SEEING JAZZ

Artists and Writers on Jazz

Compiled by Marquette Folley-Cooper, Deborah Macanic and Janice McNeil

Edited by Elizabeth Goldson

Chronicle Books, Smithsonian Institute, 1997


This is a handsome art book for jazz lovers, and I'm grateful to Sara Wild of the Triple Trouble Trombone Trio for the gift. It was produced in conjunction with a travelling exhibition, and displays reproductions of art works alongside poems, excerpts from novels, and other writings. The art is mainly paintings, but there are also photographs of musicians, some of which were taken by the eminent bass-player, Milt Hinton, who wrote the afterword. The foreword is by trumpeter Clark Terry.

It must have been an enjoyable process, compiling this anthology, which includes Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" and poems by Langston Hughes. Anna Cohn, the director of the Smithsonian's travelling exhibition service, talks of "the idea of a jazz aesthetic that transcends the boundaries of artistic disciplines", which is a grand idea, but is something the reader is perhaps expected to improvise for herself from a rather random assortment of materials. In this regard, the introductory writings for each section, by Robert O'Meally, are not as helpful as one might predict from someone who is the director of the Jazz Study Group at Columbia University.

O'Meally discusses African polyrhythms and their refracted presence in jazz, and suggests that this complexity and interplay is paralleled in the bounce and syncopation of some American writers like Toni Morrison and Rita Dove. When he moves to visual arts, he makes the usual references to Matisse and Mondrian, but exposes the problem of this jazz aesthetic:

"In some sense, do not all artists - whether dancers or architects, sculptors or poets - desire that their works have rhythm?"

This being the case, how are we to distinguish jazz rhythms from Hungarian folk music or gamelan or baroque concerti?

Two puzzling suggestions are made. A "sense of the jazz interval" is called for. What is this? It's a "skip tone" or "jump space". I have never heard any musician use such expressions, and I seriously doubt their usefulness for our aesthetic understanding. The other suggestion is that,

"most profoundly, writers and visual artists who project jazz rhythms into their art express a jazz time-keeper's base-clef [sic] sense of life."

There is an English phrase, "pull the other leg, it's got bells on". O'Meally seems to be some kind of campanologist.

In his introduction to the "Call and Response" section of the book, O'Meally gets so carried away with the idea, that he shakes all the sense out of it:

"In our (post-) modern world, jazz listeners respond to musicians' calls sent by radio or record (and C.D.) players."

Notice how he's not quite sure if we're postmodern, but wants us to know that he is aware of compact discs. He actually says that turning the lights down in response to a jazz record is an example of call and response. So if a Rolling Stones record is played and I start yawning and wandering out of the room, isn't that call and response? Or my opening a bottle of Rioja to an album of Albeniz's guitar music?

It may be this kind of critical confusion which allows kitsch to slip into the gallery, in the form of Pitigliani's "Morning Note", where a trumpeter floats above Manhattan while a gift-shop lion prowls in the foreground, or Smith's "On The Road", a dismal daub of some clown-like musicians next to a bus.

Another issue is that of those works which are included because they have the same title as a jazz composition, such as "Afro Blue", or are dedicated to jazz musicians, such as "Toshiko", or even, irrelevantly, "The Original Mambo Kings". I defy anyone to extract a jazz aesthetic from these works. The same applies, in the literary field, to such efforts as "The Cord Between My Fingers", a poem by Helio Crovio which has perhaps lost everything in translation.

Notwithstanding these aesthetic blemishes, the bulk of the collection is a feast. In any case, what would a picnic be without ants?



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Paul Taylor 2001