Sam Charters – Jack Kerouac’s Jazz – 2 – Jack and Jazz

Jack Kerouac, 1959 – Photograph by John Cohen

Following on from yesterday’s introductory note. Here’s transcription of Sam Charters’ lively talk at the 1982 Naropa Kerouac Conference – on Kerouac and jazz (“Jack and Jazz”) – Mr Charters, it should be noted, is not responsible for the illustrations and the various, sometime random, hyper-links,  but we hope he won’t be too disappointed in them)

(And, as a complimentary experience, we  would also recommend David Brent Johnson “Jazz and Jack Kerouac” on his estimable Night Lights series) 

Sam Charters: I was talking last night to Edie Parker, wonderful, beautiful Edie Parker, who was Jack’s first wife. They started going up to hear jazz Harlem in 1940. She says they went up to  Minton’s club so much they wanted her to open a charge account. And, actually – as one tie-in with jazz – it was Lester Young, the great Kansas City tenor player, who gave Jack Kerouac his first marijuana! –  (that’s right!)

Jack discovered jazz, it seems,  when he went to Horace Mann School in New York in that year of an athletic scholarship  to prepare for his football career at Columbia. He met another student named Seymour Wise who was a great great jazz fan and Seymour really turned him on to jazz in a good way, and an exciting way, so that he saw the reality and the truth of jazz. And what I’d like to do is read a little something that Jack wrote about jazz and then try to show you the music he was talking about.

If you remember, there’s a wonderful section in On The Road when he and Neal go to a club in San Francisco to hear a jazz tenor player. There are two versions of this. The first version, significantly was published as “Jazz of The Beat Generation” (then) it was shortened for On the Road. This is the version that we get of “Jazz of the Beat Generation”, as Jack copyrighted it and published it under the name “Jean-Louis”, in 1955. I’ll see if I can give you some of Kerouac’s flavor in this there [Sam Charters begins reading from Kerouac, at approximately seven-and-a-quarter minutes in,through to approximately eleven-and-a-half minutes in]  -(“Out we jumped in warm mad night hearing a wild tenorman’s bawling horn across the way, going “EE-YAH!, EE-YAH!, EE-YAH!” and hands clapping to the beat and folks yelling, “Go, go, go!” Far from escorting the girls into the place, Dean was already racing across the street with his huge bandaged thumb in the air, yelling, “Blow, man, blow..” …”everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming in from the nearest precinct”)

Jack heard and Jack knew, and sometimes, sometime sthe music was that great, sometimes. On records you don’t hear it. You walk into a studio, cold, with your horn, it’s the wrong time of (the) morning, you gotta try and do something. Sometimes it happens, most of the time it doesn’t. But if you look around in recordings made in the little clubs, little bars, from the time, then you’ll hear it, what Jack heard. What I’m going to play you is from a tv program that I’m sure John Clelland Holmes heard, other people heard, it was from New York City in the (19)40’s it was WNEW Saturday night swing session – and they put on tape some crazy sounds in 1947 with some very beautiful people –Roy Eldridge, Flip Phillips, Charlie Ventura and you’ll hear them really blow [Sam Charters plays select cuts from the WNEW broadcast, beginning at approximately twelve-and-a-half minutes in, and continuing to approximately twenty-two-and-a-half minutes in]

