The Music from Jack Kerouac’s Classic Beat Novel On the Road: Stream Tracks by Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon & Other Jazz Legends

When read­ers talk about the “music” of On the Road, they usu­al­ly mean the dis­tinc­tive qual­i­ties of its prose, all typed out by Jack Ker­ouac, so lit­er­ary leg­end has it, on a three-week writ­ing ben­der in April of 1951. “Time being of the essence in the puri­ty of speech, sketch­ing lan­guage is undis­turbed flow from the mind of per­son­al secret idea-words, blow­ing (as per jazz musi­cian) on sub­ject of image,” he wrote, spon­ta­neous­ly, in his “Essen­tials of Spon­ta­neous Prose.” He also insist­ed on “no peri­ods sep­a­rat­ing sen­tence-struc­tures already arbi­trar­i­ly rid­dled by false colons and timid usu­al­ly need­less com­mas-but the vig­or­ous space dash sep­a­rat­ing rhetor­i­cal breath­ing (as jazz musi­cian draw­ing breath between out­blown phras­es).”

But actu­al music, and espe­cial­ly jazz music, also forms an inte­gral part of the back­ground — or rather, an inte­gral part of the ever-shift­ing back­grounds — of the sto­ry of Sal Par­adise and Dean Mori­ar­ty’s auto­mo­tive criscross­ing of Amer­i­ca. “Ker­ouac often made it clear that the sound of jazz in the 1940s had a lot to do with the kind of tone, inten­si­ty and unpremed­i­tat­ed dri­ve he was try­ing to cap­ture in the rhythms of his book,” writes the Guardian’s John Ford­ham. “In Los Ange­les, Ker­ouac describes ‘the wild hum­ming night of Cen­tral Avenue — the night of Ham­p’s (that’s swing-band leader Lionel Hamp­ton’s) ‘Cen­tral Avenue Break­down’ — howled and boomed … they were singing in the halls, singing from their win­dows, just hell and be damned and look out.’ ”

An evoca­tive pas­sage, to be sure, and one drawn from just one of many jazz-infused sec­tions of the nov­el. After enough of them, though, read­ers will want to hear some of this music, with its pow­er to bring the cops “swarm­ing from the near­est precinct,” for them­selves. The 25-track Youtube playlist at the top of the post comes packed with selec­tions drawn straight from the text, such as Miles Davis and the Char­lie Park­er Septet’s “Ornithol­o­gy,” which Ker­ouac uses to estab­lish the peri­od of bop in which the nov­el opens, and Dex­ter Gor­don and Wardell Gray’s The Hunt, so invig­o­rat­ing a live record­ing that Neal and Sal put it on the turntable in two sep­a­rate chap­ters. The playlist even includes Red Nor­vo’s Con­go Blues, the record that a girl at one point breaks over Dean’s head — and at Sal’s sug­ges­tion, no less — a mem­o­rable moment that shows that, how­ev­er much Ker­ouac loved and drew inspi­ra­tion from jazz, he cer­tain­ly did­n’t feel the need to keep rev­er­ent about it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jack Ker­ouac Reads from On the Road (1959)

Jack Kerouac’s Hand-Drawn Map of the Hitch­hik­ing Trip Nar­rat­ed in On the Road

Jack Ker­ouac Lists 9 Essen­tials for Writ­ing Spon­ta­neous Prose

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.