HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

The Bop Beat
© 1999, Shihwe Wang

The bebop revolution coincided with the birth of the Beat Generation. In a slightly unbalanced relationship, Beat writers often molded their poetics and style after the playing of such jazz music. "Jazz writers," such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, upheld their poetic ideals to the techniques of jazz musicians, such as rhythm, improvisation, and call and response. The structure of creative writing underwent a change, as the importance of form equaled that of theme.

Swing, the predecessor of bop, was big, sweet, and hot. The performers were big bands, fronted by a charismatic bandleader, yet the success of a piece depended mostly on the unity of the ensemble as a whole, rather than on the showcasing of prodigious individuals. The requisite instrument was the saxophone, which was often smooth and mellifluous. Songs were old favorites, or simple jazz standards, that had been arranged to suit a large ensemble. Swing bands played in large venues, such as ballrooms, and to large audiences, who seized the opportunity to not just tap their toes, but to "jump, jive, and wail." The swing era became the most popular form of jazz, as it catered to audiences as a form of social and interactive entertainment.

So, bop can be seen as a reaction to the eventual sterilization and ubiquity of swing music. The first bop records were made by in 1944 by Coleman Hawkins experimenting with his swing band. Several individuals were instrumental in the propagation of this new form, such as Charlie "Bird" Parker (alto sax), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Thelonious Monk (piano), Bud Powell (piano), Miles Davis (trumpet), and Charles Mingus (bass). The standard ensemble became a quintet, consisting of piano, bass, drums, reed instrument, and trumpet.

The distinguishing factors of the bop style were: notes that were more far-reaching, and which contained a rhythm that was looser and more complex. Instead of the traditional stressing of the first and third beat of a measure, as in traditional Western music, bop music stresses the second and fourth. The playing pattern usually initiates with the theme, then follows with a reed solo, trumpet solo, piano solo, bass or drum solo every second, third, or fourth number. Within a song would sometimes hold "trading fours," alternating four-bar improvisations between instruments. Usually, the piece would end with a restatement of the theme (Jones 42-43). Additionally, when familiar tunes were included, it was to satirize such antiseptic creations of the white world, and were more often then not turned upon their heads and wrecked for bop motives.

Bop musicians rejected the idea of playing solely for an audience; they graduated from the roles of entertainers to the positions of musicians. Their music was not as melodic and hyperactive as swing. Subsequently, bop never became an obsession of popular culture, and remained introspective, for a largely introspective Beat culture.

The Beat Generation was a movement which rebelled against the social and literary conformity and conservatism of white, middle class, suburban, post-war America. The term "Beat" holds many origins. One is canonized, as tired and weary. Another derivation, pinpointed by Kerouac, comes from the word "beatitude," holy, state of ultimate bliss. A relevant definition to jazz involves the division of music into equal portions, such as "four beats to a measure."

The Beats sought the grit and grim of urban life, the poverty and pathos of black existence. Thus, they happened upon, in the sweeped-into-the-cobwebbed corners of American life, the liquor-nursed, Benzedrine-hopped cats of smoky jazz joints.

Their solution is to be beat. To be beat is to let your life come tumbling down into a humpty-dumpty heap, and with it, into the same heap, the humpty-dumpty meanings which language attempts to sustain....From the ruin of yourself pick yourself up (if you can) but let old meanings lie. Now cross on over to the outcast side of the street to where the hip folk and the jazz folk live, for the way your life is now is the way their lives have been for years. Step right in through the Open Door to where the tenor man is crouching with the bell mouth of his horn down in the basement near his feet....And life is Holy. And this is the meaning of words. Life is holy, and the journey is Now. Say it with a Bop beat (Tallman 220-221).

This interpretation of Beat life by Warren Tallman synthesizes the attitude that the Beats held towards the abject lifestyle prescripted to black jazz musicians. The Beats, overwhelmingly white, and college-educated, foregoed their inherited social status for a romanticized vision of a bohemian lifestyle. The above passage also reveals the intricate relationship between the language used by the Beats and the lifestyle they emulated, both summarized by jazz music.

Many similarities have been drawn between the musician and the writer. As both make art, many individuals have progressed or alternated between one medium and another. Writer Ralph Ellison is one who began his adult career as a trumpet player, but then switched to writing as his primary passion; although his art still perseveres as an embodiment of musical homage.

Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" -- all at the same time....Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat (Ellison 7-8).

Jazz is an offspring of a long oral tradition of African music. But, it does not remain parochial; rather, the "act of visualizing jazz" makes it possible for all peoples and artists to grab a portion of its offerings, including "poets trying to break apart the language to imitate sound" (Feinstein xx). The importance of the oral tradition in poet Allen Ginsberg's mind leads him to emphasize the importance of sound; if a work can be sounded out in memory, then it has solidarity (Cusic 83). Although society now provides technological means of making audio records or preserving literature, the ultimate reinforcement of the creative process requires the remembrance of the sounds of creation.

Subsequently, in the culture of the Beats, poetry is not merely a presence of "the writer's fusion of ink and paper," but a form of performance art. Writing for the eye has long been hurdled, but, even writing for the ear has been surpassed, while the Now is writing for the voice (Feinstein 80). Sometimes, poets have even performed with the accompaniment of jazz music, although that is not necessary to emulate jazz performances. Bookstores and coffeehouse franchises have recently desensitized artistic audiences to the visceral release of artists reading their own work. But, in 1956, the paragon performer-poet Ginsberg's rendition of his "Howl," blasphemed the popular and conforming culture, while inciting feelings of communion and ecstasy (Feinstein 79).