Now this brings us directly to a period of Jack’s life when he was a musician. He was for a brief time, very brief, a member of a little-known New York jazz vocal trio.. (you may not.. John’s holding on…) The name of this trio was “The Three Tools”. We have with us one of the members of The Three Tools – John, will you please stand up – John Cleland Holmes. John loved jazz just as much as Jack did and, as he’s related it, his brother-in-law left a recording-machine in the apartment, one of these hundred-pound monsters with a huge heavy tonearm that you could cut discs on, and he decided that they would do some rather intellectual kind of readings (Jack would read from his books, they’d read Shakespeare). What they did, of course, was get drunk, put on the machine and do this kind of vocalese, do this kind of bopping, and this kind of goofing, to records, and, believe it or not, some of the discs still exist, and we’re hoping that, some day, John will make them available to the public – The Three Tools riffing to their favorite record(s)… John also wrote a marvelous book (one of them, of course, you know is Go, one of the first descriptions of the Beat Generation, and he also wrote a..  and, I don’t know whether anyone has said that.. in many of his definitions of the times, he defined the Beat Generation. Jack said “The Beat Generation’s the one that’s with the beat in jazz, they’re the ones who hear the beat, who feel beat, and that’s why they’re Beat Generation. So it is just this whole thing of jazz/beat which is so close. And John also wrote another book, a marvelous jazz novel (for me, the finest American jazz novel) called The Horn,  and, I don’t know whether he was trying to cut Jack (in the old-fashioned “cutting” session style) but he included a description of a tenor solo in his book. And, I’m gonna have to stand up and get my wind, but, I’m going to try and give you John’s tenor solo, in answer to Jack’s tenor solo (and a little tenor “cutting contest” there) (I asked John if he’d read instead, but he said, “Hell no, I haven’t got the breath,” so I’m going to have to try it there. This is from John Clellon Holmes’ novel, The Horn – it’s about a session in Harlem. John says it’s no particular tenor player, it’s just those tenor players, the ubiquitous tenor who was in every club, and didn’t want to make the big time, but could blow, could really blow.

[Sam Charters begins reading from John Clellon Holmes’ “The Horn”, at approximately twenty-five-and-a-half minutes in, concluding at approximately thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in –  (“And there, in front of them, the bandy-legged figure stood, with wild wig that no pomade could finally subdue, a long drape jacket reaching nearly to his knees as he leaned forward to begin, his loose shirt collar already wilted with anticipatory sweat, baggy pants pegged close around the tops of plaid-laced shoes as huge as coal scuttles, foot-long watch chain swinging on his thigh – there stood Metro Myland…”….”Right there NOW, the horn was raised horizontal over them, huge, triumphant, indissiduable, a gleaming miracle in the shocked light, repeating (of itself, it seemed) “zonky! zonky! zonky! zonky! zone! in thin high-pitched squirts of sound that said a clear and untranslatable “Yes!” to everything that was not of the mind, and then were drowned abruptly by the conclusive slamming of the drums, which brough the house lights up.”)  

Jack talked a lot about jazz himself and on one of the recordings he made, he recorded what he felt was his history of bop. (Now) any jazz-historian can listen to them and say, “Wow, man,Lionel Hampton doesn’t play the sax, he plays the xylophone”, well, we all know that, but that isn’t what it’s about. This is Jack’s own bop poetry, about what he felt about bop.And after I play you what he thought about it, I’m going to (let you hear) some of the things he’s talking about and tryand give you a glimpse into the jazz that he means.

[Sam Charters first plays the recording of Jack Kerouac reading his “History of Bop” – (“Bop began with jazz but one afternoon somewhere on a sidewalk, maybe 1939, 1940, Dizzy Gillespie, or Charlie Parker, or Thelonious Monk was walking past a men’s clothing store on Forty-Second Street or South Man in L.A. and from a loudspeaker they suddenly heard a wild impossible mistake in jazz that could only have been heard inside their own imaginary head, and that is a new art. Bop”… “ “ He is home at last. His music is here to stay. His history has washed over us. His imperialistic kingdoms are coming.”)

The club that Jack was is talking about is Minton’s Playhouse. It’s in Harlem. It was the Street off Lennox Avenue. It was an after-hours club. Jack says they started at ten p.m., no-one got there at  ten p.m., it got started about four in the morning when he got there.The biggest attraction was the wonderful new young guitar player, Charlie Christian(who was with the Benny Goodman band who was coming out to jam with the house band), Charlie was twenty-two, the piano player Thelonious Monk was twenty, they had Joe Guy who was married to Billie Holiday, playing incredibly bad trumpet – and the crowd really came to hear Charlie Christian. This got so popular that up the street a little way, there was another club that Jack used to go to all the time called Monroe’sClark Monroe’s up-town House The band there was Dizzy Gillespie, Ken Kersey on pianoandDon Byas on tenor.What Jack has done is put the two together.

