Sunday, June 26, 2011

Always Beat 2

Writing a blog is hazardous to my health... oh, not in the sense of physical trauma; rather, my financial health, the pain in my wallet from enticements I don't resist, acquisitions that come fraught with financial finagling and expenses overspent.

In one-syllable words: I spend too much. I pick a subject, do some newer research to bolster my "old" knowledge, et voila! Money mailed out to pick up (cheaply but adding up fast) too many items that I don't already own, but that now seem essential to a greater understanding. The cost of getting totally hooked on Cajun and Zydeco, for example? Oy. Don't ask.

Revisiting my Beat youth is/was much less expensive. I had bought a copy of Howl right at City Lights Books in San Francisco in the summer of 1959, and then the signed limited edition of Kerouac's Visions of Cody a year or so later. I reveled, briefly, in the local Washington State aspects of Desolation Angels, and I fantasized becoming a fire lookout during the back-from-college summers, but found jobs in ROTC Camp kitchens and grocery produce sections instead. My fledgling-Beatnik fascination tailed off after the emotional pain of Big Sur and the rise of S.F. as the epicenter of hippiedom and the new Rock music. But I did keep apprised of Gary Snyder because he was a strange and fascinating source of rugged poetry combined with some sort of wiser, gentler Buddhist/Gaiaist/Native American thinking.

Only when the bookstore I ran in the Nineties also coincided with the release of new Kerouac texts, in a carefully orchestrated campaign by Jack's Estate and Viking/Penguin, did I reconnect with the haunts and the haunting residue of Beatdom--Pomes All Sizes, Book of Blues, the forbidding giant that should have been titled All of the Dharma and Then Some, Good Blonde & Others (excellent collection from a different publisher), two volumes of Selected Letters, the journal extracts published as Windblown World, even the holy grail of Kerouac texts: the much-vaunted and not-quite-mythic, railroad-dispatch-paper, taped-continuous-roll, typed-'round-the-clock, gleeful-and-genially-mad, overloaded-sentences, mid-revisions draft of On the Road simply known as "The Scroll." (C'mon, baby, let's do the Scroll!)

Thinking and writing about the Beat Scene again earlier this month made me realize I'd mostly stopped paying attention a decade ago, so I checked some Internet sites and discovered I absolutely "had" to acquire copies of the Kerouac CDs I mentioned last post, plus a fancy-package, 1997 reissue of Jack's '59 Readings album (I'd had an original version in the Rhino box set but sold that to an eager collector). I reached out too for the Jack Elliott album, Kerouac's Last Dream; a used copy of the supposedly straightforward bio, Kerouac: His Life and Work; and by Jack himself, the recent Penguin publication called Book of Sketches. (None of the four had arrived when I wrote the Good Beat piece, but they have since been trickling in.)

Man, talk about "Beat"... I bought used copies of the two CDs and definitely got what I paid for, fine-enough discs but Beat-up (Beat-down?) outer containers. Ramblin' Jack's set of folk tunes and Dylan covers--recorded in Germany in 1980, but never issued here till 1997--is easily one of his best-ever albums (even minus the original plastic jewel case). Elliott was at the top of his game 30 years ago, his guitar-picking sweet and solid, the twang of his voice just about perfect, and the familiar songs not yet become rotely or remotely "automatic Jack." Moreover, any album with a 10-minute performance of Elliott's "912 Greens," his great Talking Blues classic, belongs in every household in America. And seven or eight minutes in, by the way, comes the album's sole Kerouac reference, to a Mexican chair he sat in, transported now to New Orleans where the other Jack could plop down on it... Even so, the album's title doesn't really relate.

Also slightly trashed is the cardboard package housing cool Fifties-style postcards, a Ginsberg tribute to Kerouac, and a slightly worn CD of his excellent 1959 album, Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation. But all's right with the world, nonetheless, because Jack is in fine fettle--alcohol-sober but loose and funny, occasionally dramatic, boppin' his cheery spontaneous prosepomes till the streetlights come up and the Beat cowboys come home. Jack's favorite subjects get plenty of mention--old bums, good-looking women, weird sounds, strong tea (as in pot, smoked rather than steeped), and Jazz circa 1949 (Diz and Pres, Monk and Bird)--short lyrics and longer set-pieces both, Bluesy San Francisco pomes, a slice of The Subterraneans, and the perennial Kerouac-style favorites known as "History of Bop" and "Neal and the Three Stooges."

