Jack Kerouac was a brilliant, colourful and badly behaved American writer. He belonged to what we now call the Beat Generation, a group of anti-establishment writers and artists including William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In this passage Kerouac tackles the difficult challenge of describing musical performance, having gone to hear the blind jazz pianist George Shearing. It is an excellent piece of writing. Kerouac judiciously uses a sprinkling verbs and adverbs to recreate the sound and feel of the music, but he does not overdo it. Another thing to notice is how the pace gradually quickens. Kerouac achieves this by shortening his sentences and adding brief, spoken comments from the audience. When the performance is over, he gives us the memorable image of a horn sitting on the piano, a brilliant way of capturing the silence.
Dean 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, Denzil 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, and 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. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’ Dean 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 Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. ‘That’s right!’ Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair,’ he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. The madness would lead nowhere. I didn’t know what was happening to me, and I suddenly realized it was only the tea we were smoking; Dean had bought some in New York. It made me think that everything was about to arrive – the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.
I teach Creative Writing. Click here to see more Creative Writing Masterclass posts and/or email me if you would like to take lessons: firstname.lastname@example.org.