In the mid-1930’s, New York City had emerged as the heart of jazz culture. Jazz, like blues, is rooted in African call-and-response tradition , which was “a functional expression…style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure.” Jazz musicians and lovers alike formed an interracial community in the New York Streets around creative expression.
Bebop was an innovative style of jazz that emerged and was popularized in the ’40s. It contrasted to traditional styles of Jazz, such as Big Band Jazz, and inspiring the birth of a cultural atmosphere characterized by certain elements and lifestyle choices that would follow the counterculture through the rest of the century. In his book The Rise of A Jazz World, Paul Douglas Lopes notes that Modernist Beboppers, following the footsteps of Dizzy Gillespie (considered the champion of the bebop revolution) adopted what became referred to as a “hipster” attitude about “the preponderance of squares and bad music,” and image characterized by gotees, berets, and zoot suits. He Notes that the general press, “to the dismay of jazz musicians and jazz critics, focused on the hipster cult, image, and deviance, more than the music.” Newsweek referred to bebop as “hot jazz overheated with overdone lyrics full of bawdiness, reference to narcotics, and double talk.” In 1946, Down Beat magazine noted, “The revolution caused by Dizzy’s advanced conception was inevitable if Jazz were to keep progressing…The human imagination has its limitations…and Jazz had reached the point where musicians’ imaginations could no longer function effectively without the added stimulus of new horizons for exporation.” Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records (one of the first labels to record bop) explained in the late 1940s that “Bebop is music of revolt; non-playing orchestra leaders, Tin Pan Alley–against commercialized music in general. It reasserts the individuality of the jazz musician as a creative artist, playing spontaneous and melodic music within the framework of jazz, but with new tools, sounds, and concepts.”
Young Beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (and friends) spent a lot of time in the New York clubs, and were very influenced by the spirit of bebop. Openly Bisexual female Beat and former Poet Lauriet of San Francisco, Diane Di Prima spent much of her time in the New York City Jazz scene, describing the atmosphere in her Memoirs of a Beatnik and Recollections of My Life as a Woman. The word “beat” was used after WWII by jazz musicians as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted. Kerouac later twisted the meaning of the term, stating that it signified “beatitude, not beat up. You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz, real cool jazz.” The Beats borrowed some of their vocabulary from the jazz/hipster slang of the ’40s, using words such as “square”, “cats”, “nowhere,” and “dig” in their writing. In his book ‘Venice West’, John Arthur Maynard writes: “Jazz served as the ultimate point of reference…they talked the talk of jazz, built communal rites around using the jazzman’s drugs, and worshiped the dead jazz musicians most fervently.”
In his book “Go”, Beat author John Clellon Holms writes, “In modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them, and their lives knew a gospel for the first time. It was more than a music; it became and attitude toward life, a way of walking, a language and a costume; and these introverted kids…now felt somewhere at last.” The Beat style of prose is reminiscent of jazz, characterized by a free-form, stream of consciousness. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Alan Ginsberg stated, “Yeah. Kerouac learned his line…directly from Charlie Parker, and Gillespie, and Monk.” The style of Ginsberg’s “Howl” is said to have been inspired by Lester Young’s 1939 “Lester Leaps In,” and that of Kerouac’s “On the Road” is said to have been inspired by Dexter Gordon’s and Wendell Gray’s “The Hunt”.
In “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac writes about his Jazz favorites:
“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 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 Benny 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.”
On the West Coast, Anarcho-pacifist poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco began to recite poetry accompanied with jazz music, paving the way for San Francisco to become a new home for the Beats, and eventually a counter-cultural Mecca.