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The Big Beat: The Role of Jazz and Improvisation in Modern Literature


All cultures directly shape and affect all thought, art and literature, and those, in turn, become the voice for the particular time and place in which they exist. American creative output during the era between 1925 and 1960 reflected the culture of the time. The writers and their work during the Harlem Renaissance, for example, were directly affected by not only other artists of the time such as the jazz musicians and painters of the era, but also by the political and societal environment of America during the 1920s. Writers of the Puritan era such as Anne Bradstreet or Edward Taylor, never would have written in the style or subject matter for which they are known were it not for the culture of which they were a part. The same can be said of Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel West, Allen Ginsberg and William Faulkner. Products of their time, all reflected their own culture in their work in very distinct and unique ways.

This paper will focus exclusively on the effect that jazz music had on the literature during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, as well as with the postmodern literary movement of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Of particular focus will be the role jazz played in the writings of Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance, and the role of jazz in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. Also discussed will be the relationship of jazz, in particular be-bop, to the writers of the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Music has played a role in other eras and styles of literature. For example, Willa Cather used music in many of her novels and short stories. Cather’s musical preferences included opera and symphonic works. She was especially fond of Wagnerian operas that provided metaphors in her short stories. Cather’s use of music in her fiction emphasizes her belief that artistic expression and achievement demand intense and focused dedication to the craft (Meyer 24). Cather, a music reviewer in the early stages of her career was fascinated with not only the music, but with the people who wrote and performed it as well. Through music, she situates her characters in a particular time, connecting them to worlds apart from their own. In her short story, Paul’s Case, Paul works as an usher at Carnegie Hall where he can escape into the world of art and music. Cather, like other writers, used music as a tool. This tool, like jazz’s use during the Harlem Renaissance, served an elemental role in larger stories (Meyer 27). Unlike Cather’s use of classical music as story content, the use of jazz penetrated deeper, and became more of a cultural element affecting many aspects of everyday life and art.

For the first half of the twentieth century, jazz was the dominant form of popular dance music in the United States. The element of improvisation attracted musicians to jazz. Musicians in jazz bands were free, and were encouraged to improvise, a drastic change from the rigidity of the ragtime and dance bands that pre-date jazz in the early twentieth century (Early).

Of the many different ingredients that enhanced the creation of jazz, the most important was the blues. Blues provided the structure upon which all jazz, and arguably all forms of American music to follow, was based. Like literature, some structured forms and conventions, such as grammar and punctuation for example, must be followed. As the form develops, however, room for improvisation and evolution follows.

Jazz in the modern and postmodern era was more than just music; jazz was a cultural movement that had great influence on the youth in regard to dress, language, and attitude. It forced people to question ideas about what was appropriate in society and what was normal. The mainstream, fearing the effect it would have on the young, disliked jazz because of its association to sex, inter-racial relationships and drugs. Gerald Early, in an interview for the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, claims that mainstream, white society of the time was fearful that jazz would bring about a “niggerization” of society. This new step away from tradition gave people the opportunity to experience new forms of self-expression.This naturally carried over into literature and other art forms as well. Many artists like Jackson Pollack and Aaron Douglass believed that jazz’s sense of spontaneity, its dissonance and anti-establishment attitude embodied compelling aspects of modernism and postmodernism (Early).

Another important aspect of jazz that relates to the literature of the modern and postmodern era is that of being an outsider to the mainstream. The theme of being an outsider runs through the stories by writers from these eras. Authors Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel West, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and others all directly or indirectly dealt with the themes of outsiders and fringe elements of society. Jazz, before it hit mass pop appeal in the late thirties and forties with swing, and before it evolved into be-bop, was an outsider's music. Along with blues, it was considered the devil’s music by many middle class, educated blacks. The music was played in dives, dancehalls and beer joints. Called “gutbucket music” by the mainstream, it was viewed as a music that disfigured the black community with the vices that accompanied the night life (Early). The influence of jazz on writers and literature in the first half of the twentieth century is great and there are many similarities between jazz, jazz culture and the literature and culture from which it emerged.

All of jazz is formed around the concept of the blues. The harmonic patterns underneath the melody are all based on blues progressions. The musical scales that are commonly used in jazz are commonly minor pentatonic scales that employ the use of a flatted third note, the “blue” note in the scale. Jazz would not exist without the blues and the blues is a vital component to jazz music.

