Encountering Kerouac


jack-kerouac-tune-radioThe year was 1960 and I was a waiter in a club, The Jazz Gallery, on New York’s Lower East Side. The club teemed with activity, the best jazz players of the time, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and a  ton of others; great abstract painters, Franz Klein, Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers; writers, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, Terry Southern.

It was run by the Termini brothers, Joe and Iggy, who also owned another fabled club, The Five Spot on The Bowery, where the avant-garde jazz genius Ornette Coleman erupted on the scene, plastic saxophone honking and squealing, cheered on by the approbation and huzzahs of the  classical music world elites, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson. I on occasion also waited tables there and would leave with Coleman’s discordant sounds ringing in my ears and a headache that I thought would split my skull.

Every night at The Jazz Gallery artists and literary figures and jazz men from all over the city came to take in the scene. John Coltrane had just formed a group and they would move onto the stage after the main jazz men had finished their sets, somewhere around two in the morning, and play with ferocious energy and spectacular invention to an empty house. Coltrane’s wife would tape the sessions and when we were closing the club, she and Coltrane would sit in the kitchen while Chan, the Chinese cook, was scraping pans and cleaning pots, and listen to what the group had done that night.

There were gangsters and junkies, prostitutes and pimps, killers and burglars, fences and thieves. And Carla and Paul Bley, eventual jazz powerhouses, working the coat check concession while sopping up the music around them.

It was a week-day night after midnight and things had slowed. Art Blakey and his group, The Jazz Messengers,  had finished their set and cleared the stage. The club was empty save for a side booth where a group of musicians were talking and drinking while scarfing down heaps  of chef Chan’s extraordinary barbecue ribs. (The bassist Charlie Mingus, no delicate flower, must have weighed in well north of three hundred pounds—I waited on him many times and never saw anyone come near to his capacity for gluttony: he would have a dozen or more entrees, chicken, steak, mounds of fries, and ribs. He loved chef Chan’s ribs. He would go at them six or seven plates at a time; when he finished, he’d order more. I remember one night as we were closing, Mingus standing in the doorway to the kitchen going on, “Damn, Chan, those ribs are something! Damn! Damn, damn! Those are ribs!”)

Kerouac entered the club drunk with a girl who looked like a boy, small, flat-chested, cute. He was wearing heavy denim trousers, pea-jacket, work boots. I was the only waiter on the floor at this hour and I took their order, margaritas;  they looked around a little confused: where was the music?

Eventually the drummer, Max Roach, got up with a couple of other jazzmen, and they began an impromptu jam, starting with some random noodling that progressed into a furious bop version of “Paper Moon”. The musicians at the side booth rapped fingers and spoons along with the jam, and Kerouac, hooded eyes, thick, slurred speech , intoned over and over, “Go man, go! Go man, go!” and the girl with him looked sad.

The group spiraled into a half hour or so of wild improvisation, Roach slamming the drums and cymbals with clean, clear, accurate strokes done with such speed that it made your head spin. They finished and packed up and made their way to the side booth.

One musician caught Kerouac’s attention. He rose and stumbled to him. The musician was seated in the booth. The girl lingered by the table. I waited with their check, wondering if they would pay.

“Lee Morgan,” Kerouac said. The musician looked up. “Lee Morgan,” Kerouac repeated.

“Yeah,” the musician said, uninterested.

“Lee Morgan.” The musician gazed blankly at Kerouac. “You’re the greatest trumpet player alive.” The musician did not speak. “Lee Morgan.”

“That’s right, man,” the musician said, annoyed. “What’s your name?”

“JackKerouac,” he said, slurring both names together.

It meant nothing to the  musician. He  turned back to the men at the table. Kerouac stood there  swaying drunkenly. He looked as though he had been stabbed in the heart. He looked like he might cry. The girl moved to him and gently tried to pull him away. He turned to her stunned. “Why is it the real jazz men always put me down?” he said in a soft choking voice.

He stumbled off with the girl. I paid the check out of the tips I had made that night.

[ note: Lee Morgan, who some considered the greatest jazz trumpet player after Miles Davis went on to a varied and prolific career with most of the jazz giants of the day including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and John Coltrane. He was twenty-two when the incident with Kerouac occurred. A dozen years later in a jazz club blocks from where The Jazz Gallery had been, Lee Morgan was shot to death by his wife. Jack Kerouac had died three years earlier from severe alcohol abuse. DSM fled his waiter’s life in the jazz scene after a run-in with a hooker and her enraged pimp: he ended up in Mexico where he wrote his first novel.]

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