 2 part series. For part 1, click here]
Section 3: Ginsberg and his return to The New York Scene
Returning to the center of the universe,
a wiser, more respected literary figure settles
back into the jumping tenements of his youth.
The world of the city is comfortable after
his adventures in Europe and the subcontinent
adventures full of French smoke and Indian sickness
that only a heathen saint would pursue
The writing of another sacred text brings
ever more fame to G which he
uses to explore the new sky scraper class
of life, unavailable to him
as an unpublished hipster.
Habits of hazy days die hard as G spends his days
back in jazz clubs but these same days will soon haze.
Still in love with the bop prose of the club
G is now more than before, a friend and
contemporary of the jazz greats
now gods are friends.
Ellington smokes outside the club between sets with G and they exchange poetries, “makes sense”, they say.
Made sense did life as a bohemian bop apocalyptic beat bum, fire raging in the golden state of sun, and mixing the organic expression of night life as a marginalized mover in the machinery of society.
But the decades changed from drug induced blues to drug induced electric marching and the beats morphed into the florescent angels followed by conscientious objectors, hippies, folkies, and Bob Dylan.
Horns turned to wood and strings, voices scratched at the soul, and the tradition of G was transferred to the popular stage.
Helping it along, G turned to his own mind
and began to slow it down. Bunting, Briggflats and Bob
shaped G anew into a folk hero who supported other folk heroes
The jazz was gone and the black population left in the dark
as the beats moved on to the wider world of
protests and color and pop and festivals and folk rock.
Carrying American tradition on his back as he walked across the country
G never stopped to think of what comes next, he just did it.
After leaving San Francisco and spending some time abroad, Allen Ginsberg settling back in New York City in 1958. The Greenwich Village scene had transformed into a more eclectic bohemian scene that included the painters, poets, actors, musicians, and more. After a brief threat from the west coast, New York was once again the cultural capital of the United States. The literary and jazz epicenters were once again in New York. Ginsberg was now revered as an American hero, who helped spread American and Beat ideals across the world on his travels. He returned to New York as a pop culture figure and literary legend, as opposed to the young, unpublished college dropout he was when he first left New York. Living as a professional poet, Ginsberg was afforded the opportunity to frequent the many jazz clubs and cafes around lower Manhattan where many other artists spent their time. this mix of artists— with a changing social attitude, more sexual liberation, and expanded drug experimentation — shifted from 50’s Beat culture to 60’s Hippie culture, a shift which Ginsberg helped lead. There was a new American confidence in the arts, which started with William Carlos Williams’s appropriation of American speech in poetry, which was fulfilled in the work of Ginsberg, and in Jazz, a uniquely American form that was finding popularity across the world with many different audiences, while flourishing at home.
The Jazz scene in New York was once again the dominant scene and the performers were augmented by the other artists. Poets and painters were elevated from sitting in the audience to becoming friends with the performers. The Beats were on friendly terms and spent time with Miles Davis, for example. These “secret heroes” were now friends. As Ron Sukenick said, “the uniquely native American art form, Jazz, became…more central than ever for underground artists of all kinds. It came together at the Five Spot”.[i] The Five Spot, a prominent Jazz club on the scene was a hangout spot for musicians and artists of all genres. For example, one could find Allen Ginsberg and the fellow Beats a table next to Frank O’Hara and the rest of the New York School poets, or the Jazz musicians who got their start on the west coast, fully integrating with the New York legends. The Five Spot is where Ginsberg met and befriended Thelonious Monk. After giving a Monk a copy of “Howl” and asking what he thought, Monk responded with, “It makes sense”.[ii] this interaction reinforces not only the connection between jazz and Beat poetry, but also the notion that Beat poetry is best understood by those “in the know”, those that understand the Beat ideals of spontaneity, candor, and social and sexual liberation, not the critic who dismissed “Howl” as nonsense, such as John Hollander when he referred to “Howl” as a “dreadful little volume”.[iii]
Analysis of “Laughing Gas” and the music of Thelonious Monk
Ginsberg’s poem “Laughing Gas” was written after his return to New York City in 1958 and was included in the collection Kaddish and Other Poems. It was during this time that Thelonious Monk and his quartet were in the middle of their residency at the Five Spot club. Ginsberg spent much time in the Five Spot soaking up Monk’s cool jazz. In 1958, the bebop musicians had all returned to New York and the style became more complex and mature, which is shown no more intensely than in Monk’s performances at the Five Spot. Much like jazz, Ginsberg’s own writing style became more complex and mature at this point in his career. He had moved on from his long line form of poetry and, in “Laughing Gas” used a slightly more structured approach, while still keeping the dashes to indicate breath and the feeling of spontaneity. This new structure lends itself to a much more angular rhythm. This poem is far less free flowing than “Sunflower Sutra”. And much like Ginsberg’s poetry, Bebop shifted from the flowing legato lines of Lester Young into a much more angular and rhythmic melodic composition. These angular lines are on full display throughout Monk’s Five Spot performances but are particularly prevalent on the songs “Carry on the Hudson” and “Blue Monk”. The signature melody in the latter is used to anchor the beginning and end of the piece while allowing room for improvisation and interplay between instruments.