Jazz Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes, Claude Mckay and James Weldon Johnson wrote poetry that reflected the African American experience in America during the 1920s, and jazz was an essential part of that experience. These Harlem Renaissance poets each contributed to the era in their own unique style. Langston Hughes was never far from jazz. He went to nightclubs to listen, he read his poetry with jazz accompaniment and was a vocal proponent of racial consciousness. Hughes considered jazz and the blues African-American art forms and believed that for blacks to have a respectable culture they needed to create art at a high, sophisticated level that rejoiced in black heritage and creativity. Rather than wish away daily hardship, the blues and jazz elevated the everyday troubles of the black American into art (Gross). In his 1926 story The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,Langston Hughes writes,

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile (qtd. in Gross)

Hughes’ love for jazz found its way into his writings early on, and eventually this turned into a genre of poetry known today as jazz poetry. He believed that like jazz, poetry could become a uniquely African American art form in a literary world that until the Harlem Renaissance had been a predominately white art form. Hughes incorporated imagery and phrasing into his poetry that had the feel of improvised lines; he often incorporated syncopations of rhythm in his phrasing and used slang terms common in the jazz community (Gross). Hughes also wrote poetry that made critical statements in regard to race or class. Jazz music is a statement regarding race and class, and it claims jazz as a unique, complex art form that was born in the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans. Jazz poetry does the same. The Langston Hughes poem, “The Ballad of the Landlord” speaks about issues having to do with race and class. It is also structured like a blues song, meaning the four line stanzas would fit into the structure of a standard twelve bar blues pattern. The end of the poem changes from this structure into a form that shows improvisation away from the theme (a standard format that jazz often takes). Following is an excerpt from Hughes’ poem,

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

You gonna cut off my heat?

You gonna take my furniture and

Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.

Talk on-till you get through.

You ain't gonna be able to say a word

If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!

Come and get this man!

He's trying to ruin the government

And overturn the land!

Copper's whistle!

Patrol bell!


Precinct Station.

Iron cell.

Headlines in press:




Claude Mckay also wrote poetry that had the feel of jazz similar to Hughes’, also taking on issues of race, class and gender. Claude Mckay’s poem “The Harlem Dancer” paints a picture of Harlem, with a dancer, performing to what can be assumed a jazz band,

APPLAUDING youths laughed with young prostitutes

And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;

Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes

Blown by black players upon a picnic day.

She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,

The light gauze hanging loose about her form;

To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm

Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.

Upon her swarthy neck black, shiny curls

Profusely fell; and, tossing coins in praise,

The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,

Devoured her with their eager, passionate gaze;

But, looking at her falsely-smiling face

I knew herself was not in that strange place.

Poets like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, have the ability to combine art, poetry and music. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were able to do this using the art of language. The ability to marry the different genres together into literature and poetry is what makes poets like Hughes and McKay stand out from their contemporaries of the era. Langston Hughes’ essay titled “Jazz as Communication”, illustrates how jazz seeps into literature and shows the influence it has on him as a writer,

Jazz seeps into words—spelled out words. Nelson Algren is influenced by jazz. Ralph Ellison is, too. Sartre, too. Jacques Prévert. Most of the best writers today are. It was fifty years ago, the first time I heard the Blues on Independence Avenue in Kansas City. Then State Street in Chicago. Then Harlem in the twenties with J. P. and J. C. Johnson and Fats and Willie the Lion and Nappy playing piano—with the Blues running all up and down the keyboard through the ragtime and the jazz. House rent party cards (Hughes).

It was during this time that he wrote one of his best, well known jazz poems, “The Weary Blues”, a poem that puts the reader directly into the scene with the music and the black piano player singing the Blues. This poem also has the sound of the blues and one can imagine the image unfolding with the sound and movement of the music (Robinson). The following is an excerpt from “The Weary Blues”,

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

I heard a Negro play.

Down on Lenox Avenue the other night

By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

He did a lazy sway. . . .

He did a lazy sway. . . .

To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

Sweet Blues (Hughes Weary Blues)!

