“All I can say is, if you know Jimmy Heath, you know Bop.” — Dizzy Gillespiei
Jack Kerouac, jazz enthusiast extraordinaire, was inspired by and promoted jazz in his writing. He breathed jazz in prose and poetry. Allen Ginsberg called it “spontaneous bop prosody.” Ann Charters wrote in Kerouac: A Biography he “identified more with musical geniuses like Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk than he did with any established literary scene . . . Bop was to Kerouac a new art form that had broken through to eloquence. His own method of spontaneous composition was meant to do the same thing with words that he heard bop musicians doing with their instruments. When Miles Davis played, Kerouac heard his trumpet sounding long sentences like Marcel Proust.”
In 1952 Kerouac wrote to John Clellon Holmes that he was “blowing such mad poetry and literature that I’ll look back years later with amazement and chagrin that I can’t do it anymore.” Jack didn’t quite make it to the looking back years.
A perhaps outdated popular cultural image is that of the young, strung-out jazz musician, such as Bird, and an early final destructive ending. The other popular image is of the old, strung-out jazz musician, such as the Dexter Gordon character, in the film ‘Round Midnight—but, it ain’t necessarily so. Think of the Clark Terrys and the Dr. Billy Taylors and others who continued educating audiences and playing on stage well into old, quite old, age. Now, jazz is part of the curriculum in scores of universities and colleges.
Here in Sal Paradise’s backyard, down the street from Ginsberg’s Paterson, in “nowhere Zen New Jersey” (twenty miles west of New York City) is the outstanding five-day 2013 Summer Jazz Room Series at William Paterson University. The week showcases world-renowned musicians, with Friday’s concert starring The Heath Brothers Quintet, featuring 86-year-old tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Called “Little Bird” he’s shared the stage with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davies, and composed and arranged in the repertoires of Clark Terry and Dexter Gordon and many others. The quintet features 78-year-old drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who has played with everyone including Coltrane and Monk, trumpeter Fred Hendrix (“Blowblowblow!”ii), pianist Jeb Patton, and bassist David Wong. One of the highlights of the performance was Monk’s gorgeous “‘Round Midnight.” The almost two-hour nonstop show lead by the sprightly National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master captivated the audience. The auditorium’s first row was filled with young men, jazz students, very young—as in high school (part of the university’s summer jazz workshop)—sitting at the edges of their seats and quick to jump up for a standing ovation. What’s there to say when you hear music at this level? How does one respond? Surely the definitive experience belongs to that most exuberant young man Neal Cassady:
“Dean stood in front . . . oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hands socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, always the sweat, pouring and splashing down his tormented collar to lie actually in a pool at his feet…”iii
The frantic, wailing, funny jazz scenes in On the Road exhibit Jack’s great colorful gift of celebrating life and his heartfelt love of “skidilibee-la-bee you, —oo, —e bop she-bom.”iv
ii Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, 1957
iii Kerouac, Jack, On the Road, 1957
iv Kerouac, Jack, “The Beginning of Bop” Escapade, 1959