"On the Road's 50th Anniversary. What a Party!!
During a glorious week celebrating Kerouac around the clock,
I started writing this on the run (the endless road most of us are on all our lives) for Ron Whitehead's special tribute to Jack, his timeless book, and his legacy.
It is gratifying to know that this will appear with many other people's observations, some of whom I have been lucky enough to have known and admired for decades, from my own generation, as well as younger artists i have been privileged to meet and work with, all of whom have had their lives enriched by reading On the Road.
When Jack and i first met and started collaborating in 1956, On the Road hadn't bee published yet. Being with him was like being in a ovie or a book and when i
finally read it on a plane ride from California to New York in 1960. it was an extension of hanging out with him. i coild hear his voice in evry page ofm the book. I still can today, and so can the rest of the world.
The world wide events celebrating the anniversary were kicked off Sept 5th in NYC with a panel presented by the New York Times, in a tribute for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. The four panelists were poet Billy Collins, authors Joyce Johnson, John Leland and Doug Brinkley.
kept thinking about how happy Jack would have been if he had seen Joyce, looking radiant and speaking so eloquently about what it was like that Sept 5th exactly 50 years ago, to walk from Joyce's apartment to the newsstand to read, which the review in the Times changed Jack's life and the World of prose forever. Jack always believed in Joyce as a writer, and her work continues to enrich our culture with every book and essay and araticel she writes.
Paul Slovak, the editor of Viking Penguin, who was there that night said to me "Your program tomorrow night in the East Village can be for younger people".
The following night, Thursday Sept 6th, I did a three hour show Diamonds in the Sidewalk for HowlFest at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC with my quartet and guest artists joining in,
an equally joyous, (and much less formal) anniversary party, which also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first "official" jazz/poetry readings ever presented publicly in New York, with Kerouac Philip Lamantia, Howard Hart and myself in October of 1957, a few blocks away from the Bowery Poetry Club, at the old Brata Art Gallery on East 10th Street. That afternoon, a half a century ago, Jack read parts of On the Road as I accompanied him for a small but enthusiastic group who wandered in off the street.
Before this first public reading, in '56 and early '57, Jack and I called what we did at the spur of the moment for our own entertainment, poetry-music/music-poetry.
We did it anywhere, any time the spirit moved us, but when Phil Lamantia named our group The Jazz Poetry Trio for our
first public reading,, I told him that the title "Jazz/Poetry Trio" appearing on the poster of our second reading at the Circle-in-the-Square Theater was fine by me, but that I wasn't just going to play jazz exclusively, but rather would play whatever kind of music the inherent music already in the poetry itself told me to embellish upon at the moment, to enhance the words.
I also told Phil that there since were four of us, we were a Quartet, not a Trio.
"Yeah," said Phil "But let's call it a trio. Then if someone doesn't show up, or if they comes late or leave early, we'll be covered."
Jack always showed up first, and like myself, obeyed the old New Orleans dictum "Be the first to leave the battlefield and the last to leave the party."
We were both super-enthusiaists. It was harder to get us to stop than to start. We never rehearsed, we never got piad, we never chsrged admission and we always had a great time.
By December of
'57, at our second public reading, On the Road was now a hot book nationwide. While our free readings were packed, none of us ever dreamed that a half century later, all this would be meaningful to a new generation of young people around the world.or thst the old balck and white hand made flyer would be in books and museums.
We just did it for fun, with or without an audience, and the phenomenon of what is now called Spoken word and Jazz/poetry is a joy to see happenig and would have make Jack chuckle, as well as proud to know that we made a contribution we never dreamed we were making.
This spirit of spontaneity, as well as doing some of the same passages from On the Road that Jack and I did 50 years ago with music, is what we celebrated in our three hour show at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC Thursday night Sept 6th.
In addition to John Ventimiglia as the scheduled performer wuth our quarttet, , Ron Whitehead, Casey Cyr and Frank Messina were surprise guests and Jose Pacheco (a fellow senior bopper my own age about to turn 77) read a poem about hearing Charlie Parker playing for the last time in Greenwich Village in 1955. British actor/comedian/philosopher/free associator Russell Brand sat in and read some of Jack's work. as well as crrating wild spontanious manic raps about how a young
londodner viewed all this today, all of which was filmed by BBC, to give the evening an international flavor.
Jack's spirit filled the room, as it often still does, and we finally stopped at about 1:30 a.m., since I was due to be in Lowell in a few hours for more On the Road activities.
I gulped down a double Chai tea, packed up my bags and instruments, and squashed into my Toyota Echo, with my son Adam and actor John Ventimiglia who was going all the way up to Lowell with us for more readings of On the Road with music.
I was the designated driver, and drove for five hours straight from Manhattan at 2 a.m. after the concert to
Lowell Mass, Jack Kerouac's home town, arrivivng with the daylight at 7 a.m. When we arrived at the Doubletree in Lowell Adam and John staggered off to bed.
