Slim Gaillard and Lord Buckley helped the King of the Beats locate his inner hipster
Before the Beats jumped into the musical deep end, two stand-up jazz artists greased the skids for them.
One was Bulee “Slim” Gaillard (1916-1991), a singer, pianist, guitarist and percussionist best known for his manic stage presence and unpredictable wordplay. His early recordings, as part of the team Slim and Slam, influenced the young Kerouac, especially songs like “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)”, “Cement Mixer (Puti, Puti)”, and “The Groove Juice Special (Opera in Vout)”. Though other jazz singers, such as Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and Babs Gonzalez, affected a hipster-vocal style, they couldn’t improvise like Gaillard.
Kerouac and his fellow Beats saw Gaillard perform often at Birdland, with Charlie Parker’s and Coleman Hawkins’ bands. Gaillard would later be immortalized by Kerouac in On the Road, when the narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty wandered into a performance. The pair were so smitten with Gaillard that they made a point of trying to meet him. This description is from On the Road:
“Dean stands in the back, saying ‘God! Yes!—and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating. ‘Sal, Slim knows time, he knows time’…Now Dean approaches him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God; he shuffled and bowed in front of him and asked him to join us. ‘Right-orooni’, says Slim; he’ll join anybody but he won’t guarantee to be there with you in spirit. Dean got a table, bought drinks, and sat stiffly in front of Slim. Slim dreamed over his head. Every time Slim said, ‘Orooni,’ Dean said, ‘Yes!’ I sat there with these two madmen. Nothing happened. To Slim Gaillard the whole world was just one big orooni.”
Kerouac only slightly exaggerated Gaillard’s stage mannerisms, because Slim was one of the most remarkable performers of his era. Here he is live performing in the late 1940s, around the time Kerouac and Cassady would have seen him. And he performs, as part of this set, the song Kerouac documented in On the Road, “Cement Mixer (Put-ti, Put-ti)”. Trust me, you will not believe what Slim Gaillard does with/to this song. Indeed, this might be the real origin of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when he picks up the guitar at the 3:30 mark.
Maybe the most influential of all these jazz artists and stand up comics was Richard “Lord” Buckley, part standup comic/ part conceptual artist whose stage routines consisted of monologues delivered in a hip lingo influenced by jazz but was partly self-invented. Buckley utilized various vocal styles that segued from a Southern “cracker” voice to that of a black jazz musician to a British lord to nonsense syllables and sound effect; he referred to his style as “hipsemantic.” Purportedly born dirt poor in northern California to parents with some Native American blood, Buckley learned to hustle for work at everything from a truck driver to a lumberjack. He honed his performance skills in the speakeasies of Chicago in the late 1930s, then entertained troops during WWII as part of the same USO tours that featured Bob Hope and Betty Grable. By the heyday of the beatniks, he had inhabited his alter ego as a British “lord” (he called his wives, of whom he had six, Lady Buckley) and begun to play in jazz clubs in and around LA, where he caught the eyes, ears, and imaginations of budding beatniks. Musician David Amram, who was friends with both Buckley and Kerouac, said Kerouac could “quote the comic’s routines from memory.” Ferlinghetti has acknowledged Buckley’s influence on his own poetry and even published a book of his stage routines, called Hiperama of the Classics. Two of Buckley’s biggest fans were, surprisingly, John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles, the latter writing a song for Buckley (“Crackerjack Palace”). Lenny Bruce also admits his debt to Buckley.
Buckley’s most famous routines were “The Nazz,” a hip but non blasphemous retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (thus “Nazz”) that ends, “Can you dig eternity?”
Here is an excerpt from a live performance in 1960 at the Gate of Horn in Chicago:
“The Hip Gahn” (about Gandhi) and his own version of the Gettysburg Address, which opened with “Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before-daddies swung forth upon this sweet groovy land a jumpin’, wailin’, stompin’, swingin’ new nation, hip to the cool sweet groove of liberty and solid sent upon the Ace lick dat all cats and kiddies red white or blue is created level in front…”
Here is a complete, if composite, version of Buckley offering his interpretation of the Gettysburg Address: