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Weekly Alibi Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac and The Sounds

By Mladen Baudrand

NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & The Sounds by Clark Coolidge (Living Batch Press), paper, $14

During the 1950s, an inextricable link existed between Beat literature and bebop music. Poet Clark Coolidge explores that connection through the work of Jack Kerouac and various jazz musicians of the era. He riffs off of a Kerouac statement that alto saxophonist Lee Konitz "inspired me in 1951 to write the way he plays."

In part one of his book, Coolidge explores some of Kerouac's writings. He also shares reflections and dreams about the author. Later, in part two, Coolidge focuses on jazz musicians who shaped bop.

He asserts that bop drummers perceived rhythm differently from their swing predecessors. By Coolidge's account, "Swing time was more like an off-beat oriented time, or um-dah um-dah um-dah with a 2/4 feel. Bop 4/4 time is more even, one-two-three-four, like that." With four even beats off of which to play, soloists attained greater freedom to extend their improvisations. It follows that Kerouac, a great fan of these musicians, would write long, extended sentences, pushing himself like a saxophonist to use his last breath to reach beyond the outer limits of expression.

Bebop music is also known for its blistering tempos. Similarly, Kerouac would rip off huge lines on his typewriter at a manic pace with his carriage return dinging percussive sounds with great regularity. Momentum and flow took precedence over plot. Coolidge calls this aspect of Kerouac's writing "Babble" or "Babbleflow." It is exactly what it sounds like, a continuation of words without necessity for meaning, an extension of the improviser's line, a refusal to let momentum die.

Several of Coolidge's passages are written in Kerouac's style, and he doesn't slow down for "half-eared" listeners, as he calls those who aren't on the inside of bop music and Beat literature. Prepare yourself for an impressionistic book that reads more like a diary, a mixture of notes to oneself, impressions, dreams, letters, reflections. Consistent with the subject matter, Coolidge presses forward for greater freedom of expression with no apologies to the uninitiated. He blows fast, gains momentum, and strives for artistic freedom.


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