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Great Encounters #48: When Lester Young turned Jack Kerouac on to marijuana

“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of Lester Young getting high with Jack Kerouac, and his overall influence on his generation

Excerpted from Bop Apocalypse:  Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drug,” by Martin Torgoff


Lester Young

Jack Kerouac





     The writer who would do more to romanticize jazz and marijuana than perhaps any other was a twenty-one-year-old student at Columbia when he first encountered Lester Young.  Jack Kerouac was a working-class kid from the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, who came to New York to attend the elite Horace Mann School before entering Columbia.  A fellow classmate at Horace Mann named Seymour Wyse introduced Kerouac to jazz and black life, and he was enthralled.  He was just starting to write about jazz when he met Lester Young in 1943, during one of the nocturnal forays that would change the course of his life.  They shared a cab from the Village up to Minton’s Playhouse, the nightclub in the Hotel Cecil on 118th Street between St. Nicholas and Seventh Avenues in Harlem, where the bebop revolution was percolating and where, according to Edie Kerouac-Parker, Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time, who later became his first wife, young Jack encountered something else as well.  “Lester Young turned Jack on to marijuana,” Edie Kerouac-Parker related.  “I believe it was the first time Jack was ever really high on it.  And I mean high.”

     …On that glowing night in Harlem in 1943, Prez was still at the top of his form, and young Jack Kerouac was mightily high.  Kerouac was thrilled to be hanging out with the man everyone called Uncle Bubba, the apotheosis of cool, who had this funny pigeon-toed walk; who called the police “Bob Crosby,” white people “grays,” and black people “oxford grays”; and who, after encountering a pretty woman, would trun to say, “Man, what a fine hat.  How’d you like to wear that hat?”  Of course, there was a different type of hat for every type of woman:  “Skullcap?”  “Homburg?”  “Mexican hat dance”?

     Kerouac never wrote about the experience specifically, but Prez certainly made a deep impression that night.  When Kerouac sat down in April of 1951 and spewed forth the 125,000 words that would become One the Road in a cathartic twenty-day marathon, the manuscript contained a dithyrambic evocation of the history of jazz in America, later published as “Jazz of the Beat Generation” – a long, jazz-enrhythmed passage that used Lester Young as its central driving force and inispiration and that epitomized the essence of Kerouac’s developing spontaneous prose style.

     The point of departure for the passage was the Chicago jazz club where Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty stop on their cross-country spree.  As they watch a bop group play, Kerouac invokes Prez as

that gloomy saintly goof in whom the history of jazz is wrapped:  Lester.  Here were the children of the modern jazz night blowing their horns and instruments with belief; it was Lester started it all – his fame and his smoothness as lost as Maurice Chevalier in a stage-door poster – his drape, his drooping melancholy disposition in the sidewalk, his porkpie hat….What outstanding influence has Dean gained from his cultural master of his generation?  What mysteries as well as masteries?  What styles, sorrows, collars, the removal of collars, the removal of lapels, the crepe-sole shoes, the beauty goof – that sneer of Lester’s, that compassion for the dead which Billie has too, Lady Day – those poor little musicians in Chicago, their love of Lester, early heroisms in a room, records of Lester, early Count, suits hanging in the closet, tanned evenings in the rosy ballroom, the great tenor solo in the shoeshine jukebox, you can hear Lester blow and he is the greatness of America in a single Negro musician – he is just like the river.

     For Kerouac, jazz would become exactly like the great Mississippi itself, “a roar of subterranean excitement that is like the vibration of the entire land sucked of its gut in mad midnight, fevered, “hot,” and right there in the middle of it all was Prez.

hands up, arms up, horn horizontal, shining dull, in wood-brown whiskeyhouse with ammoniac urine from broken gut bottles around fecal pukey bowol and a gal sprawled in it legs spread in brown cotton stockings, bleeding at belted mouth, moaning “yes” as Lester, horn placed, has started blowing, “glow for me another blow for me,” 1938, later, earlier, Miles is still on his Daddy’s checkered knee, Louis’ only got twenty years before him, and Lester blows all Kansas City to ecstasy and now Americans from coast to coast go mad, and fall by, and everybody’s picking up.

“Picking up” was one of the underground catch phrases for getting high, and as jazz continued to spread across America, drawing greater numbers of people to the dance halls, more people experimented with the weed called marijuana, despite the possibility of stiff jail sentences and even the most fiendish prospects of madness and mayhem.  In the years since the Second World War, as the use of illicit mind-altering substances began to find a literary as well as a musical voice, the weed came to play a central role in what transpired, reverberating over the landscape of a newly emergent alternative culture like a tocsin of rebellion.




Excerpted from Bop Apocalypse:  Jazz, Race, the Beats, & Drug,” by Martin Torgoff