Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and the ‘Beat Generation’

Bebop is a style of jazz music that preceded the swing era of America and is the foundation of modern jazz music as it’s known today. Known as ‘bop’, it became the successor of swing music, becoming most prominent in the late 1940s. Played in much smaller groups, often with only 2 or 3 front soloists and a rhythm section, there was much more flexibility within the bands as well as the music itself, more so than heard before.

The pioneer of this music was saxophonist Charlie Parker, who carried the nickname ‘Bird’.  Parker was born in Kansas City, in 1920. During the 1920s and ‘30s Kansas City was a hub for jazz musicians, with swing music being the centre of attention. Parker would have been heavily influenced by the music scene there, which would set a precedent for his future music. At the age of 11 his mother bought him his first saxophone, but he was no natural. He suffered setbacks in his earlier years; he was kicked out of his school band at the age of 14, as well as being embarrassed at a jam session aged 15, when the drummer of Count Bassy’s orchestra, Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at him for playing in the wrong key. It was shortly after this period that Parker realized the complexities of jazz, resulting in his practice becoming constructive and disciplined, playing up to 15 hours a day for 4 years. Yet the early exposure Parker had to such great musicians gave him an aspiration, letting him develop a subsequent motivation to match.

Parker moved to New York with little money and few plans but with hopes to develop his music further.  Parker’s main influence in New York was Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpet player, who was well versed in jazz and the harmonic completions that went with it.  They would be huge influences on each other’s playing, and in the first few years after they met, they played together constantly.

The Musicians’ Union recording ban between 1942 and 1944 meant that the duo could not record their music. Hence, a lot of early bebop developments were missed, but when the ban was lifted, bebop music exploded into the mainstream. Bebop records sold in copious quantities, with one of the most influential recordings of the time done by Parker, called Ko-Ko. It was based on Cherokee, a standard written by Ray Noble, and it is regarded as being typical of the bebop style.

Ko-Ko was released in 1945, and featured Parker on alto saxophone, Miles Davis on Trumpet, Charlie Russell on double bass and Max Roach on the drums. Dizzy Gillespie took the place of Bud Powell on piano. The tempo was blistering, the piece relentless throughout. Though the chords used were simply and were based off classic swing music progressions, the solos within were highly complex and chromatic. The rhythms contain other hints of swing music, but it’s clear in the recordings that the rhythms and timing were in fact much more unpredictable – in the recording it can be heard that Parker’s rhythmic stresses, and even the rhythm itself, is very unpredictable, with Parker fragmenting each phrase he plays almost to allow the listener to absorb the virtuosic lines produced.

Ko-Ko is very good example of bebop in its rawest form. Though very technical and exciting, sometimes its musicality was questioned. It had many critics, some of them being very prominent musicians, notably Louis Armstrong. It was said bebop was too self-indulgent with no real tune, resulting in the listeners not being able to latch onto any themes from the music. Ko-Ko is a prime example of this – although based on Noble’s Cherokee, it’s very hard to hear the main theme, often as the lines are so explosive and diverse that when it does come around, it’s hard to recognize it as a re-worked tune, sounding more like a continuation of an endless solo than the actual theme of the song. Even so, Ko-Ko was a huge success and put Parker on the map as a national star.

Parker’s unpredictable, fast paced and intricate music was reflected in his lifestyle. It was often said Parker had three things that made up his life; his music, his family (he married 3 times in total, with 4 kids) and his drugs. All of these aspects developed including, most crucially, his drug abuse. Heroin addiction had become a full time engagement for Parker, resulting in him turning up late for gigs, if at all, as well as financial troubles. Drug abuse and heavy drinking were a common theme of the jazz world at the time, with other bebop innovators such as Thelonious Monk and Fats Navarro having similar issues.  The authorities cracked down on the problem, and in the early 1950’s Parker’s Cabaret Card was revoked, meaning he was unable to play in the clubs of New York. This resulted in less money for Parker, and he subsequently had to travel the continent on tour, putting strains on his family life and increasing his dependence on drugs.

The high profile cases of drug addiction in the Bebop world meant the music was starting to gain an image, the image of high energy, fast paced, talented personalities living a life which seemed free from all worries of the real world. This image became just as important as the music. Not only was the music giving the people of America a soundtrack to their lives, but it was also giving them a lifestyle to aspire to. Musicians such as Parker were seen as more than entertainers, they were seen as intellectuals and trendsetters, leading the way for other artists and academics of the time do the same thing. A prime example of this is a group of writers known as the ‘Beat Generation’. The name was given by writer and poet Jack Kerouac, a key figure in the group. Kerouac specifically states bebop, and Parker in particular, as the main influences on his life and works.