Not only have the habits of public performance have been mirrored in Beat poetry, but in the three instruments of jazz form as well: rhythm, improvisation, and the call and response. This first, rhythm, has been utilized in the United States since the onset of free verse. According to Ginsberg, "the main line of poetry is the breath, not the page" (Tongue 94). Following the free-verse tradition of Walt Whitman, a Beat-like luminary, the meter of Ginsberg's poetry is like American dialect, wrought with rhythmic shift and "staccato abruptness" (Feinstein 81).

I'm with you in Rockland
      where we wake up electrified out of coma
      by our own souls' airplanes roaring over the
      roof they've come to drop angelic bombs the
      hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls col-
      lapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-
      spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is
      here O victory forget you're underwear we're
      free (Howl 26)

This, the penultimate stanza of "Howl," illustrates the incorporation of free verse, and thus, breath as the only limiting factor on verse. Ginsberg reads his poetry like a mantra, often ending lines with a rising intonation. But, that is not always the case, sometimes there is no cause for breath at the end of a line; conversely, sometimes an interjection in the middle of a line does require the performer to take a breath. The tempo is not static either; for example, when Ginsberg reads this poem he accelerates slightly at the end of the stanza.

The similarity between the temporal construction of a jazz creation and a poetic one is acute. Clark Coolidge, a drummer and poet, inquires after the relationship, of language and "wordless shapes of time" (Feinstein 255). Music happens between certain constrictions, those of beat and count. Clearly, poetry behaves in a similar manner. Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady's persona in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, stresses that "we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE" (Road 208). Time is not oppressive if one knows how to use it effectively, which jazz musicians and Beat poets knew how to do. Time is another reed, or other nib, if one utilizes and expands within it. Kerouac accounts this working within a framework in the writing of his blues choruses, which are constricted by his "breastpocket notebook in which they are written, like the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and...so that, in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician's spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses. It's all gotta be non-stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot (Blues).

As alluded to by Kerouac, spontaneity is the most vital and defining characteristic of jazz. In playing music, this takes on the form of improvisation, which, according to Maxine Cassin, is that "breathtakingly unexpected but never accidental" occurrence (Feinstein 253). Thus, the conditions of Now are right for improv, which the talented musician recognizes, but which fall upon the audience's ears serendipitously. Ornette Coleman, modern jazz saxophonist, explains, "forget about the changes in key and just play within the range of the idea" (Goldson). Simply, the technique is taken for granted and surpassed, while the attentions of the player only needs to be conducive to the opportunity for improvisation.

In accordance, Ginsberg once called Kerouac's style as "spontaneous bop prosody." The ideal is not "perfection," but egalitarian honesty. The syntax is rid of all punctuation except for the "vigorous" dash, representing the jazz musician taking breath between phrases (Essential 65-66). The essence cannot be hampered by forethought or planning, by discrimination or discernment. All thoughts are free, all thoughts are valid. Time, once again, plays a role. Time is not spent for mulling over the "correct" word. In fact, articulation means an admittance of no real feelings, since feelings cannot be debased into syntactical language (Podhoretz 204).

Because of this stream-of-consciousness approach, the Great Law of timing deems necessary the "scatological buildup" of words till satisfaction. Writing is not a strive for perfection, but an honest transmission of thought and emotion; thus, revision is unnecessary, actually, heretical (Essential 66). This haphazard is present in jazz playing, too. Coolidge points to the example of Elvin Jones, who sometimes solos so long that, he looks for "the right way to get out. Sometimes the door goes right by and I don't see it, so I have to wait until it comes around again. Sometimes it doesn't come around at all for a long time" (Feinstein 255). Yet, his playing during this time is not wrong or embarrassing, but simply another performance.

Finally, the last characteristic of jazz is the call and response, which declares an interactive relationship between the artist and the listener. Sometimes, the listener is a fellow collaborator. In "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin describes the pull and connectivity between the fellow jazzmen:

I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along....Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again" (Baldwin 138-9).

The balance between the artists was absolutely necessary: they were one family, one body, one couldn't strike out to sea without the others in synchronous tow, or seek the shoreline without the others in harmonious rhythm. Otherwise, drowning of a member, or the number.

This musical, or spiritual, connection is also found between performers and audience members. But, the audience has to traverse the length between art and entertainment, because the artist does not pander to the audience. But, Dean Moriarty has the ability and desire to seek the artist's plane of "madness":

The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff....Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it....Dean was in a trance. The tenorman's eyes were fixed straight on him; he had a madman who not only understood but cared and wanted to understand more and much more than there was...." (Road 198-99).

The Beats delved passionately into such emotional expenditures; oh yes, they were mad, but they seized upon their insanity with gratitude.

After deconstructing the forms of jazz and Beat writing, we see many similarities. External from the creation of these two forms of art, is the reason for their existence. Ironically, both could not have developed, if not for the overriding, vacuous, and confining society of their period. Both were visionary by performing something formerly suppressed and hedonistic, but which became the foundation for the dominating culture of the 1960s.

Works cited

Baldwin, James. Going to Meet the Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Cusic, Don. The Poet as Performer. New York: University Press of America, Inc., 1991.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Feinstein, Sascha and Komunyakaa, Yusef, ed. The Jazz Poetry Anthology. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and other poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.

_____________. Composed on the Tongue. Bolinas, Cal: Grey Fox Press, 1980.

Jones, Morley. Jazz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Blues. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

___________. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1975.

___________. "The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." Casebook on the Beat. Thomas Parkinson, ed. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1961. 65-67.

Podhoretz, Norman. "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." Casebook on the Beat. Thomas Parkinson, ed. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1961. 204.

Tallman, Warren. "Kerouac's Sound." Casebook on the Beat. Thomas Parkinson, ed. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Company, 1961. 220-221.

Waters, Kristen. "Pandering to Publishers." Sequel. Vol. 10 (1998): 61.

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