Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, October 16, 2006

What does Bud Powell's piano have to do with Jack Kerouac's prose?

While Ginsberg's phrase "bop prosody" cannily advertised Beat poetry's purported spiritual kinship with the hipness of be-bop, it ought to be retired as a descriptive phrase. Be-bop was a formally conservative, highly wrought, fiercely virtuosic style, and while I will accept Ginsberg and maybe Kerouac as highly wrought, and both as fiercely virtuosic, they are not formally conservative. The other Beats are even less concerned with form, and while I could see some of them described as fiercely virtuosic, "highly wrought" feels like a stretch. Or is that a contradiction? Can virtuosity not be "highly wrought"? Sure it can -- I think. Rhythmic/melodic virtuosity proceeding fiercely without regard to harmonic or structural concerns, which are minimal requirements in be-bop.

Would you describe Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie or Bud Powell as the musical equivalent of Ginsberg or Kerouac? It feels all wrong.

And then, as I'm writing this, a parallel occurs to me. The Beats and the boppers sought to distinguish themselves from their predecessors in distinctly bohemian ways. The boppers eschewed the aspects of jazz that coincided with "entertainment" and "pop" (Dizzy Gillespie excepted). They intended the complexity of their style to ward off outsiders not "in the know." The Beats assumed themselves outsiders and condemned the "straight" world more directly. The lines run parallel only a short while. The boppers had a greater sense of irony; the Beats wielded their outsider status as a form of public relations -- it was Ginsberg, after all, who coined "bop prosody."

With the coinage, Ginsberg wasn't thinking of bop's tunes or chord patterns, he was thinking of Bird's improvisations. But Bird's improvisations only have meaning against the grid of the highly sophisticated chord changes, and they always return to the tunes at the end. There is no prose or poetic parallel at work in Kerouac or Ginsberg.

But there is a parallel that sticks: speed. The boppers valued fleetness, as did Kerouac and Ginsberg. OK . . . reluctantly, I see that, but the whole thing still feels like non-musicians hoping to claim some associative glamour from musicians, when their respective relationships to their arts are quite different; and I can't imagine a reciprocal desire, and that lack of reciprocity means something.
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