KEROUAC’S MILES : JACK KEROUAC AND THE MUSIC OF MILES DAVIS
By Mike Andrews
Beat Scene Press Pocket Book Series
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Jack Kerouac was a jazz enthusiast. His novels contain numerous references to musicians and records, particularly those from a period stretching between 1935 and 1955. Yes, his interest in the music continued after 1955, but I’d suggest that essentially his tastes were formed in the twenty years indicated and stylistically didn’t move much beyond them. What needs to be noted, too, is that there often wasn’t a clear-cut division between jazz and the popular music of the day. Big-bands were active into the 1950s and many musicians made a living in them. The more-interesting bands featured a fair amount of jazz and gave space to prominent soloists. I recall seeing Lee Konitz with Stan Kenton’s orchestra in Dublin in 1953.
Konitz was essentially a small-group improviser, but had taken a job with Kenton for financial reasons. There simply wasn’t a decent living to be made performing on the jazz club circuit. Kenton’s musicians were well-paid, his orchestra attracted large audiences, and the music it played was heavily inclined towards jazz. In 1953 it featured arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and Bill Holman, among others, and spotlighted soloists such as trumpeter Conte Candoli, trombonist Frank Rosolino, and tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. Kerouac would have been familiar with their music.
He would also have known about Miles Davis, the trumpet player who came to the fore in the 1940s as a member of Charlie Parker’s group. Davis arrived in New York in September, 1944, ostensibly to study at Juilliard School of Music, but essentially to involve himself in the bourgeoning bebop scene. That he did, to the extent of becoming one of its leading practitioners, is a matter of jazz history. But it’s interesting to see how, in those early days, Davis went through the standard experience of most jazz musicians as he worked with the Benny Carter and Billy Eckstine bands, and took part in recording sessions where he was a member of groups backing the blues shouter and vaudeville performer Rubberlegs Williams and the singers Ann Hathaway and Earl Coleman. Short statements by Davis can be heard scattered around the records that were made, and on airshots by the Carter ensemble.
We don’t know for sure when Kerouac first became aware of Davis, though it was more than likely when he worked with Charlie Parker in the New York clubs and appeared with him on records that were issued on the Savoy and Dial labels. Mike Andrews, whose aim in Kerouac’s Miles is to find possible occasions when Kerouac may have been present at a Davis club date, directs us to the accounts of him going to the Three Deuces on 52nd Street and Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. He may well have come across Davis at both locations, but it’s a question of speculation rather than fact. There were other clubs such as the Downbeat and the Spotlight on 52nd Street that Davis worked at with groups led by Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon. Kerouac may have visited them. Incidentally, Andrews refers to “these sessions in the Village”, but 52nd Street is not part of Greenwich Village.
Tracking both Kerouac’s and Davis’s movements through the years, Andrews doesn’t ever manage to pinpoint an actual date where there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the two could have been in the same club at the same time. There are references to Davis in Kerouac’s writings, and Andrews notes that a comment in The Beginnings of Bop would seem to suggest that he had seen and heard Davis in a club setting at one point. But where and when is unclear.
It’s relevant to refer to the section where Andrews is keen to discuss the possible influence of Lee Konitz’s playing on Kerouac. The alto player had been a member of the Miles Davis group that appeared at the Royal Roost in 1948 and recorded for Capitol in 1949 and 1950. The recordings signalled a departure from the frenetic nature of bebop and were labelled “The Birth of the Cool” because of their tightly arranged and more relaxed approach to the music. Konitz was an ideal choice for this kind of jazz. Kerouac would surely have heard the records, even if he didn’t see the band during its brief Royal Roost engagement.
He may also have been aware of Konitz’s work with the Claude Thornhill orchestra in 1947 when Gil Evans was one of Thornhill’s arrangers. His solo on Thornhill’s version of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” is worthy of note. Evans was later involved in the Birth of the Cool innovations, though it’s incorrect to name him as the sole arranger. Gerry Mulligan contributed as much, if not more, to the sound of the group, and pianist John Lewis was also deeply involved in its development.
There are less references to Davis in Kerouac’s writing as the 1950s progressed. But Davis’s career had re-ignited in the late-1950s after what Andrews refers to as “a fairly awful early to mid-1950s”. Davis himself was dismissive of some of the recordings from the early-1950s when heroin addiction was taking its toll, but they have a certain kind of appeal, perhaps because he was expressing how he felt through the music and there is a sadness in the playing which is noticeable. I still occasionally play my copies of “Blue Room” and “Whispering”, recorded in 1951, and find their plaintiveness curiously attractive. And there’s the pensive “My Old Flame”. There may be an element of nostalgia present. I can remember the records first becoming available in Britain on Esquire 78s, and later on EPs and LPs.
I enjoyed reading Andrews’ excursion into the likely or unlikely times when Kerouac and Davis might have been within sight of each other. His enthusiasm for the lives and achievements of both is infectious. He provides some useful information regarding relevant Davis recordings, along with the titles of appropriate Kerouac books.
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