This fascinating project has more names than a ’50s jazzbo had euphemisms for Benzedrine. The third in an ongoing series of jazz-accompanied readings derived from Robert Briggs’ evocative memoir, Ruined Time, this episode, Opus Three: Homage to the Beat Generation, explores the origins of the beat movement and its continuing relevance to would-be cultural rebels today. Briggs’ Opus One, performed earlier this summer at the Coho Theater, traced the author-narrator’s peregrinations through and around the ill-defined beat movement, with stops at shrines like Greenwich Village’s Blue Note and San Francisco’s Jazz Cellar. Briggs is unabashedly pro beat and progressive, but this was no screed. Rather, he provided a quick critique of postwar American society and culture, including the depersonalized academic poetry that provoked the beats’ paradoxically cool yet heated pursuit of authenticity.
The show maintains a tricky balance among personal memoir, prose poetry, excerpts from various beat writings (including poetry from Poe to Patchen) and exposition that places the movement in social, historical and political contexts. Existentialism, Ferlinghetti, Bird and Diz, Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the other usual touchstones make appearances, but the history lesson is enlivened by poetry and music.
Though Briggs is no Lord Buckley or even Allen Ginsberg, his readings carry the ring of authenticity, as does the music. Percussionist Tim DuRoche, tenor saxophonist Stuart Fessant and bassist Dan Davis expertly nail the period’s laconic, laid-back, cool-jazz idiom. Far more than just background sound, the improvised, continuous score interacts sinuously and sensitively with Briggs’ monologue—for example, a wry sax scoff just after he mentions Time magazine editor Henry Luce’s infamous description of the 20th century as “the American Century.” When the poetry becomes more feverish, the music heats up too. The live soundtrack conjures the scene’s late-night, smoky-bar ambience in a historically authentic manner while retaining the freshness of spontaneity.
Many of today’s Portland hipsters aspire to live the kind of unconstrained lives the beats yearned for yet, thanks to the culture of mass-marketed cool, dress and act alike. They could stand to learn from the O.G. beatniks who originally appropriated the term half a century ago. A visit to the source via these compelling combos of music and theater might provide just such a dose of authenticity.
SEE IT: The CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 205-0715, pdxtix.net. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 27-29. $12-$15.