Off the Road, busy taking notes, watching the world pass... Happy Jack, Kerouac at his peak... before the long, resentful, sorry slide into soul-Beaten drunkenness and stars-gone-out death. Best to remember Wild Jack criss-crossing America, with and without Dean/Neal; read that fun and funky Scroll. Poet Jack jotting his impressions, writing, always writing, fashioning hundreds of skinny Sketches; see the brilliant Book so named, its short-line prosepome shapes dictated by the tiny notebooks Kerouac carried everywhere. And Soul-full Jack, confused, sentimental, loving, unable to escape his mother and dead brother, sexually struggling and maybe less masculine than he looked--and no way bold and bearish enough to assume the "King of the Beat Generation" spokesman role American society thrust on him. (Drawing on newly available journals and letters, Paul Mayer's Kerouac bio is solid on the day-to-day chronology of his life, less interested in psychoanalysis and speculation.)

That was Kerouac, many things but finally just one thing: all ways Beat.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sound Off

Ornette Coleman was the subject of a JazzWax piece several days ago. Ornette's debut album, Something Else!!!, was reissued recently, and Marc Myers noted in passing that Cannonball Adderley's LP of approximately the same title (Somethin' Else, with Miles Davis guesting) had appeared at approximately the same time in 1958.

A whole scene popped immediately into my head, but when I tried to pass it on as a comment, Marc's recalcitrant server chewed it up and spit it out into space, or some sort of cloud of dissed-information. (Even the a.i.'s are critics these days!) I started to write it again, then realized--waste not, want not--that I should post it right here instead.

The encounter is imaginary and never happened... unless it did, of course. Some might think it should have.

* * * * *
Cannonball and Miles were playing a one-night gig in St. Louis, rehearsing some tunes for Adderley's upcoming album. Late in the evening, a slight, dark-skinned young man shuffled up to the bandstand carrying a small plastic saxophone and asked if he could sit in.

Cannon looked him up and down, saw new threads on a country boy, wrinkled like he'd just stepped down off the bus. The big man smiled. "That accent says Texas. And Blues maybe. Why, sure," checking Miles. "Ease on up here."

The trumpeter was remembering his first trip to the Apple, searching for Bird for days, finally sitting in... Miles just shrugged, called for "Autumn Leaves" in a slightly ascerbic key and, a few bars in, pointed at the newcomer: "Go."

Swirling leaves vanished, the song consumed by bleating goats, snakecharmers' pipes, staggering leaps and fits, plastic gold and deep African blues. Cannon listened to the kid's caterwauling for a few minutes, then stopped the tune. "Coal Man," he said, "you are somethin'."

"Somethin' else," rasped Miles. The two looked at each other. Adderley said, "Sounds like an album title to me."

Miles frowned at the plastic sax held in the young man's long fingers. "You got a lonely future right now. Get a real sax. Learn the changes." He half-turned, paused, laughing in that croaky way, "Better yet, find some Texas woman take you in."

Cannonball laughed then, too, and the dual leaders walked away.

The young saxophonist looked down at his odd sax and his scuffed shoes. He smiled just a bit and said nothing, keeping his own counsel as usual. He was already feeling the solitude... the aloneness... in his chest, and hearing some ornate harmolodic wails in his head.

He walked out of the club, straight to a nearby corner. Under a flickering streetlamp he began to blow. Cries and whispers...

He could almost see the sad lady, could almost see her face.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Good Beat

It's useful to remember that Jack Kerouac's "Beat Generation" phrase in the beginning meant "street people Beat down to the bricks"; only later did he redefine those words as "Beatific and free-spirited." Despite all his whooping exuberance and popular acclaim, Kerouac was a sad cat--a brooding, miserable drunk living with his Memere, haunted by his dead brother Gerard, too busy observing and taking notes and writing in his mind to enjoy fully and freely all the wild and crazy experiences he went on and on about. (On the Road was nearly a decade in the making and remaking.)

Jack penned his literary hopes on hustling, hitchhiking, and having a ball, then tried exZentrick Buddhist tantras when the close focus on his car-thief, country-hound buddy Cassady didn't seem to be sellable--when that All-Americana Road kept going nowhere...

Yet he kept writing. Usually revved up on coffee or blasted on demon weed, Jack occasionally needed Bennies to help him pound out his Jazz poetry and "spontaneous Bop prose," and then rivers of booze to help him escape the clamoring sycophants, unwanted daughter, ex-friends, and excess fame he fled from when they all finally came knocking. His spirit and his liver gave out in 1969, long before the astonishing breadth of his worldwide success became apparent.

Much as the Kerouac Estate (administered by the Sampas family via Jack's last wife Stella) has overseen the gradual publication, since Jack packed it in, of two dozen previously unknown texts (some of them edited from larger works), with more and more academic studies of Kerouac's sprawling Duluoz saga appearing as well, so too is there a growing industry in recordings by, or in tribute to, Ti-Jean/Jack. Setting aside the audiobook versions of On the Road (two of the best are read by rock musician Graham Parker and actor Matt Dillon), there must be eight or ten widely varied releases worth acknowledging.

