Jack Kerouac will always be associated with the Beats, a group of mid-century American writers who experimented with a loosely structured, free-associational style. Many Beats, Kerouac among them, were strongly influenced by the era’s jazz. Among his biggest influences, Kerouac counted the bop saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose life was cut short at the age of 34. In his poem, “Charlie Parker,” Kerouac explains, “Charlie Parker, who recently died laughing at a juggler on T.V….” Indeed, Parker did leave this world while laughing at jugglers. He was at a friend’s place, watching a broadcast of the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show.
Parker and Drugs
Parker did not die from laughter alone. The official causes of death were pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer. If that weren’t enough, young Parker was also suffering from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by abuse of whiskey and cheap red wine. He was addicted to drugs. He chain-smoked Camel cigarettes. The doctor who examined the body thought that Parker was in his fifties. He was only 34.
Why Would Charlie Parker Do This to Himself?
It’s tough for anyone to know exactly why someone makes a habit of drinking or using drugs. It’s especially difficult to pinpoint the cause in a stranger. Yet some have hypothesized the logic behind Parker’s demons. The story goes: Parker drank and used drugs to ease the pain of not playing saxophone.
Parker was a relentless performer. He’d play several clubs or private parties in the same night. If he wasn’t booked anywhere or there was no place he could sit in, he’d play in a park. While still a teenager, Parker was in a serious car wreck which left him in the hospital for an extended span of time. To ease the physical pain he felt, he was prescribed morphine. To soothe his compulsion to get out and play his sax, he overused the substance. The rest is history.
This far-fetched theory is testament to an enduring reverence for Parker, his fans’ wishes to regard him as a tragic hero rather than as a burnout. Jack Kerouac was less interested in whether Parker was hero or human. As he went on to write of the late musician, “…his face was as calm, beautiful and profound as the image of the Buddha, represented in the East, the lidded eyes, the expression that says, ‘All is well.’ This is what Charlie Parker said when he played. ‘All is well.'”
A departure from bouncy big band swing, Parker’s bop was intellectual, complex. It’s been said that those who listened to Parker and his contemporaries “danced in their heads.” That’s where Parker is now, where he’s always been: the ether. If you’re looking for Kerouac, there’s a good chance you’ll find him in the same neighborhood.