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.
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.