First, of course, are the three LP records issued in the late Fifties with Jack reading his own works. Poetry for the Beat Generation came first, a rare album initially issued by Dot, then quickly withdrawn and transferred to obscure Hanover Records, which most fans had no way of hearing until 1990 when Rhino Records issued a terrific box set housing Kerouac's official three (Poetry, plus Blues and Haikus and Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation) as well as a fourth LP of other uncollected readings. This set can still be found in some formats, but the major three also exist individually on CD now--the first with improvisational piano background courtesy of multi-tasker Steve Allen (who featured Jack on his television show), B&H graced with the waxing-and-wailing, counterpoint saxes of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn (some folks claim the duo ignored or, alternatively, sneered at the sad poet), and Readings, which presents Jack's solo voice only. That last is actually my favorite, mostly due to the variety of texts he drolly recites, chants, or reads.

Over the next 40 or 50 years, the albums that namechecked Kerouac were mostly minor acknowledgments of the influence of Jack's "spontaneous Bop prose" and presumed Beatific attitude on songwriters and performers ranging from Dylan and Tom Waits (A Beat cat if ever there was one!), to Patti Smith and Nick Cage, to Johnny Depp and Joe Strummer. Some examples of Jack's influence would be Patti Smith's poetic LP Horses; the casually titled album Beat by King Crimson; Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner (to name just one among many); and Ramblin' Jack Elliott's 1980 return to the recording studio, Kerouac's Last Dream... all of them dating from the Seventies and Eighties.

More recent examples include several Estate-backed CDs. Two are featured later in this post, so I'll just quickly mention two others--the truly bizarre Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake, a 2CD dramatization of Kerouac's unproduced screenplay, here more like an episode of radio-show thriller The Shadow, with music by John Medeski and the cheerful participation of poets Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jim Carroll, Rock maverick Graham Parker, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and others. (A thick, cartoon-illustrated book of the screenplay completes the package; issued in 2003, the set quickly became a rare collectible.) And in 2009 appeared the compelling film One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur (discussed here), which documents the 1960 events that led to Jack's end-of-his-tether novel of the same name--the set containing one DVD and a separate CD of the excellent Jay Farrar/Benjamin Gibbard song-score.

Jazz musicians have occasionally remembered Kerouac too, from the early Fifties Esoteric LPs issuing Jerry Newman's Forties' club recordings of Monk, Gillespie, Charlie Christian, and others--some tunes given names referencing jam-session fan Jack--to last year's 2CD set devoted to the Fifties BeBop records of tenor sax man Brew Moore, titled The Kerouac Connection merely because Jack wrote about him in On the Road.

But the most lasting Jazz tribute came from an unlikely source; in 1981, ever-hip vocalist Mark Murphy put out his homage LP, Bop for Kerouac, offering Mark's inimitable versions of standards named in Kerouac's novels--arranged by fine pianist Bill Mays and with wildman Richie Cole adding alto sax--together with wonderful readings of excerpts from Jack's restless prose. "Mellow... mournful... magical" are some of the words I'd use to describe Mark's singing and reciting; highlights include the sung "Be Bop Lives (Boplicity)" and "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," leading to the talked and sung "Parker's Mood" "(with an excerpt from The Subterraneans) and the final, perfect "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," which segues from the well-regarded sunset-on-the-Hudson ending of On the Road into Murphy's definitive reading of the song.

The album's LP and then CD sales and general critical acclaim led to an '86 sequel called Kerouac, Then and Now. I suppose that less-compelling title suggests the less-astonishing, me-too problem facing sequels in general. But Murphy and arranger Mays work overtime to dispel any doubts. Mark soothes through "If You Could See Me Now" and "Ask Me Now" both, shows his scat chops on Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" and a so-slow bit chipped from Billy's late gem, the chilling tune "Blood Count," but then falters some in the recitations--less-involving, too-brief passages from Big Sur and On the Road, plus a not-so-funny take on hipster comedian Lord Buckley.

Still, Murphy's pair of aces went unchallenged until the late Nineties, when the Sampas folks stepped forward to unveil some "new" Kerouac to revitalize his rep among Rockers and Jazz cats. Following tribute events in NYC and Lowell, Mass., Jim Sampas and Rykodisc Records invited a host of young and older performers to contribute their versions of Kerouac "pomes" or prose passages. The resulting album, Kerouac--kicks joy darkness, is bracing and boring, wacky and wasted and wonderful in about equal measure. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays guitar and more behind a tape of Jack reciting excerpts from "MacDougal Street Blues," and Allen Ginsburg works easily through nine-tenths of "The Brooklyn Bridge Blues," with the final tenth supplied later by folkie Eric Anderson actually standing on the bridge with traffic noise for accompaniment. Hunter S. Thompson goofs around, and William Burroughs goes cowboy-straight for "Old Western Movies." (Backing duo "tomandandy" don't.) Soon-to-be-dead singer Warren Zevon tackles Death head-on in Jack's excellent "Running Through--Chinese Poem Song," and the group Morphine provides a great original called "Kerouac" that outdoes the Beatman.

Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Johnny Depp, John Cale, Matt Dillon... they're all here; some making new-Jack swing, others just phoning it in. There are 25 tracks in all and only a handful that flop. But oddly enough, it's the longer prose chunks and excerpts from Visions of Cody that seem less interesting than Jack's odds-'n'-ends pomes-with-music-attached.

A separate venture, and a wonderful one, came two years later: Jack Kerouac reads On the Road. This one was and is a major addition to the Kerouac biblio(disco)graphy--late Fifties tapes of Jack reading, reciting, even singing, or goofing on a few Jazz songs anyway; some cuts with music present on the original, some with music added (courtesy of keyboards whiz John Medeski and Jack's friend, composer and player David Amram), and one left blessedly unimproved, allowing Jack to sink or swim alone. And, man, does he--freestyle, at a 29-minute pace!

The songs are Kerouacker Jack croonerisms, surprisingly funny and fine ("Come Rain or Come Shine," "Ain't We Got Fun," a pair of bluesier tunes), and a terrific two minutes of On the Road made musical by Jack and Medeski. Amram's accompaniments to the 9-minute "Orizaba 210 Blues" and double-that "Washington D.C. Blues" (previously unpublished) are rich and strange, lightly packed with ever-changing flute, conga, ocarina, piano, oboe, viola, French horn, shanai, dumbek, and the rest of the World Music kitchen sink. Between Jack's focused performances and David's madcap mellifluities, a grand time can be had by all.

There are two other excerpts from On the Road included here. (And the fold-out liner notes are laid out sideways, using very small print, designed to resemble the infamous typed Road scroll.) The concluding track is a potent, patently percussive, Waitsian-wasted warble that ends the album not so much on a high note as on a blasted baritone croak. Yes, it's Tom of the Beaten voice, for whom neither Time nor tide has Waited. And for a taste... well, a whole meal... of the real thing we turn to the album's centerpiece, Jack's half-hour reading of the well-loved portion of On the Road, separately printed, early on, as "Jazz of the Beat Generation"--a sterling-silver (Beaten-gold?) sample of spontaneus Bop prose in motion: the Beat set but changeable, Beaten down but unBeaten, Beatific and comic too, Beatitudinous and yet with attitude. Much of the best of Jack captured on a tape that almost no one knew existed, a performance full of piss, vinegar, "Dean Moriarty," saxmen Lester Young and Charlie Parker, good drinks, better women, and the best of Jazz morphed by spontaneous Bop prosody into a new variety of literature. (One that's got a good Beat you can even dance to!)

Release into the moment, Jack (blue) noted elsewhere, and "so he said it and sang it and blew it through to the stars and on out."

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ozzie Bailey Too

Six months ago I posted a brief piece titled "Ozzie Strays," an introduction of sorts to Ozzie Bailey, a littleknown vocalist who sang with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra around 1957-58. Ozzie performed on Duke's 1957 television special A Drum Is a Woman as well as the accompanying long-play record. He toured with the band around then, appearing overseas and at Newport with Duke in 1958 (his feature was a French/English version of "Autumn Leaves" arranged by Billy Strayhorn), and slightly later Ozzie also recorded some songs, demos maybe, for a Strayhorn project.

Then he seems to have vanished from the Jazz scene. My post asked the basic questions--who was this guy? what became of him?--and I asked for additional information from anyone who happened to read the piece and could help. Time went by and then two weeks ago, a man named "Art Serating" submitted the comment I am about to reproduce. I've sent a couple of emails to Mr. Serating's odd return address, but no further communiques have been forthcoming. So I offer his emailed comment now without having verified any of it...

I met Ozzie in New York in 1971. He and I worked together as sales clerks in the record department in the Doubleday Bookshop on Fifth Avenue & 53rd Street. He was extremely shy and spoke very little about his experiences with Duke Ellington but other employees already knew of his incredible talent. We played music in the store all day and he frequently sang along to everyone's delight. His favorite lunch was a Smithfield Burger from the hamburger shop down the block.

I never saw him lose his cool. He was a real gentleman. Ozzie had a great musical memory and he would always help customers find what they were looking for. Famous New York entertainers frequently visited Ozzie at the store and we were all impressed with his circle of friends. Ozzie passed on some years ago but his beautiful voice goes on forever.

From band vocalist to bookstore clerk just a decade later. In the unanswered emails I asked Serating if any of Ozzie's Ellington reminiscences could be shared... what celebrity friends visited him at the store... when precisely he had died... and so on. But no response.

So the world may know more about Ozzie Bailey now--or not--but the mystery surrounding his curious life continues...