Sonny’s Blues

James Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s Blues, is based around jazz and in particular, a form of jazz that developed in the 1940s and flourished through the 1950s: bebop. Bebop was an evolution in jazz that moved away from the popular big band swing music of the 1930s and 1940s. Bebop was art music rather than the popular entertainment of the commercial mainstream. It was played in smaller combos and relied on complex chord changes and melodies that required virtuosic skill on an instrument. Bebop also relied almost completely upon the art of improvisation. All jazz requires improvisation, but bebop takes this aesthetic to another level not found in jazz until this point. It was not dance music, it was for the most part, noncommercial music, for listening in small clubs. Musicians at the forefront of the Bebop movement such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk composed the music of the Beat Generation and it is this style of jazz that is essential to James Baldwin’s story.

Sonny’s Blues, not only uses jazz as a central component to the story, it also uses jazz as a metaphor for Sonny’s relationships with his brother, with his family, with society and with drugs. Taking place in Harlem in the mid-1950s, the story revolves around the unnamed narrator and his brother, Sonny. The narrator is a family man who teaches algebra at a school in Harlem. His brother Sonny is a jazz musician and a heroin addict. Not coincidentally to the story, heroin use among bebop musicians was rampant and many lives, including Charlie Parker’s were destroyed because of heroin addiction. Sonny has been arrested in a heroin bust and is in jail. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the brothers served in the Korean War, that the narrator's daughter died of polio and that their father died. Sonny was, and is, addicted to heroin and practices feverishly at the piano in order to become a jazz musician.

Jazz takes a central place in the story is various ways. The narrator becomes very uneasy when he hears of his brother’s early desire to play jazz,

I simply couldn't see why on earth he'd want to spend his time hanging around nightclubs, clowning around on bandstands, while people pushed each other around a dance floor. It seemed-beneath him, somehow. I had never thought about it before, had never been forced to, but I suppose I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called "good- time people" (qtd. in Sherard 699).

Bebop was very divisive in the jazz world as it sought to separate the young generation of players from the old fashioned style of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. In his book Baldwin, Bebop and Sonny’s Blues, Pancho Savery states that bebop is as significant to jazz as was the Harlem Renaissance, and that it was "to a large extent a revolt against swing and the way African American music had been taken over, and diluted, by whites” (qtd. in Sherard 699). With white musicians like Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman being named “The King of Jazz” and The King of Swing”, there was resentment in the young, black community of Harlem that jazz had been appropriated by the white mainstream. The narrator, trying to find a common ground with his brother, uses Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker in conversation. In an example that demonstrates further the separation between Sonny and his brother, but also Sonny and mainstream culture, Sonny, regarding Louis Armstrong states that he prefers Charlie Parker to Armstrong's “old time, down home crap” (Sherard 699). Richard Albert, in his book The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’ states that this carries "a strong Uncle Tom implication," since "Armstrong was viewed this way by many of the young black musicians in the 1940s and 1950s. Had Armstrong become 'the white man's nigger?'”(qtd. in Sherard 699) Baldwin uses many jazz analogies like this in his story to drive home the fact that Sonny is clearly part of an outlier culture that was not viewed in a positive light by the mainstream. Bebop during this era was ridiculed as being undanceable jazz, played by drug addicts in out-of-the-way clubs. The musicians were openly ridiculed by the like of old guard musicians like Louis Armstrong who was by this time a mainstream pop figure that was beloved by both whites and blacks. Sonny’s life is beginning to mimic the lifestyle of Charlie Parker and the bebop culture of which he is a part.

The story comes to a conclusion when the narrator goes to a club in Greenwich Village to hear Sonny perform. People in the club are friendly to him once they find out who he is, and it is instantly apparent that he is now in Sonny's world, or, rather: his kingdom. “Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood" (Baldwin 145). Jazz gives Sonny a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose in a world where he might otherwise be lost. He’s unable to function in the mainstream world, dropping out of school, and cannot hold down a “real” job. Here, in the jazz club with his band and admirers and hangers on in the scene, he is at home.

