Categories: Reviews

Beyond Jazz: Kerouac and Music

The links between the Beat Generation and music seem obvious, and many of them have been pretty thoroughly explored. Ginsberg befriended and worked with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Mick Jagger, while Burroughs coined the phrase “heavy metal” in addition to his own collaborations with people like Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits. But what about Jack Kerouac?

Everyone knows that the Beats were inspired by jazz music, and Kerouac in particular. But to what extent was he influenced by jazz, and did Kerouac really influence musicians that came later? What about his own musical aspirations? In Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack, Simon Warner and Jim Sampas have put together a wide-ranging collection of essays and interviews exploring the relationship between Kerouac and music.

They start with the obvious: jazz. Jim Burns and Larry Beckett (whose chapter was originally published in Beat Poetry) look at Kerouac’s jazz influence, before an insightful essay by Marian Jago takes a slightly different approach, arguing that although Kerouac enjoyed jazz music, he was in fact not as influenced as others may have suggested by the likes of Charlie Parker, saying: “I would deny that Parker exercised any significant direct influence upon Kerouac’s writing style.”

Who, then, did influence Kerouac? White saxophonist, Lee Konitz. Jago explains:

“In Konitz, Kerouac found a particular and direct inspiration as he sought to develop his own literary voice, and in the process, a new form of American prose. In Konitz, Kerouac saw not only that such visions could be achieved, but how.”

This is followed by an amusing interview with Konitz, in which the musician claims to have had little awareness of his influence on Kerouac, and professes little interest in the Beat writers, describing them as somewhat inauthentic.

Perhaps the highlight of the book is Jonah Raskin’s meticulously researched essay on Kerouac’s three recorded albums. It is extraordinarily well-written, providing a deep and engaging history of Kerouac in the studio, attempting to be a jazz musician with his words.

While there is much in this book about the connections to jazz music, there is thankfully more to it than that. Brian Hassett offers an illuminating study of Kerouac as relating to the Grateful Dead, and elsewhere there are essays on his connection with country music, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell, among others. There are also a number of interviews, including Pat Thomas’s conversations with David Amram and Allen Ginsberg. Amram offered wonderful, long answers and seemed delighted to talk at length about Kerouac, although Ginsberg was unusually brief.

Not all the writing is equal, of course. There is an essay on Bob Dylan which was comparatively weak, and filled with tenuous connections and silly speculation. However, this is more than balanced out by some really fantastic and creative work. In particular, the aforementioned chapter by Jonah Raskin, and the contributions by Matt Theado, Nancy M. Grace, and Ronna C. Johnson are excellent. There are numerous appendices, including several pieces of research by Beat scholar and all-round Kerouac guru, Dave Moore, which add further value to an already essential Beat companion. It is thoroughly deserving of a place on any Beat bookshelf.

Find the book on Amazon now.

Find out more at the publisher’s website.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller.

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