Hear All Three of Jack Kerouac’s Spoken-World Albums: A Sublime Union of Beat Literature and 1950s Jazz

kerouac albums

Image by Tom Palum­bo, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

At the epi­cen­ter of three explo­sive forces in 1950s America—the birth of Bebop, the spread of Bud­dhism through the coun­ter­cul­ture, and Beat rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing of poet­ry and prose—sat Jack Ker­ouac, though I don’t pic­ture him ever sit­ting for very long. The rhythms that moved through him, through his verse and prose, are too flu­id to come to rest. At the end of his life he sat… and drank, a most­ly spent force.

But in his prime, Ker­ouac was always on the move, over high­ways on those leg­endary road trips, or his fin­gers fly­ing over the typewriter’s keys as he banged out the scroll man­u­script of On the Road in three fever­ish weeks (so he said). After the pub­li­ca­tion of On the Road, Ker­ouac “became a celebri­ty,” says Steve Allen in intro­duc­tion to the Beat writer on a 1959 appear­ance, “part­ly because he’d writ­ten a pow­er­ful and suc­cess­ful book, but part­ly because he seemed to be the embod­i­ment of this new gen­er­a­tion.”

After a lit­tle back-and-forth, Allen lets Ker­ouac do what he always did so well, whether on tele­vi­sion or on record—embody the rhythms of his writ­ing in his voice, his phras­ing always musi­cal, whether he read over jazz hot or cool or over med­i­ta­tive silence. He did a lot of both, record­ing with Allen and many oth­er jazzmen, and “exper­i­ment­ing with a home reel-to-reel sys­tem, tap­ing him­self to see whether his spon­ta­neous prose out­bursts had the musi­cal rhythms F. Scott Fitzger­ald con­sid­ered the hall­mark of all great writ­ing.” So writes his­to­ri­an David Brink­ley in the lin­er notes (remem­ber those?) to the com­pi­la­tion album Jack Ker­ouac Reads On the Road, a rare col­lec­tion of haunt­ing poet­ry read­ings, play­ful croon­ing, and exper­i­ments with voice and music. Brink­ley describes how Ker­ouac, the French Cana­di­an from Low­ell, Mass­a­chu­setts, devel­oped his “bop ear” by hang­ing out at Minton’s Play­house in Harlem in the 40s, watch­ing Thelo­nious Monk, Char­lie Park­er, and Dizzy Gille­spie invent what he called a “goofy new sound.”

The sound stayed with him, as he turned his immer­sion into Amer­i­can lit­er­ary and musi­cal coun­ter­cul­ture into On the Road, The Sub­ter­raneans, The Dhar­ma Bums, etc, and through­out all the writ­ing, there was the music of his read­ing, cap­tured on the albums Poet­ry for the Beat Gen­er­a­tion with Steve Allen, Blues and Haikus with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims—both in 1959—and, the fol­low­ing year, Read­ings by Jack Ker­ouac on the Beat Gen­er­a­tion. Kerouac’s read­ing style did not come only from his inter­nal­iza­tion of bebop rhythms, how­ev­er, but also from “the dis­cov­ery of the extra­or­di­nary spo­ken-word albums of poets Langston Hugh­es, Carl Sand­berg, and Dylan Thomas,” Brink­ley tells us. The writer became “con­vinced that prose should be read aloud in pub­lic, as it had been in Homer’s Greece and Shakespeare’s Eng­land.” The albums he record­ed and released in his life­time bear out this con­vic­tion and explore “the pos­si­bil­i­ties of com­bin­ing jazz and spon­ta­neous verse.”

These records became very dif­fi­cult to find for many years, but you can now pur­chase an omnibus CD at a rea­son­able price (vinyl will set you back a cou­ple hun­dred bucks). Alter­nate­ly, you can stream all three Ker­ouac albums free on Spo­ti­fy, above in chrono­log­i­cal order of release. If you don’t have Spo­ti­fy, you can eas­i­ly down­load the soft­ware here. And if you’d rather hear Ker­ouac’s read­ings on CD or on the orig­i­nal vinyl medi­um, that’s cool too. How­ev­er you expe­ri­ence these read­ings, you should, at some point, expe­ri­ence them. Like all the very best poet­ry, Ker­ouac’s work is most alive when read aloud, and most espe­cial­ly when read aloud by Ker­ouac him­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Jack Kerouac’s 30 Beliefs and Tech­niques For Writ­ing Mod­ern Prose

Jack Ker­ouac Lists 9 Essen­tials for Writ­ing Spon­ta­neous Prose

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

Watch Langston Hugh­es Read Poet­ry from His First Col­lec­tion, The Weary Blues (1958)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • Dave says:

    The Steve Allen piano in the back­ground was improv throughout.…they walked through a few lines and Allen just “winged” it on first roll of tape.…Steve Allen was a great tal­ent and one of the most pro­lif­ic song­writ­ers of his day.…he essen­tial­ly cre­at­ed the Tonight Show for­mat and host­ed many of the best upcom­ing com­e­dy and musi­cal talent.…like Car­son did in lat­er years.…Frank Zap­pa played a bicy­cle on The Steve Allen show.

  • ooznozz says:


    Lay down an inten­si­ty of full atten­tion sur­round­ed by wall break­ing, door bust­ing, and genre shap­ing daddy‑o jazz poems of insight, joc­u­lar­i­ty, and maybe tit­il­la­tion with wist­ful wind­blown musi­cal notes for an ear mas­sage as you cross over that thresh­old to Wowsville!!! Your voice, is a pleas­ing, tight groove, a great sound full of love, emo­tion, and beyond which shapes th’ musi­cal poet­ic on waves of high­est fideli­ty while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly light­ing up th’ purest can­dle – will allow you t’see that heav­en­ly lad­ders rung.
    With that, I’m wowed, groovin’ to straight ahead cool­ness with my thumbs-up reac­tion, mul­ti­ple stars fly­ing out the tips; smil­ing, there’s foot taps read­i­ly observed, and per­ceived affini­ties between sound and body motion when expe­ri­enc­ing music that’s sim­ply slam­min’…
    I wit­ness the col­or palette core from a cool cat, who’s hit­ting on all six­es, find­ing notes that are impor­tant, while stretch­ing out, per­co­lat­ing time­less­ness, with his musician’s lips… I am in a space shared, a howl absurd, on th’ inside flap of bop-soul imagery and its roman­tic assem­blage of what is hip.
    Dear jazz angels on uploaded clouds of notes float­ing and chang­ing shape. Per­fect. Unbe­liev­able. Res­onate the poet­ry mol­e­cule com­plic­i­ty — be not reli­gious, but let god speak through th’ music. Allow a nim­ble­ness, a dash of a braggart’s swag­ger with an edge — some­thing that artists of the beat gen­er­a­tion pop­u­lar­ized, while playin’ all the col­ors you’d feel.

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