Another friend if theirs from the Horace Mann days, (and a friend, certainly, of John Clellon Holmes) is Jerry Newman, who was a young kid as crazy about jazz as they were, and he was hauling up to those clubs one of his old heavy recording-machines and they were allowing him to record their jam sessions . There’s one problem with Jerry’s tapes, he.. – they weren’t tapes, they were discs – he didn’t like Charlie Parker! – so he turned the machine off every time Charlie took a solo! – So, for purposes of jazz history, they’re among the most infuriating recordings (ever made), but, later on in the ‘Fifties, he started his own record company and decided to put some of the things out- and one of the songs, if you’ll notice on the record, is a song called “Kerouac”.  This was the second time that Jack’s name appeared in print. The first had been his novel. But then came this crazy song by Dizzy Gillespie, recorded in May of 1940, up at Monroes. Certainly, Dizzy didn’t call it “Kerouac”, what he was playing was “Exactly Like You”(da-da da-da da-da/da-da da-da-da/da-da-da-da-da-da…exactly like you). Now the problem, there were two problems with recording “Exactly Like You”, one was that they would have to pay royalties to the person who wrote it. Another problem was which people do forget…in those days, the people who controlled copyrights could stop any recording if they did not care for the arrangement. So a number of the fine bop musicians made recordingsand found,particularly in the case of Jerome Kern that Mrs Kern would simply not allow the records to be released. So, for once in their lives, Congress moved quickly and amended the law, so what we have in the record business now is called “Compulsory Licensing”, so that we are permitted to release any arrangement of a song, as long as we pay the royalties, but, in this case, Jerry Newman was stuck with an example of “Exactly Like You”, which he didn’t want to release and pay the royalties, and he was afraid it would get stopped.So he was talking to Allen and he said “What shall we call it ? . And Allen said “Ginsberg”, and he said, “No, that sounds too Jewish”, so then he said,“Lets call it Kerouac” so, indeed, the song you will now hear, Dizzy Gillespie playing quite improbably a song which is called “Kerouac”

[At approximately forty-one-and-three-quarter minutes in, Sam Charters plays Dizzy Gillespie’s “Kerouac‘] – (“A young Dizzy Gillespie, very young and not quite sure of himself but already showing signs of the kind of power and authority he was to have later”).

Why bop? Why was Jack so drawn to be-bop? We look back on bebop now as a kind of historical curiosity, something that came and went. There are only a handful of people now [1982] who can play bop. There are really only a handful now who can really understand what it was. Jack knew. Jack really understood what bebop was.The things he said in that “History..” about what had happened to swing. Jazz, as you know, was a great revolutionary breakthrough.

I heard a marvelous story. Among my first books were books I wrote about jazz in New Orleans and I was talking to some fellows who’d heard the very very first jazz band in 1897 – the Buddy Bolden Band – and we tend to look back on that as being kind of corny ol’ time blues. Buddy was actually the sharpest dude in town. He had the sharpest clothes, he knew the best tunes, he was the cat who could make it with all the chicks the cat who was right “with it” – so, when these musicians went in and heard this band play, they didn’t hear some out-of-tune blues, they didn’t hear something deep down and funky, they heard the latest, the hippest, and the hottest, thing they could hear. And they said that they listened, and (that) the band stood up, and they all played a tune – and they couldn’t understand what they were doin’ – they’d never heard anything like it – and the band stopped, and they didn’t know why they’d stopped – and they sat down – and these other cats were in the audience, and (just got up) shaking their heads, they couldn’t believe it.
And then I was talking to some musicians who went and heard Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie (Parker) play bop on 52nd Street in 1945. They had done the same thing. Here were the sharpest, the hottest, the coolest, dudes in town, and they had invented a new way to play music- and these fellows said – they were musicians – and these fellows went in, and sat down, and the band stood up, and they played something that they couldn’t understand at all, and then, somehow, they all stopped together, and (then they) walked off the bandstand – and these cats said, in exactly the same way, “We didn’t understand anything they were doing”.So here was the same thing. Bop was that kind of revolution, bop was a new beginning. As Jack said, swing music had come along (which was the ultimate commercialization of the first jazz, the first jazz was small bands, it was Louis Armstrong, it was King Oliver, it was creating in a kind of ensemble together, but it made money, so, immediately, it grew. The bands got bigger, (which means everybody had to read music, if you’re reading music, then you had to have fellas filling in the parts (they needn’t all be exciting?), so it turned in, as Jack said, to an incredible big commercial schmear – It was sold to the troops in World War II (Harry James went on tour, Tommy Dorsey played…) it was ridiculous what happened). So all these young musicians (and at this point, they’re all kids, they’re the same age as Jack, they’re in their twenties, their nineteen, they’re twenty, they’re twenty-two),they suddenly decided that they were going to make something that was their own. And it grew out of what they all could do. It grew out of swing. It grew out of these big bands, the big ensembles, but they went back to small bands, to expressing themselves.