While in the club, the narrator meets the man who seems to be the band leader, Creole. Creole is very glad to finally meet Sonny’s brother and compliments him for having such a fine musician in the family. Creole comes across not only as the bandleader, but as a sort of father figure who is welcoming Sonny back into the world of jazz after his drug arrest. He is the bass player in the band, and also the musician who subtly holds the whole band together. He rarely solos or is in the spotlight, but when the bass is off, the entire band sounds off. Also of note is his name, Creole. Because of his nickname, one can assume that Creole is, in fact, a Creole. Creoles, Louisiana blacks of mixed heritage, usually with Caucasian blood, were known for their high level of musicianship in the pre-jazz era of the late 19th and early 20th century. Masters of ragtime and classical music, Creoles were a key element in the “creation” of jazz mixing it with the blues and horn bands of New Orleans (Gumbo). Creole serves as a connection to the world of jazz and to the outside world in that he is a welcoming father figure to Sonny, who lost his father. Creole also represents some of the white, conventional, mainstream world that Sonny and other bebop musicians of the era are rejecting. Creole also represents parts of the white, conventional, mainstream world that Sonny and other bebop musicians of the era are rejecting. It is a struggle that Sonny faces every day, the choice of the life of the jazz musician, or life of the mainstream world. Sonny chooses not to join the mainstream, and, thus, could possibly self-destruct. The band begins to play, and Baldwin brilliantly paints a picture of the musicians on stage as they slowly, but surely, fall into a groove. Creole, through his playing, pulls and coaxes Sonny into the deep waters of the music, pulling him farther into the world of jazz, and of darkness, where Sonny feels at home.

He [Creole] was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water (Baldwin 146).

Sonny, after not having played the piano for a year, eventually finds his groove and falls in with the rest of the band, into a world he loves and is a part of, a world which also separates him from family and from the trappings of mainstream society. There is no other path for Sonny. In jazz, he finds his life, he finds freedom, freedom from a world in which he cannot conform; at the same time it is this freedom that also traps him. Paradoxically, this world, and this life, will possibly destroy him. The narrator comments while watching Sonny play,

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever (Baldwin 148).

Bebop and the Beat Generation

The relationship between music, literature and art has always been a very close and intertwining connection. Writers have always set stories and poems to the sounds of music. Songs are essentially poetry arranged to music. In the early and middle parts of the 20th century times began to change, and the relationship of poetry and music had a major impact on a subculture of Americans who felt alienated from mainstream culture and society. This alienation created a drive to seek something new, more fulfilling and meaningful in a postwar America that was driven by conformist attitudes and consumerism (Patterson). By the early part of the 1950s a small and talented group of Beat writers including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, began to experiment with African American rhythms and improvisation, the same elements used in bebop and by bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. Thus, a new social movement, heavily influenced by the rhythms and improvisations of bebop was created.

Radical in every aspect, the use of bebop aesthetics in their writings changed traditional poetry as well as the sociological landscape of postwar America (Patterson). Drug abuse and heavy drinking in the world of bebop was common among the musicians. Heroin addiction and drug busts common for many musicians, resulted in the loss of their cabaret cards, licenses needed to play and earn pay in the clubs of New York. The high profile cases of drug addiction in the Bebop world meant the music was gaining an image of high energy, fast paced, talented personalities living a life which seemed free from all worries of the real world. Henry Weekes, in his article, “Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation” states that,

The high profile cases of drug addiction in the Bebop world meant the music was starting to gain an image, the image of high energy, fast paced, talented personalities living a life which seemed free from all worries of the real world. This image became just as important as the music. Musicians such as Parker were seen as more than entertainers, they were seen as intellectuals and trendsetters, leading the way for other artists and academics of the time do the same thing. A prime example of this is a group of writers known as the ‘Beat Generation. Kerouac specifically states bebop, and Parker in particular, as the main influences on his life and works(Weekes).

Much like Charlie Parker’s improvisation on his horn during a tune such as “Koko”. Jack Kerouac wrote many of his poems and books in spontaneous prose, saying that the words on the page are a stream of consciousness laid down with little punctuation in a stream of pure thoughts. Weekes states that, “Kerouac never went back over his words, often writing his books in a number of weeks. The intense periods of writing meant that the technique had to be extensively practiced, so Kerouac kept multiple diaries and wrote notes constantly to try and improve (Weekes). Like a Bebop musician, this technique requires that the performer or writer practices and becomes a master technician of their craft.

An excellent example of Kerouac’s writing in the bebop style of spontaneous prose is Mexico City Blues. Written in Mexico City between 1954 and 1957 while under the influence of marijuana and morphine, free form choruses are defined only by the size of Kerouac's notebook page.

Butte Magic of Ignorance

Butte Magic

Is the same as no-Butte

All one light

Old Rough Roads

One High Iron


Denver is the same

'The guy I was with his uncle was

the governor of Wyoming'

'Course he paid me back'

Ten Days

Two Weeks

Stock and Joint

'Was an old crook anyway' (Kerouac)

As the poem progresses, erratic and even more free form passages occur, breaking down and taking a turn, similar to musicians in the middle of a late night Bebop jam session. In the 228th chorus he writes,

Praised be I, writing, dead already &

dead again--

Dipped in ancid inkl

the flamd

of T i m

the Anglo Oglo Saxon Maneuvers

Of Old Poet-o's

In contrast to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry used the rhythms of jazz to promote the creation of a society centered around the ideologies that bebop embodied (Patterson). In his essay, “Blowing: Poetry Meets Music in the Writing of the Beat Generation”, Eric Patterson writes about Ginsberg,

For him it was the complete idea of a “Jazz society” that cemented his relation to the music. Not only was he utilizing the rhythmic patterns of breathing heard in the “blowing” of a jazz musician, but he was also mocking the establishment by embracing virtually every aspect of the jazz counterculture (Patterson).

As seen in the following example, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” uses a straighter rhythm that still incorporates and utilizes bebop aesthetics and philosophy. The following excerpt from Howl is a good example,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz (Ginsberg 9)

Ginsberg, in his poem America, again uses a jazz attitude and aesthetic to critique America,

America, when will you be angelic?

When will you take off your clothes?

When will you look at yourself through the grave?

When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?

America, why are your libraries full of tears?

America, when will you send your eggs to India?

I'm sick of your insane demands.

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.

Your machinery is too much for me.

You made me want to be a saint (Ginsberg, “America” 39).


Beat writers, searching for spontaneity, authenticity and an alternative to the mainstream, adopted an art form that was not readily accepted by American society: jazz and its counterculture. In doing so, a new style of writing was created in conjunction with a new style of playing jazz. This allowed the Beats to create art while at the same time exposing the hypocrisies and myths of postwar American society.

Art, in its various forms, serves as a lens through which culture and society is viewed. Not always a rose colored view, art also exposes the touch of grey that is inherent in any society. Paradoxically, at the same time it reflects great beauty. Jazz is beautiful. Jazz can also be ugly. Literature is also beautiful. Literature also comes in a form that depicts the ugliness of human nature. When literature exists in a world where other art forms like jazz exist, there is bound to be some mixing. Whether it’s the writers during the Harlem Renaissance infusing jazz into their writings, or jazz musicians adopting the philosophies of writers into their music, it is inevitable that the symbiotic nature of this relationship will in the end create great art.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." Going to Meet the Man. Vintage, 1985. 122-48. Print.

Early, Gerald. "Jazz and the African American Literary Tradition, Freedom's Story, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center." Teacher Serve. National Humanities Center, June 2010. Web. 23 June 2016.

Ginsberg, Allen. "America." Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket hop, 1956. 39-43. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket hop, 1956. Print.

Gross, Rebecca. "Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes." Art Works Blog. National Endowment for the Arts, 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 23 June 2016.

Gumbo: Ken Burns' Jazz, Part 1. Prod. Ken Burns. PBS, 2000. DVD.

Hughes, Langston. "Jazz as Communication (1956)." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 13 Oct. 2009. Web. 23 June 2016.

Hughes, Langston. "The Weary Blues." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2016. Web. 24 June 2016.

Kerouac, Jack. "1st Chorus-Mexico City Blues." Poem Hunter. Poem Hunter, 29 Mar. 2010. Web. 25 June 2016.

Meyer, Michael J. Literature and Music. Amsterdam, NY, NY: Rodopi, 2002. Print.

Patterson, Eric V. "Blowing: Poetry Meets Music in the Writing of the Beat Generation." Empty Mirror. Empty Mirror Books, 2010. Web. 25 June 2016.

Robinson, Russia. "Langston Hughes: An Example of Musical Imagery and Symbolism in Poetry." Web log post. Wordpress. 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 June 2016.

Sherard, Tracey. "Sonny's Bebop: Baldwin's "Blues Text" as Intracultural Critique." African American Review 32.4 (1998): 691-704. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 20 June 2016.

Weekes, Henry. "Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and the ‘Beat Generation’." Wall of Sound Magazine. Wall of Sound, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 June 2016.

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