Improvisation and other Jazz-like Techniques in Jack Kerouac’s Writing
Bop jazz divorced itself from its mainstream predecessor when musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk began to emphasize fast tempo and improvisation over the predictable music of the swing era. These renegade musicians valued spontaneity and inspired many listeners. It is no coincidence that these Bop jazz musicians were Jack Kerouac’s first choice in music. These musicians made an indelible mark on Kerouac as seen by the numerous jazz references in his works. Therefore, to a certain extent to know bop jazz is to know something of Jack Kerouac and to know something of Jack Kerouac is to know something of bop jazz. In the same manner, if improvisation is essential to bop jazz and Kerouac’s writing is highly influenced by jazz it seems likely that characteristics of Kerouac’s writings will have elements of improvisation.Two characteristics in particular can be traced from Kerouac’s earliest novels, such as On the Road through his career to his later works like Big Sur. One of the indispensable traits of Kerouac’s writing is the feverish geographic movement that he and his characters demonstrated. The other very notable aspect of his writing is his free-flowing, stream of consciousness sentences that compose his novels and poems. Although otherwise seemingly unrelated, these motifs of incessant geographic movement and free flowing sentences are related to each other in their usage of improvisation. To better understand these two characteristics and how they relate to improvisation, one should first examine the nature of improvisation on its own and then see how it relates to each individual component (geography and sentence structure). Given that jazz pioneered and personifies improvisation so well and its profound influence on Kerouac, an understanding of the relationship between Kerouac’s writings and jazz is essential to the total understanding of Kerouac’s writing. Improvisation occurs when a musician deviates from the melody, venturing off into a non-premeditative fury of creativity and expression. The result of this improvisation in jazz is a raw, never identical expression particular to the musician on any given night depending on his mood and feeling. Instead of confining the musician to simply playing a song note-for-note, jazz used improvisation to, as Dean Moriarty describes it in On the Road, “…tell the story and put down true relaxation and knowledge” (126). Kerouac’s writings are littered with references to various jazz musicians. The Subterraneans makes reference to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker saying, “returning to the Red Drum for sets, to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eye looking to search if really I was the great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions…” (14). In this excerpt, the reader views an interaction between the jazz great and Kerouac (through his alter ego Leo). Such an intimate connection exists between the two artists that Parker can seemingly read Kerouac’s thoughts. This example shows the extent that Kerouac’s writing idealized the world of jazz. Another important jazz reference is seen in the character of Dean Moriarty. Sal Paradise describes the experience of when Moriarty listened to George Shearing: Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes! And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. …When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said (On the Road 119). Again, the effects of jazz are seen on Kerouac’s characters. Listening to Shearing play turned Moriarty into a ‘madman’ and he goes so far as to call Shearing ‘God’. Some of the improvisation of jazz is seen here when Dean, being very involved in the music keeps yelling ‘Yes!’ Kerouac makes a point in stating that Shearing was conscious of Dean behind him. Thus, in this symbiotic relationship of musician affecting audience and audience in turn affecting the musician is an instance of improvisation. The crux of this is that Kerouac was highly influenced by jazz and the jazz that he so admired was carried by improvisation. Even a recreational reading of Kerouac’s writings makes it clear that feverish geographic movement is essential to his works. Reading On the Road, one is likely to get lost in precisely what part of the continent Sal Paradise is in and whether he is heading toward Lowell, Massachusetts, or away from it. His other works offer no respite from this confusion either. In The Dharma Bums, protagonist Ray Smith describes his hitchhiking to the mountains saying, The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Woolley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we’d crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides was now a pure torrent of melted snow pouring narrow and fast between muddy snag shores (222-223). This excerpt contains multiple characteristics of Kerouac’s hurried geography. The people met and the towns passed are given as lists rather than chronologies; instead of writing about the loggers who drove him through Skagit Valley, Kerouac piles people on top of more people and places on top of more places. His feverish depiction of movement parallels his character’s feverish desire