The chords… they changed the chords all around. What… It had gotten so popular, jazz at that point,with  these jam sessions you’d get thirty-five young neighborhood tenor players wanting to sit in and play. The bandstands were too little. So they say that what happened with Monk was – (that) he started playing funny chords when they started to walking towards the bandstand with their horns – so (then) they’d stop and listen to him a little, and then they’d back off and sit down!

Kenny Clarke

Kenny Clarke (1914-1985)

The drummer that the were working with, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Clarke was playing at the Savoy Ballroom  – and they were playing these jitterbug numbers (like this – [Samuel Charters gives a fast hand clap] for everybody, and the style in those days was for the bass-drummer (because you work with your bass-drum) to play twice as fast, so he’s [Samuel Charters now claps to show a faster tempo] and he had to do that for almost every number – So, finally, Kenny Clarke, he said “Fuck this!”.  So he started going [Samuel Charters  claps now with variant rhythm] he started working with the beat, instead of just breaking his leg, pumping it out. And then what Kenny Clarke discovered and it’s a beautiful thing(and I don’t know where it came from) that if you put the rhythm back on the cymbal (you know,choo-choo-choo-choo-cho-choo), you get the bop rhythm back on the cymbal, then you can play with the drums. What had happened was this marvelous thing. Jazz, when it began, was so heavily influenced by the whole white music trip, and what it did, through bop, was become black. And what Kenny Clarke had done was to rediscover the way a basic African drum orchestra plays (because in a basic drum orchestra, the rhythm’s not in the drums, it’s in a little metal clanger that goes ch-ch-ch-ch -ch-ch-ch all the time, and your big bass drums are going ah bah –bah-ba-ba bah bah, and then you got your middle drums going (clap-clap-clap) and then you got your…ch-ch-chSo what Kenny Clarke did was to bring Africa back into drumming, It was suddenly black, in a way that it had never been before.

And these were the things that Jack was understanding. You have it in the piano with the chords, Monk protesting against the standardization. You have it in Kenny Clarke suddenly discovering that there was a way within his own roots and his own psyche that expressed a whole new thing.And then you have Charlie Parker who just discovered that if you carried all these simple little melodies that they were playing a step further, you found the melody that was within the melody,

Part of what they did in this marvelous burst of black expression was also try to have something that was their own I’ve spent a lot of my life in(tape cuts out momentarily here but then takes up again)   Thomas Rice who saw a black doing a dance, and he brought the black man’s clothes, and he learned his dance, and he blacked up his face, and did it on the stage, and it was called “Jump Jim Crow”, and it became the basis of the whole of American popular entertainment in the 19th Century.  The first minstrel show was four young men, (one of them Dan Emmett. who wrote Dixie’), who “blacked-up”, put on the clothes that they’d taken from the slaves on the plantations and they did the songs in the way that they heard the slaves do them. This has been, all the time, the story of what has happened to black creativity.With bop, there was a feeling, among Parker and Gillespie, that they would do something so pure, so hard, so challenging, that, for once, whites couldn’t follow it. (And, when you look back at what happened with bop, there were, certainly, white performers, but none of them matched the creativity of the great black artists). And they have left behind a legacy in bop of just total purity. And it could only have lasted a short time because there was not an audience for it, but, because of the history, (coming when it did, 1945 through 1948), it was possible, through a number of small companies, to record it and to document it. And this is what Jack is responding to (not that it’s new, not that it’s now), Jack knew what it was, he knew that it was the spirit of revolt, he knew that it was a spirit of black-ness, he knew it was a spirit of creation, and it’s this that Jack was hearing in bop.

to be continued..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately five-and-a-half minutes in  and continuing to approximately fifty two minutes in]

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