The Beat writers and poets of the 1940s and 1950s, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, were strongly influenced by bebop musicians. Jack Kerouac, in books such as On the Road, attempted to adapt the rhythms and improvisation of bebop to prose. In a 1968 interview, poet Allen Ginsberg said that Kerouac “learned his line ... directly from Charlie Parker and Gillespie and Monk. He was listening to Gillespie’s ‘Symphony Sid’ and ‘Night in Tunisia’ and all the Bird–flight–noted things which he then adapted to prose line.” Ginsberg himself noted that his seminal poem, Howl, was influenced by tenor saxophonist Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.”
The Beats also saw bebop as a form of protest against white middle-class conformity in the post’ÄìWorld War II period. Sal Paradise, a character in On the Road, remarks, “This is the story of America. Everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to do.” Kerouac and other Beat writers saw bebop musicians as rebels and “prophets” that represented the best of American genius and artistic innovation.
Read the following excerpts from On the Road*. On a separate piece of paper describe how Kerouac’s perspective on American culture differs from the traditional middle–class culture of the 1950s. See if you can identify characteristics of the prose that are similar to the musical characteristics of bebop.
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes Awww!” (p. 5)
“I was adventuring in the crazy American night.” (p. 100)
“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 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.” (p. 12)
“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, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Bennie Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest—Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious 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; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched–out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick–soled shoes so that he can’t feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.” (p. 241)
*Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Penguin Group, 2003).