to get to a given location. This excerpt also provides an additional parallel to Smith’s movement by noting the movement of the river. Not only is Smith’s geographic movement increasing in velocity towards his destination but so is the river that he is tracing towards the coast. The previous excerpt provides an excellent depiction of Kerouac’s incessant movement but it does not portray improvisation as well as some; it is full of velocity but the feeling of jazz is not there. The depiction of a late night trip into San Francisco in Big Sur portrays Kerouac’s jazz-like spontaneity well: So almost dawn and here we are cuttin down Buchanan and around the corner on screeching wheels and he opens her up, goes zipping towards a red light so takes a sudden screeching left and goes up a hill fullblast, when we come to the top of the hill I figger he’ll pause awhile to see what’s over the top but he goes even faster and practically flies off the hill and we head down one of those incredibly steep San Fran streets with our snout pointed to the waters of the Bay and he steps on the gas! (85) Improvisation is seen on a number of different levels within this passage. Initially, the spontaneity of even getting into a car on a whim to go to the city is improvisational. The trip is not premeditated and planned but rather a spark in the mind that ignites an adventure. Next, Kerouac’s diction conveys both velocity and jazz-like onomatopoeic qualities. Words like fullblast, cuttin, and sudden carry a spontaneous meaning while onomatopoeias such as screeching and zipping carry an improvisational sound. This word choice is a form of Kerouac’s improvisation that he uses to apply words to a uniquely spontaneous event. Many parallels can be seen between musical styles and writing styles. In other words, tightly metered musical compositions have their parallel in metered verse; Bach’s Baroque compositions have a tight form similar to Alexander Pope’s iambic pentameter poetry. Likewise, the musical styles of Thelonious Monk and other bop jazz musician’s musical styles are similar to the stream of consciousness writing style. Jack Kerouac’s literary style (typically seen as a stream of consciousness style) is free flowing, spontaneous, and jazz like–very improvisational. Kerouac’s prose places a higher premium on the feeling elicited than on the thought conveyed and he obtains this via multiple literary techniques. One of Kerouac’s most famous quotations demonstrates his frenzied style well: The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes Awww! (On the Road 5)It is without mistake that this selection has received such notoriety. Kerouac’s literary techniques are numerous and the outcome is captivating. Kerouac composes a list of people emphasizing the word mad repeatedly and he repeats burn three times over. The effect of this repetition is highly auditory with the prose creating more of a feeling than a thought. The auditory sensation comes from Kerouac’s diction. The words burn and mad are short and choppy and easily repeated; this section can be read very quickly, giving the effect that they are almost mad themselves. In this manner, Kerouac’s diction facilitates a highly auditory effect that results in a feeling of madness. This selection is steeped in improvisation as evidenced by this repetition; it is as if Kerouac could not possibly find a better word in that moment to express his feelings so he took that one perfect word and multiplied it to convey the gravity of his point. His writing shows traits of improvisation with his tendency to call upon the same word over and over just as a trumpet player would hit the same note in a fit of creative spontaneity. In addition to repetition, Kerouac also conveys improvisation in the subject matter (people who themselves are spontaneous), onomatopoeias (pop/‘Awww!’), and vivid imagery. One can image that this is what jazz might look like in written form. This selection of Kerouac’s writing relies on the auditory effects of words, but it does not hinge on that fact. In other words, the selection can be completely understood if not read aloud or without intentional voice inflection. Some of Kerouac’s writing (especially his poetry) essentially makes little to no sense unless it is read out loud or with musical accompaniment. This provides another interesting facet into not only Kerouac’s writing style but also his improvisational tendencies. The posthumously published novel Orpheus Emerged is sort of the enigma of Kerouac’s canon because it is not written like any of his other works. Written in 1945 (predating all of his work except for Atop an Underwood), the book shows marks of Kerouac getting a full sense of his style. The prose consists of very standard dialog and the entire plot unfolds in a roughly five-mile radius. Although Orpheus Emerged seems to not fit into the category of improvisation and the subsequent prose that follows, one key section at the climax of the story changes that. Kerouac describes the novel’s central character Michael in his notes as, “the genius of imagination and art” (155). Michael, along with the other characters, is portrayed as conversing in a relatively standard, not highly stylistic form of dialog. However, after his longtime quest