Shadows Highlights Poetic Whitewash of 50s Jazz

March 16, 2017


In Greenwich Village circa 1955, as the foreshadowed fog of the 1960s began to roll in, New York was addicted to improvisation. The Bebop Jazz Movement was on fire, with performers like Miles Davis improvising harmonic sets in New York’s finest jazz clubs. The Beat Poets were shaking up mediocrity, each poetic performance characterized by an improvised style, rhyme scheme, and vocal inflection. Film couldn’t help but hook itself on the same addiction.

During the month of February, the National Gallery premiered a special event series titled “Jazz & Film” to celebrate Black History Month. On March 3rd, they screened Shadows in their East Gallery. In a semi-crowded, densely dark theater of Washingtonians, John Cassavetes, the film’s director, brought the themes of Bebop, the Beats, and film into collision.

Jazz was the first to break onto the improv scene. The idea was provocative, as Bebop musicians sought to escape the “popular” jazz encompassing the music of the 30s and 40s. Bebop was not for dancing. It was solely about the music, and almost as important, the musician. Cleverly enough, it was nicknamed “musician’s music.” Characterized by fast tempos, unconventional rhythm, harmonic melodies, and improvised solo performances, Bebop revolutionized the jazz scene, and was attractive to artists who sought to escape the mainstream.

Those artists weren’t just musicians, however. Poets too found themselves enamored in jazz clubs like Three Deuces, where Tommy Potter’s bass solos electrified the room. The Beat Poets of the 1950s drew their initial influences almost directly from the improvised solos of Bebop musicians.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, published in 1956, radically shifted the world of poetry. With each reading, Ginsberg took on an almost improvisational approach to his own piece, replacing certain words, deconstructing and reordering phrases, emulating the jazz performers down the street.

Other poets like William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr emulated Bebop in a different way; playing with grammar and toying with reality, just as Bebop musicians confronted conventional jazz music styles. “Bebop was a backlash, a revolution against that more popular jazz. It was deconstructed, unmelodic and I think that’s the vibe the Beats were coming in on. It was similarly deconstructed, unmelodic poetry,” said Professor Dennis Williams of the English Department at Georgetown University.

As Beat poetry and Bebop developed, film began to catch a grip of what was happening in the Village. While Bebop’s influence was certainly evident in Beat poetry, film was able to put each medium into conversation with the other.

Two films highlight the complex relationship between Bebop and the Beats. John Cassavetes’ Shadows and Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy both debuted in 1959. (To note, the timeline of  ‘50s culture is important: Bebop began in the ‘40s, prospered in the ‘50s, the Beats came next, and film followed.) Shadows centers itself on a young, black woman named Lelia, played by Lelia Goldoni, living with her two older brothers, who are both struggling jazz musicians. The decision to make the central character of the film a woman is an interesting one, perhaps a commentary by Cassavetes’ on the lack of women in both Bebop and the Beat generation. Her love interests become the center of both racial and gender commentary, especially in relation to the Beats and jazz. Pull My Daisy offers more of an experimental take. The plot focuses on the interactions of a working man’s beatnik friends, wife, and a bishop whom his wife has invited for dinner. But the plot does not take center stage. The narration, the film work, and the improvisation make this film an experiment.

Bebop’s most evident influence comes in the nature of the films: they are both entirely improvised. It’s almost impossible to believe. The films are impeccable: emotionally raw, visually vivid, lyrically enticing. Shadows is filled with jazz for the duration of the film: if it’s not being played on screen, it’s in the background, as if the whole film is one long jazz performance.

While Pull My Daisy provides no live musical performance, save a few random silent trumpet solos by Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, who provides improvised narration for the film, was listening to jazz while as he provided narration. To clarify, the film was improvised first, intentionally, and then Kerouac was told to provide narration for the scenes, with hardly any context of the subject matter. As he narrated, the rhythms, melodies, and improvisation that characterized jazz were embodied in his spoken word.

The films starkly differ, however, in their purpose. Pull My Daisy exists as a Beat generation experiment. The plot is important, but not central. The way it’s filmed and narrated are crucial, however. Shadows exists as a commentary on relations between the jazz and Beat worlds, where the acting and directing in the film is paramount. Improvisation serves different roles in each film as well: important to narration in Pull My Daisy and acting in Shadows. These roles illuminate each film’s larger objective.

What Shadows reveals that Pull My Daisy fails to recognize is the depth of the complicated relationship between Bebop and Beat poetry. Although not a musician herself, Lelia embodies Bebop. First of all, she’s bold. She belongs to herself, not a man, and responds to one man’s demands by saying, “No one tells me how to be.” She defies societal conventions, just as Bebop defied popular jazz.

All but one of her love interests happen to be writers. The one with whom she develops the longest relationship is a white Beat poet named Tony. They seem to be in love at first, but he continues pushing her, eventually manipulating her into having sex with him.

When he takes her home, he meets her brothers and realizes Lelia is black. Her light complexion had ‘fooled’ him, and the new information causes him to leave in a hurry. Beyond a moment of absolute racism, this point in the film echoes the sentiments of the Bebop and Beat movements as they coexisted. “There aren’t a lot of cultural movements that are generally multiracial. Movements tend to take on this sort of ‘black’ or ‘white’ image. It’s not that it has to be this way, but it often is. Jazz was and is seen as ‘black’, while Beat poetry was ‘white’,” Professor Williams said.

Similar to Tony’s relationship with Lelia, Beat poetry somewhat stole its foundations from black jazz musicians. This is not to discredit the Beat generation’s work, but rather to shed light on the reality often faced by the racially divided cultural phenomena of the American experience. This is also not to speak for black artists or their experiences, but rather to observe the way the film conveys the racial implications of both movements.

While it may seem easy to paint Lelia and Bebop as ‘victim,’ this would be an improper and unjust label. Rather, they are survivors: survivors of manipulation and appropriation by white artists and movements. These realities are all too common in our history, where art is deemed ‘black’ or ‘white.’ Only when we recognize the realities embodied in this film will we realize the importance of artistic intersectionality and its recognition.

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