The Jazz.com Blog
March 18, 2009 · 8 comments
For better or worse, the leaders of the Beat Generation, and especially Jack Kerouac, are inextricably linked in the public's mind to the jazz world. Yet what was the real connection between Kerouac and jazz? Jazz.com’s Jared Pauley reports on a symposium at Columbia University that addressed this very issue. T.G.
The 1950s were a very interesting time for jazz. Culturally there was change in the air with an entire generation living under the umbrella of the Cold War, finding different and new ways to express themselves through story, music, and poetry. The Beat Generation had long had an association with jazz particularly in New York City. The Beats wrote about the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with passion and delight but what was the real association between the Beat Generation and jazz musicians? In particular, where does Jack Kerouac rank in the critical history of jazz? Perhaps not all of these questions have been answered for me, but I recently gained a deeper knowledge and appreciation for Mr. Kerouac.
On Tuesday March 10th at Philosophy Hall, Columbia University held a symposium on the jazz writing of Jack Kerouac and his involvement in the motion picture Pull My Daisy. The setting was an appropriate one, since Kerouac attended Columbia University on a football scholarship. Participating on this panel were record producer George Avakian, musician David Amram, Columbia professor John Szwed, and Italian scholar Sarah Villa who has translated some of Kerouac’s unpublished writings on jazz into Italian. After a brief introduction by Dr. George Lewis, the head of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, the seminar began with a look at some of Kerouac’s unpublished critical writings on jazz.
The heart of the seminar revolved around Kerouac’s participation in the movie Pull My Daisy, in which David Amram also made an appearance along with poet Allan Ginsberg. Here is where my biases come straight to the surface regarding the way in which the seminar was conducted. I am product of Rutgers’ University and the Institute of Jazz Studies roundtable discussions, where interaction among the audience and speakers is almost a prerequisite. Don’t get me wrong, I have a strong appreciation for New Jazz Studies, but many of the people in attendance would have taken anything that was said at face value.
Is this the future of jazz in modern academia? Has the music has taken a back seat to cultural analysis? One could argue that yes, this is the future of jazz in academia because this tendency has already been in place for the last twenty years. But where should musicians who have chosen to cover music do so in the midst of New Jazz Studies? If not for the involvement of David Amram in this seminar on Kerouac, the average person would have been lost as to where the conversation was headed in regards to the Beat author’s involvement other than via unpublished jazz essays.
Now, Sarah Villa gave some wonderful insight into the Jack Kerouac essay “The Beginning of Bebop,” which was published in Escapade in October 1959. Her doctoral work at the University of Milan and at Columbia explored the critical response to Kerouac’s writings on jazz. Some of the responses were actually flattering while others were more disdainful. Overall, she provided a nice insight into things about Kerouac’s life and writing that I wasn’t aware of. More importantly, Kerouac’s piece in Escapade showed that Kerouac did actually have music analysis in him. The excerpts that were shown during her PowerPoint presentation surprised me with regards to how in depth Kerouac’s listening skills as a non-musician were.
Leading up to the analysis of Pull My Daisy, I was curious as to how the seminar was going to evolve. It ended being the David Amram musical hour pretty much, which was nice but a little redundant. He spoke at length about his participation with Jack Kerouac at the Five Spot in 1957 when the two first started to fuse spoken word with jazz. Kerouac also performed at the Brata Art Gallery in December of 1959 on East 10th Street in NYC, another fact I wasn’t aware of. The movie Pull My Daisy featured a plethora of different Beats and David Amram described the making of the movie with vivid detail. This quote below describes the process Kerouac went through for recording his narrations for the film: according to Amram, “He watched the film and made up the narration on the spot. He did it two times through spontaneously and that was it. He refused to do it again. He believed in spontaneity and the narration turned out to be the best part of the film.”
I figured Kerouac was into being spontaneous but I wasn’t aware at how much his mentality was like that of an improvising jazz musician. Take it for what you will, but I was delighted to learn of these different attributes. Kerouac’s work has always intrigued me, as has the participation of the Beatniks in jazz, but this seminar did give some great detail from people who were there and knew him personally.
In the end, the roundtable was informative but everything was a touch too romanticized for me—but I should have known better. I get the feeling that there weren’t many musicians present at this symposium, but I still gained a greater and deeper understanding of Jack Kerouac’s participation in 1950s jazz and how important his role was. The Center for Jazz Studies really has a lot of potential, I just wish they would be more specific and focus more on the music; but let’s give Columbia a chance and find out more of where they are taking their particular brand of New Jazz Studies.
And on a closing note, I think it defeats the purpose of having a wonderful, I repeat, wonderful person like George Avakian on the board, yet he only gets to say three or four sentences at the beginning of the seminar. I have learned more from that man in our short conversations than I have from reading entire books. Just food for thought . . . but come on, Avakian is a walking jazz history book. For those interested Columbia University’s next symposium will feature Yale ethnomusicologist Michael Veal discussing Miles Davis and his music in 1969 on Monday April 6th at 8:00 p.m. in Philosophy Hall. Should be interesting to see where this one goes. I’ll be there.
This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley.