The Drummer’s View: A Night of the Beats

LAST NIGHT, I happened to be sitting in the balcony seats behind the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall –the “drummer’s view” as one of my friends has often pointed out. True. It’s a particularly fascinating perspective to watch the gears work, to see how both band and audience come together.
It was a particularly advantageous perspective to be able to take in last night’s performance, “A Night of the Beats” the closing event of the three-week long series on California as music/artistic incubator. This was a night of jazz and poetry that could have so veered of into hokey symbolism and pantomime (and sadly there were a lot of berets scattered about the room in the audience, worn with irony or not, I’m not sure). And though there were a few uncomfortable moments, most of what I heard and saw was pure homage. Photos of the beat generation’s leading lights floated above us. The usual suspects — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and some of those often spoken of in the sixth or seventh paragraph — Diane DiPrima, Bob Kaufman, Wallace Berman.

The job on stage was to create a sort of “mood” if you will. Charles Lloyd took the audience along the foggy twisting roads of Highway-1 via tenor saxophone; David Meltzer re-interpreted Allen Ginsberg’s “America” with a conversational, sighing frankness; Exene Cervenka channeled Denise Levertov in a flat, but fitting, matter-of-factness (she also sang conjuring Janis Joplin — the twang, the twitchiness). Michael McClure, now cotton-white maned, stood behind the microphone with a nimbus of gravitas.

As jazz-singer/interpreter Kurt Elling remarked when he arrived on stage in the clean-up position, “I don’t know who put me last,” he audibly blushed. “I’m deeply impressed with myself for being on a stage where there are cats who were there who are here.” Elling was the biggest surprise of evening for me personally. All I hear when he opens his mouth is Mark Murphy, Mark Murphy and Mark Murphy — in tone, in approach, in phrasing. Period. (Murphy’s too-long-out-of-print, Bop For Kerouac, is a stand-alone document that illustrates exactly how its all done).

So when Elling began to wander inside Jack Kerouac’s “American Haikus” I wasn’t too surprised to find that he delivered them with Kerouac’s exact intonation, the risings and fallings, the inserted surprise or exclamation as Kerouac left for us on recordings — and so, I’m thinking: more of the same again. But, really who is Kurt Elling?

His rendering of Gregory Corso’s meditation on turning 32 shifted everything:

The lips are the same.
And the eyes, ah the eyes get better all the time.
32 and no wife, no baby; no baby hurts,
but there’s lots of time.

I heard for the very first time what it’s like for the male peacock. Those grand, beautiful men with gorgeous plumage who lose their looks — and sense of power and self — and wonder “now what?” We’re so used to women talking out loud, in public, vexing (or having their agonizingly retrofitted faces speak for them. Men addressing mortality’s toll on their bodies, on their face-toward-the world and then peering inside felt so fresh but really, I think it had to do with Elling’s line reading. His voice was full of middle-of-the night vulnerability and soberness that only comes after the 2AM last call.

But the most beautiful revelation, the very thing this event was about?
The view from behind the drumkit allowed for a different sort of intimacy, a chance to see the gears working, but in the best possible way. There were no charts, no music on the musicians’ stands. Just the poetry or prose. Cervenka read from a big black sketchbook, the words handwritten, in spiky black ink. Meltzer took his cues from Xeroxes. The musicians too. They followed the line breaks, the runs. They filled the pauses with textures — madness, joy, introspection. They built the bridge from jazz to spoken word and then erased it.

~ photo top center: venice west cafe, venice beach


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