In a world bridled by post-World War II capitalism, the marriage of poetry and jazz played an important role in the birth of an anti-consumerist subculture among young American writers who celebrated the non-conformity, spontaneity and authenticity of bebop musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1950s. Called the Beat Generation, writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso began toying with jazz rhythms in their poetry by liberating it from academic formalities. By asking challenging questions about identity, sexuality and religion, they not only influenced the counterculture movement but changed the sociological landscape in the 60s and beyond. While many critics dismissed them as nihilists, hedonists and “know-nothing bohemians”, the Beat Generation continue to appeal to our inner poetic rebel to this day.
“I was captured by their courage and vision. They were so young but already aware that standardization would have killed freedom,” says Elisabetta Antonini, an Italian jazz vocalist and a Beat fan. In her first ever trip to India, Antonini will be performing at NCPA’s International Jazz Festival in Mumbai. She’ll be singing an array of original and contemporary compositions — many of which have been directly inspired by Beat poetry.
The unsung women of the Beat Generation
Beat poetry and literature came mostly from male voices — predominately interpreting the male experience and celebrating sex, drugs, jazz and other excesses. The female characters felt like afterthoughts in the shadows of the male protagonists. Amidst this non-conformist sausage fest, women beat writers have been long-overlooked. Joyce Johnson is only remembered for her relationship with Keroauc and though Ginsberg himself called Diane di Prima a “genius”, she still doesn’t enjoy a similar reception to her works. Antonini agrees that the strong personalities of male Beat writers often overshadowed the people close to them. Except Fernanda Pivano.
“They were very fond of Fernanda Pivano, their translator and confidant. They had a very personal friendship with her as she was the only one who was able to catch better than anybody their complex nature and sensitiveness,” believes Antonini. Pivano was an Italian writer who was predominantly responsible for moulding Italian perception of American literature. She not only introduced Italian readers to the Beat Generation but also the Lost having translated the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway (with whom she famously didn’t sleep with) among others.
When Antonini was organising an homage to Pivano, in a festival honoring great Italian women and their contributions to Italian culture, she came across the translated poems and novels which had had a profound impact on her. So, by combining the words of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso with jazz music, she recorded her album, The Beat Goes On. “I used electronics to create the odd and oneiric atmosphere of the poems, scraps of recordings and readings of the Beats by involving the most creative musicians who had a strong sense of jazz and could underline the emotional meaning of the poems,” she says. “It was a new experience for me with those musicians and with that kind of project, I felt so proud of myself. Every choice felt right and I really enjoyed the recording session.”
Antonini was adjudged The Best New Talent 2014 by critics of Top Jazz magazine. The Beat Goes On ended up fourth on their year-end list of best recordings. “I never considered myself a real singer and worried myself thinking I didn’t have the kind of voice people expect a singer to have. So, the award gave me the recognition I needed that I had taken the right path in music.” She also became the first Italian female singer to sign with eminent music producer Alan Bates’ prestigious independent label Candid Records.
From Britpop to Billie
Antonini grew up mostly listening to Britpop, that delightful 90s concoction which combined the guitar-based melodies of indie rock with the retro aesthetic of the 60s. While she had been singing and playing the piano since she was a kid, Antonini only considered music as a “serious profession” in her twenties. When she had to learn some standards from the Great American Songbook to perform at a local gig, she came across some Billie Holiday recordings. She recalls, “I was completely overwhelmed by this strange voice. It was so touching and impressive. The refined music played by instruments, that I didn’t know, were full of expressiveness.” It had a lasting impression on Antonini and made her realise that she wanted to study and practise jazz. “This changed my life. Billie Holiday not only introduced me to jazz but also showed me her way to be an artist. No place for ego or pretending, only heart and honesty.”
Outside music, Antonini is heavily influenced by the cinema of legendary filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni and Krzysztof Kieslowski to the more contemporary ones like Aki Kaurismäki and Steve McQueen. She enjoys watching their films over and over again because she is fascinated with the way they “explore the human condition and the complexity of human relationships without rhetoric”, hailing them as “pure literature.”
Marching to her own beat
Though she took private lessons with some of Italy’s best music tutors, Antonini considers herself a mostly self-taught musician. “I often thought that I could not be a good musician without formal training but now I realize that this path contributed in making my motivation stronger and my approach to music more free,” she says.
Due to her auto-didactic approach, Antonini believes she doesn’t have a strict songwriting method. “I try to capture the atmosphere I want to create with the song, so I start listening to the widest array of recordings for it. When the first part of the music is done, I begin articulating and arranging the rest. I feel like a tailor and it is very satisfying.”
Her other projects include Un Minuto Dopo (A Minute Later) and Nuance where she primarily explored contemporary and European jazz. In Un Minuto Dopo, she collaborated with pianist Alessandro Gwis, saxophonist Gabriele Coen and the expert oboist of the American jazz group Oregon, Paul McCandless — whom she calls a “real gentleman” and “one of the purest musicians.”
However, Antonini remains tight-lipped about her next project. She says, “I am very excited about it but I am superstitious so I can’t tell a word?”
Elisabetta Antonini will be performing at the Tata Theatre, NCPA on Saturday (25 November) at 7PM.