Third set at the Onyx Club on 52nd street, two in the morning on a winter’s night in New York, 1947 or maybe ‘48. It’s a little smoky jazz club and to some there, the music is chaotic, bewildering—stuff that sounds nothing like swing, the music of the Thirties or the War. But the hipsters remain, drinking, smoking, listening—something new is going on. A tune called A Night in Tunisia is blowing off the little bandstand, played by well-dressed musicians—the leader, a trumpeter named John Birks Gillespie blows hard and fast and wears a black beret. He smiles a lot and his cheeks balloon with every furious run of notes from his horn—unconventional, rule breaking, risk taking. Unlike conventional jazz musicians, Gillespie though cool, gives his music a driving, hot physicality.
The tune has vague Latin percussive elements—the drummer, in order to keep up with the unusual speed of the music, has adopted a new style—playing a high-hat cymbal pattern on the ride (top) cymbal and he doesn’t play the bass drum on every beat as do most other jazz drummers of the time. He plays a combination of off beat punctuations on the bass and snare drums—dropping ‘bombs’, physical, percussive beats in unexpected places, like a heart murmur that somehow made new sense—or a poet slipping in an anapest in a string of iambs.
Dizzy blows long sheets of notes and then steps back allowing a saxophonist named Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker to step forward and unleash an unbroken improvised, risky stream of sixteenth notes; furious and stunning, breathing only at the end of lines, like a line of verse, a natural break end-stopped with a comma, a breath mark; he hits accents at the top of long phrases, going off the fast beat and coming back just in time to touch the downbeat, back in the chorus with Dizzy, another solo, chorus and then out. Later, Bird would say he’d “never be able to make that break again.” Despite being a junkie, hooked on heroin, horse, he did make that break again, and again.
Dizzy Gillespie said, “We played a lot of original tunes that didn’t have titles…I’d say ‘Dee-da-pa-n-de-bop’…and we’d go into it. People, when they’d wanna ask for one of those numbers and didn’t know the name, would ask for bebop.” To most mainstream listeners in the mid to late ‘40s, bebop was chaotic—odd harmonies, ‘wrong’ notes, weird, bewilderingly fast music with a core of drive energy, undeniably rhythmic; a kind of prosodic jazz.
A young Jack Kerouac, a good-looking kid from Lowell, Massachusetts might have sat down at the bar of the Onyx Club that night, one of the many jazz joints then on 52nd street. Kerouac had been in New York City a few years, hanging out with a strange crowd orbiting in and around Columbia University, dropping off the football team, taking courses, writing. He’d first heard A Night in Tunisia a few years earlier on a radio broadcast. Allen Ginsberg said, “Kerouac learned his line from—directly from Charlie Parker and Gillespie and Monk. He was listening in ’43 to Symphony Sid and listening to “Night in Tunisia” and all the bird-flight-noted things which he then adapted to prose line.” Kerouac’s joual world, his New England-French Canadian line of words had intersected with a different kind of language.
Sitting in jazz joints or listening to the radio Jack Kerouac perceived, at a gut level, a certain poetic language of the ear, music, that he wished to transfer to his writing, something new, not grey-faced or hide-bound. His goal was to inspire a physical reaction in his reader, not just a placid pleasurable sense. It was the “sound of the mind” that he was after—an intersection of mediums—words and music.