Editor’s Note: An earlier version of Paul’s article was originally published, but has now been updated to reflect the most recent version.
Using Bebop Jazz Techniques in Creative Writing
“The Ice Pastor” and “Nothing Changes on New Year’s Day”
By Paul Edward Costa
Despite the fact that jazz music and creative writing—in many regards—are polar opposites, they have crossed paths on a few occasions, like in the work of the “Beat” writers. In writing my new two new flash fiction stories “The Ice Pastor” and “Nothing Changes on New Year’s Day” I’ve found that further exploring the friction between jazz structures and creative writing offers a glimpse into the benefits of blurring the formal boundaries between established art forms.
The Beat writers of post-war New York, and Jack Kerouac in particular, had an avid interest in the relationship between jazz and their writing. Writers like Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg incorporated jazz slang words into their own vocabularies, as well as the lifestyles of jazz legends into their own behaviour and viewpoints. More practically, the first section of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” uses the word “who” as a frequent refrain, something he intended as a technique for “keeping the beat” in a manner similar to the role of a rhythm section, and his long lines were designed to last a whole breath in the way that horn players worked (1). Kerouac’s spontaneous style of composing prose was intended as a counterpart to the improvisations of bebop musicians like Charlie Parker, and he published his thoughts in “Jazz of the Beat Generation”, where he discussed his conversational/jazz-influenced style (2). Further, Kerouac’s automatic writing experiments, his poem “Mexico City Blues” (3) and his novels like “On the Road” (4) and “Big Sur” (5) were composed with a flowing, spontaneous, intricate rhythm.
The answer to the question “what attracts writers to music?” ironically, lies in their extreme differences. Writing is solitary; creating music is often most exhilarating in a live setting. Music is more physical, while writing requires relatively little movement. Finally, writing is about giving order to abstract thoughts and feelings while music, with the exception of lyrics, is more about purely channeling abstract expressions. As a writer myself, I can say that I envy the ways music comes to life, even when played alone, in comparison to the quiet clacking of keystrokes or the scratching of pen-tips on paper, however stimulated they make my imagination. The ecstasy apparent in many a horn player mid-solo then becomes the envy of any writers in attendance.
In my own exploration into the dynamic between writing and music, I took a particular interest in bebop. Made famous by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, Bebop followed swing and instituted many new technical innovations. Bebop brought in asymmetrical phrasing in solos, building a piece around a “head” or recognisable tune that bookended improvisations, and laying a melody over a complex series of often unusual chords (6).
At the end of this article you’ll find a two short new piece I’ve written called “The Ice Pastor” and “Nothing Changes on New Year’s Day”. I wanted to somehow incorporate elements of bebop into writing, but wasn’t sure how. To begin, I began looking for writing techniques which were the equivalent of bebop counterparts.
For example, imagine a saxophone player playing a solo with an asymmetrical pattern, or one that feels “off-balance”. In the realm of writing, I found that a sentence, built around one semicolon, with a short clause on one side and a long clause on the other, could serve as an equivalent.
I hesitated to write spontaneously and without editing as Kerouac preferred, as editing, while often dry, is as necessary to writing as post-production/mixing is to recorded music. However, when I thought about a melody flowing over complex arrangements of often unusual chords, I imagined a common storyline weaving throughout an ever-changing series of different writing forms, styles, and meters with none repeated to give the work an improvised feel. I quickly compiled a list of writing techniques and types such as Faulkner sentences, Hemingway sentences, syllables in the Fibonnaci sequence, blank verse, haiku, letters, rhymed couplets, irregular rhymes, internal rhymes, bob and wheel, noun/adjective/verb series, alliteration, asymmetrical semi-colon phrases, limericks, the four sentence types, poetic “step” patterns and more. Next, I decided on a story about a pastor leading his followers over a frozen wasteland and feeling guilty over how they trust him even though he knows there is no paradise ahead for them.
When I thought about how bebop often used the lead lines of popular tunes as a jumping off and landing point between their improvised elaborations, I found a literary equivalent in common linguistic platitudes such as “time heals all wounds”, “do you have any New Year’s Resolutions”, “what’s done is done”, and “forgive and forget”, which, I felt, gave this idea a socially satiric edge on which I hadn’t planned.
While I don’t want to call these pieces “bebop poems”, I have tried using the techniques outlined above in these flash fiction pieces. The first story concerns the pastor leading his congregation to nowhere, uses the phrase “forgive and forget” as a jumping off and landing point, and cycles rapidly through many different writing meters, styles, and forms without repeat.
The second uses inquiries into New Year’s resolutions as its head, and discusses a narrator’s attempt to reconcile their present privilege with their inglorious past experiences.
Like bebop, these pieces of writing probably will sound the best when heard live in a spoken word setting as the quickly changing forms of writing will, I hope, create a verbally dynamic live performance. Still, I hope you enjoy the stories!
- Maher, Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work (Revised and Updated). Taylor Trade, 2004. p 303.
- Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Penguin Classics, 1991. Copyright Jack Kerouac 1957.
- Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. Penguin Books, 1992. Copyright Jack Kerouac 1962.
THE ICE PASTOR
“Forgive…and forget,” the pastor said.
They looked up. Some dragged their bags. Some still carried them. They heard him. They heard his words. They understood. They panicked. Sweat collected under their collars. None knew how to respond. None remembered. No one remembered remembering. They tried inventing thoughts. It was hard. They still tried. They strained. The eternity of silence was unacceptable.