Part one of “Laughing Gas”, on the page, looks very much like the melodic structure of a Thelonious Monk performance. The first nine stanzas are fairly compact and offer interesting rhythm variations, before the poem collapses into a formless discharge of energy, like the saxophone cadenza in “Blues Five Spot”, complete with a capital “WHAT”[iv] for rhythmic emphasis, like a heavy chord accent, something Monk favors while accompanying soloists.
Part two of “Laughing Gas” is a mixture of stanzas that begin and end with ellipses and stanza that do not. This adds a type of disembodied, floating quality to the section. There is a disjointedness that gives the impression of two unrelated concepts working together. This is very similar to the relationship between saxophone and piano on the saxophone solo in “Light Blue”. The interplay between the two instruments is so complex it is as though they are playing unrelated pieces of music, but in fact they are working through complex harmonic and rhythmic relations. Ginsberg very well may have used this idea of disjointed harmony when composing the second section of “Laughing Gas”. An extension of this is part three of the poem when where the whole section’s structure breaks down and is turned a formless mess of words. In “Carry on the Hudson” during the horn solo, about two minutes and thirty seconds into the song, the harmonies, which are the structure of music, become so experimental they lose shape and all the rules of jazz harmony collapse into a confusing, yet exhilarating climax to the solo.
The length of “Laughing Gas” alone reflects trends that were happening in jazz, as well. While many of Ginsberg’s earlier poems were fairly long in length, “Laughing Gas” is stretched farther than before and allows for more poetic expression. It is split up into five sections, almost like movements of a symphony, and themes stretch across the boundaries of each section. This is parallel to the trend in jazz of stretching out tunes. Gone are the days of the compact two to three-minute charts of Lester Young. Now, Thelonious Monk and his colleagues were stretching charts from anywhere between three minutes to twenty minutes. This was another way for the musicians to add opportunities to improvise and experiment with harmony and rhythm. “Laughing Gas” and “Blue Monk” both have more space to stretch out and experiment than “Sunflower Sutra” and “Every Tub”, respectively. Ginsberg applies the same concepts of stretched experimentation found in “Blue Monk” to “Laughing Gas”.
There are strong connections between the techniques used in “Laughing Gas” and the techniques used by Thelonious Monk and his quartet during their residency at the Five Spot. Being that Ginsberg frequented the Five Spot more than most during this time and, of course, has a proclivity for incorporating jazz technique into his writing, it is fair to say that Monk’s residency most likely had an influence on the composition of “Laughing Gas” which was written during the same time period.
Section 4: Conclusion
It was always apparent, to those that study the Beat Generation, that Bebop was important to the Beat writers. What may not be apparent is how deeply the importance was felt to the Beats. Allen Ginsberg used his experiences to inform his poetry. One of his largest experiences was the time he spent in jazz clubs on both coasts of the United States, so it would follow reason that he would incorporate jazz into his work. Under the guidance of his friend, Jack Kerouac, and west coast mentor, Kenneth Rexroth, Ginsberg was able to incorporate jazz ideology more fully than any poet before him.
The importance of music was impressed on Ginsberg after meeting Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, Lucien Carr, and William S. Burroughs in New York as a young undergraduate at Columbia University. Spending time in the jazz clubs with these men was something that would impact his career and American literature like nothing else. Rather than from Columbia, Ginsberg’s true poetic education came from the smoke-filled Jazz clubs of New York. When first exposed to greats like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker; Ginsberg and the Beats decided to model themselves after these men, not only in fashion and attitude, but in ideology and craft, as well. And this was a key element in the first act of Ginsberg’s career.
Following on from New York, the San Francisco jazz scene that Ginsberg found himself in was an exciting and productive time that sparked creativity for artists of many disciplines. It was in San Francisco that Ginsberg, under Kenneth Rexroth, perfected his long line technique and began blowing poetry like jazz. His practice of building up intensity with the long line like Lester Young was something that set him apart from the other poets working in the San Francisco Renaissance and that helped establish his reputation as a new poetic force.
Back in New York, as an established legend of American poetry in 1958, Ginsberg continued to use jazz as a source of inspiration, but this time as more of an equal than an admirer. Now friends with the men he once idolized, Ginsberg experimented and modulated his poetry like a topflight horn player. As Thelonious Monk added classics to the jazz repertoire, Ginsberg continued to add to the American Poetic tradition with musically influenced poems, like “Kaddish” and “Laughing Gas” and solidified the love affair with the American poetry tradition and the uniquely American musical form of jazz.
Allen Ginsberg became an ambassador for poetry and for jazz in the 1950s. He helped bring attention to talented artists of both poetry and music and is one of the most famous American poets of all time. as his career continued through the twentieth century, Ginsberg moved on to pop music, intense hallucinogenic drugs, and free speech activism, becoming, debatably, the most famous living literary figure in the world, until his death in 1997. But before all that, when he was just starting out as a young poet, his entire life changed — and in consequence, the landscape of world literature — with a Bop note played in the dark.
[i] David H. Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) p.75
[ii] Barry Miles, Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (London: Virgin Books, 2002) p. 249
[iii]John Hollander, Review of Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Partisan Review Spring 1957
[iv] Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish and other poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1961) p. 67
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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.