Jack Kerouac, Music Journalist

9 May

When Jack Kerouac went off to Columbia University, he told people he was going to be a journalist.  His father, Leo Kerouac, was a printer in Lowell, who owned a print shop called Spotlight Print.  Leo handled printing for some of the big businesses in New England, and also did a bit of writing of his own.  This inspired Ti Jean, as little Jack was called.  He used to lay on the floor, creating his own little newspapers and comics.

In school in New York, first at Horace Mann prep school and then at Columbia, Kerouac contributed to the school newspapers.  The writing he did for the papers would best be described as music journalism.  He soaked in all the great 1940s bebop of Harlem and wrote jazz reviews.

There was no Pitchfork at the time.  Rolling Stone magazine wasn’t founded until 1967.  Even many of today’s popular jazz magazines weren’t in existence yet.  Music journalism didn’t have the esteem that it does today.

Jack Kerouac may not have gone on to become a famous music critic or any sort of journalist in the traditional sense of the word, but his jazz reviews were not in vain.  Writing music reviews, he honed his craft.  He learned to listen well, and he learned how to recreate the excitement of a live gig on the page.  This all went into his future novels.  In On the Road, Kerouac wrote about experiencing jazz firsthand.  Today, his books, even if they contain fictional elements, are testaments to the music of the 1940s and ‘50s.  Although he may have obscured the names of his friends, the names of musicians and famous jazz clubs remain intact.

Furthermore, bebop style influenced the way Kerouac wrote.  He learned about the notion of spontaneity and incorporated it into his own work.  His writing style echoes the rawness and the genius of live, spontaneous jazz.

In Burning Furiously Beautiful, Paul Maher Jr. and I write about some of the great jazz clubs of the 1940s and ‘50s that Kerouac visited while he criss-crossed the country.  The book tells the true story behind On the Road.  It is a portrait of Jack Kerouac, but it’s also a portrait of the United States.  In mentioning these jazz clubs that Kerouac visited, we examine a bit of America’s cultural history.

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