Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards et al. | Go to book overview

DIEDRA HARRIS-KELLEY


Revisiting Romare Bearden's Art
of Improvisation

As a child who loved to draw, I was fortunate to have Romare Bearden as my uncle. My Aunt Nanette would invite a few of my cousins and me to come from Staten Island and spend weekends at their loft in Manhattan. "Romie," as family and friends called him, was always there making art, cutting, painting, putting pieces over pieces. Jazz records often played in the background, and he often told stories of growing up surrounded by music. The music seemed to make him happy, putting him in the mood to create.

It wasn't until I grew up and became an artist myself that I became aware of my uncle's stature in the art world. To me he was just "Uncle Romie," the man who would ask us to draw the four seasons. Once I learned more about his work, I was struck by the frequent connections critics made between jazz and his collage. Of course, such connections made perfect sense given his love of the music and my own memories of hearing jazz in his loft on Canal Street. But the more I learned about how artists make work, both by studying other artists and by painting myself, the more I questioned the easy analogy between playing jazz and making visual art. While I do think there are profound links between Bearden's approach to collage and jazz improvisation, I also think the analogy doesn't account for differences in genre and technique. By not accounting for these differences, we risk obscuring more about Bearden's process than we might reveal. We might even miss what is most "jazzlike" about his work.

Bearden himself insisted that he structured his paintings and collages as if they were jazz compositions. Certainly Bearden is not the first artist to take the principles of one art form and apply them to another. He is part of a long line of artists

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