to ascend to the aesthetic foresight of God, Michael’s genius essentially implodes into itself and he has a nervous breakdown coming to grips with his artistic limitations. It is interesting to note that the precise moment of artistic revelation is the only point in the novel in which a stream of consciousness dialog is used. Michael, on the verge of hysteria yells, “Say something, death. Smug, silent death, omniscient death, sottish death. They tell me corpses dragged out of rivers are bloated, blue, and black, like puffed up bullfrogs, that they glisten with scum…” (135) Again, typical of Kerouac’s improvisational sentence construction is the listing of attributes piled one on top of the other along with the repetition of words (in this case death). Although this is the only line in the novel that bears the marks of Kerouac’s improvisational writing style, it is important to note the circumstances of the dialog. In the same manner that jazz musicians are artistically constricted by not being able to deviate from a given melody, Kerouac’s character Michael deviates from constricted speech and thought in a moment of artistic revelation. With this piece being one of the earliest of Kerouac’s writings, it is important to notice that Michael (the artist) emerged in frantic form, similar to how Kerouac later bloomed into an artist of frantic prose. For a long time, readers and critics have sought to understand Kerouac’s seemingly unorthodox usage of movement and language. Some have raised it up as an artistic success, freeing language from the bondage of banality. Others have gone as far as to classify his works as typing rather than writing. Those who have deemed Kerouac as a poor writer are likely misunderstanding the intentions of his writing style and thus resulting in unwarranted criticism. Again, drawing on the jazz analogy: trying to find coherent, highly polished prose in Kerouac is similar to looking for a carefully crafted musical score in Miles Davis’ Budo. One will inevitably condemn both of these artists if form and structure is the measuring rod. However, when one sees Kerouac’s writing in light of its intended purpose, his true genius resonates. Kerouac’s aim of improvisation resulted in prose that was concerned with sound as much as clarity of thought. Viewing Kerouac’s usage of sound against the larger spectrum of writers reveals that he is not as radical as some people have previously thought. Sound has been the trademark of some of literature’s greatest authors. Homer’s epics were written in dactylic hexameter. Shakespeare’s plays were written in iambic pentameter. Both of these works used highly restrictive meter in order to create a certain effect when performed aloud. In the same manner, Kerouac’s prose uses stream of consciousness, onomatopoeias, and diction in order to create a distinct sound. If his prose is at want for clarity when read silently, much can be gained in hearing it. This too is similar to the experience of reading one of Shakespeare’s plays compared to hearing it performed on stage; something is gained in hearing Shakespeare rather than just reading his work. Thus, Kerouac’s emphasis on auditory experience is not as avant-garde as some critics have made it out to be. His position is shared by some of literature’s most highly regarded writers. Sections of prose that seem to make no sense should be understood as placing a premium on auditory effect rather than on logical cohesion. This is not a flaw of Kerouac’s writing but rather a trademark of his writing style. In this paper, much has been divulged regarding Kerouac’s unique usage of movement and language. However, the question of how this changes one’s understanding of Kerouac still remains. Can one treat improvisation as just a facet of Kerouac’s broader literary style? Is it best to use improvisation as a tool to understand the more obscure sections of Kerouac’s canon? Or, should improvisation be used as a lens through which all of Kerouac’s works are viewed? Using improvisation as just a facet or tool to understand Kerouac is an inadequate response to critically understanding his work. Kerouac’s vast usage of jazz-like techniques makes it apparent that they are not just a tool of his, but rather inherent to his writing style. Thus, even when Kerouac does not use these jazz-like techniques, that too is implicative of something deliberate. The novel Maggie Cassidy is a ready example of Kerouac deliberately excluding improvisation; the novel is a recalling of pre-poet, childhood love. Staying true to the events and his youthful ignorance, Kerouac limits his form of expression in the piece. Conversely, Big Sur is full of improvisation as it is an autobiography of the self-aware poet Kerouac. Since authors mostly work in the written word, often times the auditory word is elided from the critical discussion of literary works. Neglecting the jazz-like aspects of Jack Kerouac’s writings makes understanding his genius impossible. Prior to condemning his work, critics must seek to understand Kerouac’s usage of features such as improvisation and stream of consciousness. Once Kerouac’s unique style is understood as being highly stylized—not just hasty writing—the reading experience is wholly enriched and transformed.