The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

NINE
“Blues and the Abstract Truth”: Or, Did Romare
Bearden Really Paint Jazz?

Johannes Völz

In the fall of 2003, saxophonist Branford Marsalis released his CD Romare Bearden Revealed. The project was suggested by Robert O’Meally for the occasion of the major retrospective, The Art of Romare Bearden, which opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in September 2003 and later toured to San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta. Originally, the plan had been to put together an anthology of historical jazz performances by artists connected with Bearden’s work. Yet in the end this idea was replaced with a newly recorded CD by Branford Marsalis’s quartet that featured several special guests, including the rest of the Marsalis family and Harry Connick Jr.

According to O’Meally’s liner notes for the CD, Marsalis’s recording can be read as “part of a jam session in which Romare Bearden’s paintings play a vibrant part: the musicians playing the paintings of a visual artist who had a mighty brush with the blues.”1 Indeed, Marsalis’s record marks a fascinating moment of transmedial, synesthetic dialogue between visual art and music. It is fascinating because the often-proclaimed influence of jazz and blues on Bearden’s work here comes full circle. Now it is the musicians who claim their music is influenced by the painter who is said to be influenced by the music. However, this very circular structure raises some fundamental questions about the nature of this influence, questions that have rarely been asked from a theoretical point of view. For what we hear on Marsalis’s record is (not surprisingly) nothing but jazz. Where is Romare Bearden in this music, we may ask, other than on the cover and in the booklet? And if this question is asked, we also have to wonder about its flipside: where exactly do we locate jazz in Bearden’s paintings?

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