After a one hour nap, I hauled myself over to the Merrimack Theater for a three hour morning rehearsal for a classical symphony concert dedicated to Jack (scheduled to take place two days later)
After the rehearsal, I went to a sound check in the park and after a late afternoon nap for two hours, played an outdoor jazz/world music tribute concert in the city park that night. During the concert, we also accompanied John Ventimiglia, who read from the Scroll itself, performing excerpts from the original 1951 first draft of what became the 1957 edited version of On the Road. Guest musicians from Montreal and Lowell also sat in.
Sunday, after a three hour rehearsal in the morning, I was a guest soloist with my jazz quartet in a concert from 4 to 6 PM that same afternoon of the 9th with the Orchestra New England, conducted by Kay George Roberts, celebrating Kerouac's involvement with classical music as well as classical orchestral pieces, featuring three symphonic compositions of mine with a Kerouac connection, as well as a piece by Thelonious Monk, which I orchestrated, and one of Duke Ellington's, in which I was the a soloist.
All the pieces were either favorites of Jack's or ones which I had composed for him over the years.
The second movement of my flute concerto, Giants of the Night, has two French Canadian folk songs which jack learned as a child in Lowell and used to sing to me (usually after three a.m.)
movement of the concerto was dedicated to him and I hope that this first performance in Lowell would bring these old songs he loved back home to where he learned them. yhe other two moveents of the concerto were dedicated in memory of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both of whom he knew and wrote about in On the Road. And I was blessed to know and play with all three of them.
We also did two settings for narrator and orchestra from On the Road , which I composed in the 90s for a concert at the Kennedy Center with E.G.Marshall narrating. This is something Jack used to always want to do someday with the Boston Symphony, but we never got the chance to do it
together. Finally we did it in his hometown.
Right after the concert was over, at 6 PM, I rushed from Lowell to the airport in Boston, jumped on a shuttle plane to LaGuardia Airport in NYC, grabbed a cab to nearby Randall's Island Stadium and played in the finale of the concert for Farm Aid as a guest artist with Willie Nelson and his band at 10:45 that night. Willie's granddaughter was there, and she told me how reading On the Road had changed her life, and how she was now a full time poet as well as a songwriter. many of the musicians i knew over the years from the annual Frm aid concerts told me how exciting it was to see Jack finally getting his due.
Then I flew back to Boston the next morning, Monday the 10th, to do a concert in Nashua New Hampshire that night, where we honored the roots of the
Kerouac family and i performed music from around the world, and told about the common interest so mnay of us shared back then in what has now become called a multi-cultural way of seeing the world.
We never used that term and i never called what i did World Music and neeither did anyone else.
we were simply interested in what surrounded us each and every day and knew how important it was to pay attention to what is happening at the moment.
Adam and I drove back home to the farm the following day.
It was a crazy schedule, but it was so interesting and energizing to be celebrating Jack's anniversary that I forgot how tiring it was. The positive energy that fills his books, the yea-saying Whitmanesque embracing of life are more energizing than any drug ever invented, and reading his work makes us all celebrate each precious moment thaty we are here..
Jack and his work always were and always will always soar above and beyond the
prison walls of the penitentiary of what was called "The Beat Generation," which became an albatross around all of our necks, as if Jack himself, as the ringleader of a non-existant moveent, were the morbid leader of a select few sour people sitting in a room, presiding over an exclusive secret society, like the Trilateral Commission, the Skull and Bones Society, Al Quida, the CIA or a corporate board meeting.
Jack was much more than that. He was the engine that pulled the train which Woody Guthrie sang to us about, telling us that we could all be bound to glory.
Jack and all his work are with us more than ever in 2007, and the message of On the Road has created communities all over the world with no titles, labels, secret handshakes, paid dues or qualifications other than being
open hearted, open minded, respectful of everyone, with no red or blue states, no holier-than-thou self righteousness, and no Burgerkingizations of ancient sacred religions from the East or desecration and misrepresentation of sacred traditions of Native American culture.
Jack was a deeply spiritual man who respected not only the heritage he was born into but also the heritages of people in the world. On the Road constantly reminds us to pay attention every day to everybody and everything and appreciate the beauty part of each experience that crosses our path
down that highway of life.
Jack's rejoicing of the spirit we are all privy to, and his
embracing of all people, created the foundation for a high level that we are all welcome to be part of today.
This is one of the reasons why On the Road all of his other books still speak to people today. He knew that art is about uplifting and inspiring, showing how you can triumph over adversity and cherish humble things. And that everyone has a story to tell, a song to sing and a picture to paint.
The upside of all this is that today, the young people who come to events like this recent series of celebrations for On the Road are no longer looking to see a freak show, but
rather to have their spirits, and their own creativity fostered, which was what Jack did in his writing and in his life with others, and which was the common commitment of all the artists of our era, whenever they were in the company others, especially to younger people who were searching for some kind of inspiration and encouragement during those repressive years of the mid 50s.
As they would say in Jack's old French speaking neighborhood in Lowell, Sur la Route est formidable! Bonne anniversaire, cher Jacky!!
Sept 12, 2007
Putnam Valley NY