Sounds of Change: The Influence of Jazz on the Beat Generation

Time Needed

Two class sessions

Common Core Standards

Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

  • Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it, and manipulate time create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
  • Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums, determining which details are emphasized in each account.
  • Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats. 


The arrival of the Beat Generation in the 1950s marked the beginnings of a major cultural turning point in the United States. Headed by writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, the Beat movement infused literature with a new sense of adventure and spontaneity, as evidenced in such lasting works as Kerouac’s On the Road and Ginsburg’s "Howl." The subject matter, which often delved into discussions of sexuality, drug use, and nonconformity, proved to be a harbinger to the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

One of the major influences on Beat writers like Kerouac was music. Kerouac found the energy and excitement of bebop jazz to be particularly inspiring. Indeed, the frenetic, improvisational, scattered structure of bebop music can be found threaded through Kerouac’s writing, which often echoes the loose and nontraditional structure of the music. Bop musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie are mentioned in several Kerouac pieces. Their virtuosic performance style is captured with deep reverence in Kerouac’s descriptions. 

The lesson that follows attempts to show students how music such as this can influence literature. 

Students will first listen to four pieces of music, each from the late 1940s or early 1950s, the time during which the Beat Movement took root. Of these four pieces, two ("Buttons & Bows" by Dinah Shore, and "Someone to Watch Over Me" by Frank Sinatra) have a much more traditional structure. The latter two songs ("Salt Peanuts" by Dizzy Gillespie, and "Thrivin’ on a Riff" by Charlie Parker) are examples of the looser, more up-tempo bebop jazz genre. 

By paying attention to factors such as tempo, structure, instrumentation, and tone, students should be able to identify and vocalize how these latter two songs differ from the first two. 

Students will then need to apply their findings to a piece of literature, an excerpt of the Kerouac piece "San Francisco Scene," in which he describes the sights, sounds, and feelings of the Beat/Bop lifestyle. By listening to Kerouac’s narration, and by closely examining Kerouac’s writing choices regarding pacing and wording, students should be able to find meaningful connections between it and the Parker and Gillespie pieces, and therefore demonstrate their understanding of how one art form can influence and be reflected in another. 

This lesson should lead into further discussions of Kerouac and the Beat Generation’s style, subject matter, and cultural importance.

Essential Questions

  • How do different styles of music distinguish themselves from each other?
  • How can different songs be more or less structured than others?
  • How can music influence literature?
  • How can literature and music capture the mood of a certain time period?


Lesson Activities

Day One

To begin, have students organize themselves into pairs and provide each student with the note-taking handout. Play the four music samples listed above. As the students listen, ask them to jot down notes about each song on the handout. Students should consider the following:

  • Tempo: Does it stay the same, does it switch up (get faster, slower)? Is it hard or easy to follow?
  • Instruments: Do any sounds stand out or seem to take over the song? What do you hear?
  • Energy: How do you feel as you listen? Does the music seem calm or more active and peppy? How might people dance to this?
  • Structure: Does the song stay pretty much the same in terms of the pacing, notes, and instruments? Does it change? Is it predictable or a little erratic? Is formal or informal?

After listening to all of the songs, have students discuss their findings with their partners or groups. Students should consider the following questions and take notes on their worksheets.

  • Did you have similar reactions to these pieces?
  • What were some of the things you both noticed? 
  • Can you come to any agreement on these songs? 
  • If you had to group the songs into pairs, which ones would go together? Explain why. 

Day Two

Provide students with the "San Francisco Scene" handout and play the recording for students so they can read along while listening. 

After listening once, have students read the excerpt again, highlighting specific words or sentences that stand out. Just as with the musical samples, ask students to keep track of the tempo and structure of this piece, paying close attention to how it sounds. Remind them to also keep track of punctuation, considering whether it follows the rules when it comes to sentence structure. After closely reviewing the piece, have students answer the Reading and Processing questions included on their handout.