Kerouac’s Navy mugshot – Public Domain (US Archives)

 Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922, Kerouac grew up in a middle class family, writing from an early age. He gained a football scholarship to Columbia University where he studied literature and was first introduced to the other members of the movement, such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Being ‘beat’ meant you didn’t conform to conservative social convention, questioning the sexual, religious and political taboos of the day, using drugs frequently, especially LSD, which also influenced their actions. The group gained widespread acclaim after the release and subsequent success Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’.

Their lifestyle ran parallel with Parker’s. They were based in New York in the ’50s when bebop and Parker were at their peak. Kerouac’s writing was affected by the music just as much as his lifestyle. His most famous and celebrated book ‘On the Road’ sums up and combines these very well. The book is a semi-autobiographical depiction of the adventures of Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (based on his friend Neil Cassady) going coast to coast across America. The pair took part in constant drug abuse; drinking and womanizing; absorbing every sight and sound the country had to offer. Extracts like the one below summarize their lifestyle well:

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.” 

Kerouac wrote the majority of his books in spontaneous prose, a refined and developed stream of consciousness. It lays down a trail of undisturbed thoughts, one leading on to the next, with little use of punctuation. Kerouac describes it as ‘the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between out blown phrases)’. Spontaneous prose was developed so that the words on the page were the writer’s purest thoughts; Kerouac never went back over his words, often writing his books in a number of weeks. The intense periods of writing meant that the technique had to be extensively practiced, so Kerouac kept multiple diaries and wrote notes constantly to try and improve. It becomes quite clear that the writing style has many similarities to an improvised Parker solo; spontaneous, relentless and full of poetic passages. Phrases were well thought out, allowing breathing space for the reader to take in the words on the page, with each passage being based around one key idea.

This style is most apparent in one of Kerouac’s earlier books, The Subterraneans. The book, again in spontaneous prose, describes a group of intellects – the Subterraneans – with the focus of the book on the relationship between Leo Percepied (based on Jack Kerouac) and Mardou Fox (based on Alene Lee). The book illuminates the goings on of the beat generation in their everyday lives, especially Kerouac, and explicitly describes the group’s indifferences to the formalities of society. The group is described on the first page of the book by Adam Moorad (Allen Ginsberg) as being:

‘Hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are all intellectual as hell and know all about the pound, without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, very Christlike’.

The quote sums up the movement very eloquently, again emphasizing the lack of conformity to social standard. They perceived themselves to have superior intelligence over most people; yet they do not pursue a lavish life. Their own company seemed sufficient enough, sometime seeming isolated from the outside world as a result of their superior understanding. The relationship itself between Mardou and Leo is unconventional, with Mardou being African American and much younger then Leo. Her unstable mental state makes the reader question their relationship, as does Leo’s inability to fully commit. The group’s heavy drug taking and alcohol intake, along with their need for culture, whether it be bebop or literature, helps further separate the group from the society of the time.

Kerouac continued to be inspired by the jazz music and characteristics of the music. ‘Mexico City Blues’ is a set of 242 verses of poetry based on jazz rhythms, with the last 4 verses fittingly dedicated to Parker himself. Kerouac describes the moment when the two crossed paths, with Parker having a profound effect on Kerouac. It is described early on in The Subterraneans, when Mardou and Leo are in ‘Red Drum’, the local Jazz joint, where Charlie Parker is playing:

“Returning to the Red Drum for sets, to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eyes looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my faults and ambitions or remembered me from the other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicagos”.

Kerouac and Parker both followed the same fate and both died before their time, age 47 and 34 respectively. Parker’s influence led the way for the fast paced life style, setting the bar for other artists of the day. It’s clear how much Parker’s music affected Kerouac, and Kerouac would not have been the only one who felt that way.  Both men represent a generation, icons in their own right, living complex, curious, non-stop lives whilst working harder than anyone else to push the boundaries of their respective fields in equally unconventional ways. It was the bebop beat of Parker’s horn which would lead the way, giving the next generation a freedom which would arguably never be matched.

This article was written by Henry Weekes


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