“Forgive and…forget,” the pastor preached to those whose pining he presently pulled across the primal plains where they wandered over clear, white-blue
ice sheets on the north coast:
calm, crystal terror. He walked two dozen paces ahead of the nearest followers wandering behind him and thought he heard their grumbling as well as the accumulated, broken-telephone game of demented rebellious mutterings from the followers farther behind who seemed to dream, fantasize, whisper, speak, and pass along potential actions of insurrection that may soon become dangerously actualized:
they might claw, tear, and rip their dreams back from him,
the forgotten, the nameless, those without a written ode,
and he agrees, sees, understand their justice
despite being their oppressor, the guilty party.
He could swear he’d seen a tower in the distance!
Why did they remain so constantly silent?
The wintery ocean once murmured at them always; each splash broke into a thousand partial, fractured answers during every second and the sound was so pleasurable in its suspense (what might come over the horizon?) that they nearly all froze to death in awed stillness while captivated by the audible opium of gentle waves
the one who
became their pastor
thought he saw a blue stone tower inside the storm ahead
voicing his vision.
“Forgive and forget,” the pastor yells back again like a commandment, except with a voice frail from his transgression of losing faith in his own hallucinations and the fantasies of his followers. He stops. He hears the whisperings of the shivering, whale-skin jacket wearing faithful behind him. He gulps. The pastor stops and lets himself become twelve feet closer to those closest behind him. He turns with his brows furrowed. The pastor approaches his followers, leans in, and listens. He hears praise.
Dear part of the brain that always hopes you’re wrong,
A pastor who once freed his tribe
from an numbing, ocean-side vibe,
“forgive and forget!”
he hoped they’d accept
as a motto to which they’d subscribe
but every dream he had of his end
solidified into a future he
recognized and, in time, came to accept
comfortably, so when they sang his praise
the terror of many, blank years sprang forth,
chilling him with ice-blue fear in his veins,
not of resistance or righteous revolt
but of their boundless faith
in even the worst demands he might make
while remaining free from judgement,
on silent, northern ice-sheets
with biting wind, slow, deceptive glaciers, and clear eyed fanatic followers,
forgiven and forgotten
NOTHING CHANGES ON NEW YEAR’S DAY
“Any New Year’s Resolutions?” a voice said to me at the end of 2011
after a dance finished at the party
where I, by chance, found myself.
The speaker gave me a glance, but saw nothing,
for I’d pranced into a spasm and fallen to the floor.
The grand and gorgeous hall spun around me as I spun about inside it where the dance floor ended by the tables with ice sculptures as streamers fell like solar winds in the dizziness of my vision where all the laughter, smiles, and kissing lovers blurred in the lights from electric wreaths and large television screens showing the dropped ball above Times Square in New York.
My psychotherapist diagnosed me with a “memory stone”
- an abnormal, agonizing association, composed primarily of an isolated perspective, found in the subconscious mind.
My therapist wrote on a yellow pad. She tore off the page. She handed it to me. I read the writing scrawled on it. She’d prescribed a treatment. I read it aloud. “Check into a motel,” it said. “Be alone when the memory stone passes.”
I felt it begin soon after; a shock surge of rage snapped in my brain stem and its tension announced itself in my clenched teeth and a new devil-may-care confidence coming close to challenging any sized imperfection I saw in anything before me, so I sought out
the silhouette of
tall trees against the blue sky
(still pre-morning dark)
by the flashing motel sign
above the door to my room
where I’ll pass the dull memory…
where I’ll see it around me…
where I’ll scream freely in the privacy I’ve bought…
“Any New Year’s Resolutions?” a voice said to me at the end of 2010.
There were only three of us back then in the dank, half-unlit basement: Donna spoke while seated on the couch, Vincenzo puked while leaning on the sink, and I stood while meditating on this scene.
Vincenzo hadn’t drank too much−
he’d only triggered his gag reflex
with a double-shot of vodka
and Donna only asked her question
in the pregnant pause of her father’s intrusion,
when he spoke as if with head trauma
while drunkenly dragging up drama,
he treated me nicely
but with his daughter was icy
when drinking beer in pyjamas…
Any New Year’s Resolutions?” a voice said to me at the end of 2009
when a wiry old woman woke up and whispered that question to me
on a public bus whose blue lights blocked out the city beyond black windows,
where snowflakes swirled out of the sky and sailed through sub-zero air
I coughed into my glove and saw phlegm,
the watch on my wrist read 12:01am.
No one else sat on the bus. My friends and I had to abandon city hall’s outdoor ice-rink by 11:30pm when the cold made feet inside even the warmest thermal socks frigid with a numbness most painful in our toes. I’d hoped to get home by midnight. I was wrong though, because the bus crawled through the storm and the new year entered while the old one passed as I passed between warm homes in a filthy bus driving through the frozen netherworld of the bus route. I thought: never again.
“This year will end differently, this year will end differently, this year will end differently,” I said to myself one
stood in Donna’s house
with her dad drunk and Vincenzo
“Any New Year’s Resolutions?” a voice said to me at the start of 2012 in the grand and gorgeous banquet hall.
“Convince myself I belong here,” I remembered my voice saying before I passed out and fell to the floor as my vision twisted into a warped vortex around the lost writing and
hardened gum stuck underneath
old fold-in tables.
Paul Edward Costa has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in “Timber Journal”, “Entropy”, “Thrice Fiction”, “Emerge Literary Journal”, “The J.J. Outre Review”, “Songs of Eretz Poetry Review”, “Alien Mouth”, “Literary Orphans”, “Crack the Spine”, and other publications. He has work forthcoming in “Bonk!” and “drylandlit_press”. He is also a staff writer for the Peel Arts Collective (P.A.C.), a high school English teacher, and has founded the ongoing “Paul’s Poetry Night” spoken word series in the Greater Toronto Area.