In this evocative and entertaining fictional memoir, nineteen-year-old Dan Hennessey takes us on a journey to the epicenter of the beat movement — San Francisco 1956, the year of Howl and The Dharma Bums. As he gets swept up in the fervor of the San Francisco Renaissance, he meets cultural icons such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and spiritual figures like Alan Watts and Jiddu Krishnamurti, each of whom serves as a catalyst for his awakening. But the man who becomes his spiritual and musical mentor, the man the poet Gary Snyder called the jazz master, is a tenor saxophonist, ex-Zen monk who teaches him Zen through the art of jazz. Filled with reflections on art, society, and spiritual life, The Jazz Master is both a tale of spiritual awakening and a portrait of a unique and colorful era that paved the way for the revolutionary changes of the sixties and seventies.
Targeted Age Group:: 12 and up
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
My lifelong interest in jazz and my fascination with the beat generation, coupled with my own experiences in meditation.
Who are your favorite authors?
Herman Hesse, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Jean Marie Le Clezio, Philip Roth, Wallace Stevens, Rabindranath Tagore, Toni Morrison, Marcel Proust
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
They were inspired by some of my favorite books, beginning with Zorba the Greek and Siddhartha, but they quickly took on a life of their own.
Hanging on the wall in my study is a simple wooden plaque given to me by my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, a few months before his death in December 1971. Engraved on the plaque are four Chinese characters copied from his calligraphy that roughly translated mean: this day will not come again; each minute a precious gem. It is a reminder to me that the Zen student lives in the present moment, his beginner’s mind open to the endless wonders of the world around him. Roshi-san had a smile on his face when he translated the characters for me, the same smile that appears in the photo I keep on my desk. For me that smile is as timeless as those words, the Buddha’s own smile reminding me of my Buddha nature. Whenever I catch myself getting lost in the dark alleys of the past, an ever-present danger for a jazz historian, I have only to glance at his picture or at his calligraphy to find my way back to the secure mooring of the here and now. It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since he left us, but as Roshi-san himself once said, life and death are the same thing. He is as present now as he ever was, keeping a watchful eye out for me as I begin these pages, trying to reverse the flow of time as Dogen-zenji did in the mountain solitudes of Mount Tiantong when he cast off his mind and stepped into the trackless void.
Earlier this summer my old friend Diana Sartori invited me out to Naropa to accompany her in an evening of poetry and jazz. The poems were new, a long cycle she had recently completed entitled “Samsara and Nirvana,” but the night was a throwback, a reprisal of our performances in the late fifties in the clubs and coffeehouses of North Beach where we carried on a tradition that had begun with Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It had been years since we’d performed together but we picked up right where we’d left off nearly two decades earlier, piano and voice cavorting onstage like soul mates in a pagan marriage rite. The crowd was every bit as enthusiastic as the bohemian angels who followed us from coffeehouse to coffeehouse back in the magnificent, scarred fifties when my Zen-inspired jazz had been the perfect complement to Diana’s non-intentional poetry, and afterward we repaired to the nearby house that Burroughs shared with Corso for an after-hours party of full-on nostalgia, a chorus of old-timers swapping war stories from the birth of the counterculture while a bevy of twenty- somethings crowded around us in the living room, sipping beers and passing around the occasional joint. Corso was his normal provocative self, the precocious poet playing devil’s advocate to Ginsberg’s laid-back dharma angel; Burroughs was as irreverent as ever, half mystic philosopher, half alien; and Amiri Baraka did his best to keep us grounded with his maximum-density materialism and his periodic rant against the capitalist machine. But in the end it was a chorale of Buddhist voices that carried the night — myself, Allen, Diana, Orlovsky, even Burroughs in his own way. As the night wore on it became clear to me — and I think to all of us — that the voice that had cried out in the wilderness of the fifties against a repressive culture, in anger and despair and hope and joy, had been the voice of a spiritual longing that had sought its inspiration in the esoteric wisdom of the East, much as the transcendentalists had done more than a century earlier.
Though Allen was the ringleader, Diana and I did our fair share of the talking. She had always been a marvelous storyteller, and I guess I had picked up a certain ability from my years of writing about the colorful characters that people the off-kilter world of jazz—or else my companions that night made a special effort to cede the stage to me since I was only there for a short visit. Allen asked me to tell the story of how I met Elijah, and with Diana providing counterpoint I must have spent close to an hour entertaining the gathering with my introduction to Buddhism through the offices of the most unusual jazzman I’ve ever met, the man who taught me that blue is the color of nirvana and that a tenor sax’s true purpose is to empty the mind of all but the wind and clouds and rain.
The next afternoon, Peter, Allen, and Diana took me to the airport—three New Yorkers and a lone Californian—and the three of them ganged up on me, as New Yorkers often will when they outnumber their West Coast cousins. Allen was adamant that it was my spiritual duty to write up my early experiences as a kind of Buddhist memoir, and Peter and Diana provided a convincing chorus. Confronted with such overwhelming odds, I opted for Hakuin’s answer when faced with the winds of destiny: “Is that so?” And so it proved to be, especially once Diana returned to San Francisco at the end of the summer, determined to remind me of my duty every time we got together at the Zen Center for zazen and crumpets.
This book is dedicated to Elijah, my first mentor on the road to nirvana, and to my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, the embodiment of all that I hope to be, but it never would have been written without Diana’s invitation and her affectionate prodding and constant encouragement. To them my thanks and my love. They are the harmonious background to a world of breathtaking imbalance, the spaciousness in which these words dwell.
I was born in New York in 1956 but grew up in Massachusetts in a Puerto Rican family, a nice little cross-blending of cultures, and enjoyed the rare gift of a happy childhood—short on drama but long on entertainment. Things really got interesting, however, at the beginning of my second year of college when I was initiated into yogic meditation. I was an eighteen-year-old psych major in a prestigious university, but from the moment I learned meditation all I really wanted to be was a yogi. When the school year finished, I freaked out my parents by selling everything I owned except my guitar and boarded a cross-country bus for a three-month intensive training in yogic practice (all things considered, they we’re pretty cool about it). When I was twenty I went to India to meet my guru, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, and that sealed the deal. Since then I’ve spent my life hanging out with saints and yogis and doing my best to navigate the spiritual path. Exactly how much of their luster has rubbed off is debatable, but it’s been a fascinating journey that has brought me into contact with some of the greatest spiritual teachers of our time and an endless parade of colorful characters in search of enlightenment, enough to people my novels for the next several lifetimes.
Along the way I’ve taught yoga and meditation in at least six different languages on four different continents, worked as a street musician in Europe and Asia, and even posed as an English teacher for a year when I was finishing up my MFA in the early nineties, but eventually I settled into my version of the writer’s life: half the year on my farm in Puerto Rico and the other half on my farm in Brazil, giving the occasional seminar and hosting spiritual retreats but mostly mining my imagination for the stories that have taken up residence there over the years, dramatic reenactments of our collective journey toward the awakening of consciousness. I’ve had several characters in my stories tell me that literature can be a real service to humanity. I hope they’re right. The only way I can justify spending all this time in front of a computer, wandering through the shifting landscapes of my imagination, is by taking it on faith that my books can make a difference in people’s lives, that in some small way they can help to spark the flowering of consciousness that is the real story of our race. If they can do that then nothing could make me happier. That’s what I’m here for.
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