I've always been a sucker for Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I guess that's because I'm a die-hard romantic for the late 1940s and early 1950s—when jazz, painting, sculpture, architecture and all things creative started to be processed through an American filter rather than European sensibilities. After World War II, Europe was no longer in the civilization business.
The energy level in America between the end of World War II and the dawn of the Cold War was hip, edgy and furious. On the Road captures the carefree and dark mood back then, with Kerouac's cross-country reportage and wanderlust post cards describing an era when to be creative and different was everything.
In this regard, On the Road remains the beat Alice in Wonderland, with Kerouac down the rabbit's hole chasing after daddy-os and gum-chewing girls with bobbed hair. His saucer-eyed musings about America, his cool aimless friends and all that he saw and heard still reads like an extended jazz solo.
Last week I picked up a copy of On the Road: The Original Scroll. As most everyone knows, Kerouac kept notes in journals during his extended road trip across America between 1947 and 1950. Then, over the course of three weeks in April 1951, he banged out the entire manuscript on a 120-foot scroll of tracing paper taped together. He did this so that he wouldn't have to be interrupted replacing standard sheets of typing paper.
The "scroll" version is fascinating in that there are no chapter or paragraph breaks, and all of the real names of the people are used. When the book was finally published by Viking in 1957, the real names had to be changed.
Upon re-reading On the Road, I was happy to see that much of what I remembered about the jazziness of this book is still in place. In fact, jazz is this book's soundtrack. You hear it coming out of windows, through alleys and at gas stations. The music is virtually oozing from between the written lines.
What a time in American history. Through Kerouac's rapid-fire, tawny writing style, you get a sense of how all that great music must have sounded to the naked ear back then between 1947 and 1950, and all the excitement it generated.
While On the Road reverentially touches on many different jazz artists, one section on pianist George Shearing caught my eye:
"George Shearing the great jazz pianist, Neal said, was exactly like Allen Anson. Neal and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o'clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English summer's night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzel Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster. It seemed faster and faster, that's all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. It rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to 'Go!' Neal was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. 'There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!' And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Neal's gasps and imprecations, he could sense it tho he couldn't see. 'That's right!' Neal said. 'Yes!' Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose form the piano dripping with sweat; these were his great days before be became cool and commercial. When he was gone Neal pointed to the empty piano seat. "God's empty chair!' he said."
That's what makes On the Road so much fun. It's a stream of consciousness read, like an extended bop cutting session of the late 40s.
But hold on a second—is Kerouac's assessment of Shearing's brief 1947-48 trio period, fair? Was it really superior to the the "cool and commercial" quintet, which Shearing formed in 1949 by adding vibes and guitar and creating that seductive "sound?"
To find out, I pulled out Shearing's Savoy trio sessions of 1947 and 48 and matched them up against the quintet of 1949-51. After a careful listen, I have to admit that Kerouac had a point. Shearing, in the trio setting, is much more raw and restless, with bop lines pouring out in halting and flowing waves.
I adore Shearing's early quintet recordings for the freshness of its dry ice sound. But the trio is indeed more interesting, perhaps because without the two extra instruments, the blind Shearing had to work harder and squeeze more in to sustain interest and get his point across. The quintet certainly gave him and listeners much more breathing room.
The unnamed bass player Kerouac refers to in the above passage surely is Gene Ramey, who played with Jay McShann's band between 1938 and 1944, with Charlie Parker in the 1940s, and with Thelonious Monk on his first recordings for Blue Note in 1947 before joining Shearing. Ramey, of course, went on to record with everyone of significance in the 1950s.
The Shearing tune Kerouac is listening to with Neal Cassady at Birdland could be anything, of course. But I'm convinced it's Consternation, which starts out with a rollicking, double octave bop melody line that quickly shifts into a rip-roaring block-chord opus that indeed rolls and rolls like the sea.
Thanks, Jack, for reminding us that before the famed George Shearing Quintet and the slick "Shearing Sound" came the more aggressive George Shearing Trio, which could drive audiences wild. Old God Shearing, indeed.
Wax tracks: For comparison of George Shearing's trio and quintet from this period, spring for From Battersea to Broadway, a four-CD box from the UK's Proper label. It's selling for $32 at Amazon.com but can be purchased for $23 at CDUniverse.com.
Deep background: Shearing not only fronted his own trios, quintets and sextets but he also arranged early on for the post-war big band of Ted Heath, a British band leader in the Stan Kenton vein. For two examples of Shearing's fine arranging work, check out A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Tadd Dameron's Ladybird. Both can be found at iTunes under Ted Heath's name.
Wax clip: There are no video clips yet of Shearing's trio from the late 1940s. But for a glimpse at Shearing's block chords technique and double melody voicings, dig this clip of Shearing and Peggy Lee on Lullaby of Birdland, Shearing's most famous composition.
Wax waves: David Brent Johnson is doing a show on Jack Kerouac and jazz tonight (Saturday) at 11:05 pm (est). His National Public Radio show, "Night Lights," streams on the web at WFIU.org.