Modern Art and All That Jazz

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Modern Art and All That Jazz

Stern, Fred, The World and I

The world over, and since centuries past, music has been portrayed in works of art. So it is not surprising that the quintessential American music form, emerging little over a century ago--jazz--is often a subject of American art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed American jazz has inspired not only American art, but that of Europe as well. But before exploring these influences, let's consider jazz itself and its history.

However, that history is not quite certain and the origin of jazz is still being disputed. We know that in more or less current form, it was first heard during the 1890's in New Orleans. But basically jazz is a much expanded form of music that originated with West African tribes generations before and actually has a tradition of many centuries behind it. In the American South in the days following the Civil War, former slaves, now frequently share croppers, used rhythmic tunes to break the monotony of their labor in the fields. They also employed "field hollers" to communicate with their fellow workers and to encourage each others labor.

These informal musicians enriched the musical vocabulary by adding spirituals to their repertory. When the Civil War ended and regimental bands disbanded they took the next step: adding instrumental music. Freed slaves played their instruments in taverns, at county fairs, weddings and sadly at funerals. Most were three piece bands that consisted of fiddle (or violin), banjo and drum. By 1900 the fiddles were often replaced by the trombone and clarinet.

Ragtime and Blues

We speak of jazz in a variety of forms, but mostly blues and ragtime. Ragtime was the form that came into prominence in the 1890's. It bore a resemblance to the cakewalk, a dance familiar to plantation workers. Ragtime developed in the South and Midwest, and its effect was crucial to the popular piano music of its time. The most well-known composer of the genre was Scott Joplin who more than any other musician was responsible for bringing the form into prominence.

The Blues were a still more formalized form of jazz. The Blues were usually sung, with lyrics that lamented life's tragedies: typically the lost love, the unfaithful love, poverty, death, or some combination of these. When performed solely with musical instruments, usually a single instrument introduced the typically mournful theme and was then joined by the other instruments often banjo or guitar and drum.

New Orleans and Chicago--The Jazz Capitals

The first recorded jazz was by Black musicians and originated in New Orleans's Congo Square. Embracing both sacred and profane elements, it was in fact dance music with a jazz beat, mixed with a flavoring of Creole--a blend of French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. For those dancing to that music, both women and men, it was a way to express themselves with exuberance and instinctive rhythms. For those just listening, it was an unforgettable experience. And for those who had only heard about this new syncopation, they couldn't wait to hear for themselves.

Who were the legendary figures in New Orleans Jazz? Among the many composers and performers was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). He was the offspring of a Jewish businessman born in London and a Creole mother who came from Haiti. Recognized as a virtuoso from the moment he sat down at the piano, Gottschalk was nevertheless rejected for admission by the Paris Conservatoire. However he did not let this impede his ambition nor his competitive verve. In his music he brings back all the memories of his New Orleans youth. We still thrill to his memorable melodies.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was not a native of New Orleans. He spent most of his time in St. Louis and New York but his music has all the elements of New Orleans jazz. His ragtime compositions are legendary, none more so than "The Maple Leaf Rag" which was the first phonograph record to sell more than 75,000 copies during the first six months of publication.

Other familiar names firmly rooted in jazz of the New Orleans variety are instrumentalists like Dizzi Gillespie and vocalists Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. The tradition continues up to this very day with the likes of Wynton Marsalis.

During the 1920's and 30's many jazz musicians in New Orleans saw greater opportunities for themselves in the North and particularly in Chicago. Here were the clubs, the radio stations and the new record companies that were particularly important to Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Even composers not rooted in the New Orleans and/or Chicago traditions of jazz, men such as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, could not have created their great musical achievements without New Orleans and Chicago jazz precedents.

The Relation of Jazz to Art

How does all this relate to the development of modern art? All creative arts are interrelated, and perhaps none more so than music and painting. What the ear records is sound, what the eye records is form and color. This has been demonstrated over and over again throughout time, and is seen most dramatically in the work of the abstract expressionist painters of our own day.

Ironically, the groundwork for incorporation of jazz by American artists was laid by Russian and Dutch painters. No one at this time understood the relationship of music and painting better than the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Early on he spoke of his concept of the "Gesamtwerk" (totality of art) combining music with painting. When he had this concept completely worked out he switched from representational art, the painting of landscapes and rural scenes, to a fluid and colorful expressionism that set the pattern for his contemporaries throughout the world.

Kandinsky's influence is most pronounced in the work of the Dutch Painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). From the very beginning of his career Mondrian was excited about jazz. According to critics, Mondrian believed that, "Jazz was an innately visual experience, because it featured musicians and dancers together and he brought this into his own compositions." The best example is in fact set in the United States, his painting "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1942-43) in which hypnotic presentations of yellow squares and other colors are set in dramatic juxtaposition.

American painters followed very soon after with their own unique love affair with jazz. The jazz influence is headlined by Arthur Dove (1880-1946) one of America's leading abstractionists. Dove traces the inspiration for much of his painting to the compositions of George Gershwin. Dove even worked up a kind of tickertape to record the sound patterns and syncopation in Gershwin's music. He wrote, "Anybody should be able to feel a certain state and express it in terms of music. Art is nearer to music--the music of the eyes." This philosophy helped shape his work in a very positive way.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is another American painter influenced by jazz. "I have always liked hot music," he writes, "but I never realized it influenced my work. I was looking at a painting I had just finished. I got a funny feeling. If I looked, or if I listened there was no shifting of attention. It seemed to amount to the same thing--like twins, a kinship. After that I played (jazz) recordings while I painted. "While I could refer to many paintings leading with a similar musical component or influence, I most admire Davis's "Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors-7th Avenue Style" of 1940 which hangs in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Critics believe that the Long Island painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) "a submerged himself in jazz music to reach a heightened state of mental clarity where he could not be distracted from his unconscious relationship with the paint dripping from his brush." His wife Lee Krasner, a very talented painter in her own right, remembered that while painting he had no concept of time and often listened to jazz day and night for three or more days and nights running. What psychoanalysis couldn't do for him the recordings of Benny Goodman did.

Just last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Romaire Bearden (1911-1988) who brought the jazz scene to life in his paintings, gouaches, drawings and prints. His work takes us back to New Orleans, as well as Harlem and even his birth place in North Carolina. His paintings and collages often have banjo players, drummers and pianists as central themes. It is clear from his depiction of these Black musicians, that he feels a kinship with them as well as a profound admiration, even for the unsophisticated local farmer making music. His jazz legends are complemented by the work of many other great artists in this vein such as Hartwell Yeargans (1915-2005), Malcolm M. Brown (1933-), Charles Alston (1907-1977).

Just as the European painters Kandinsky and Mondrian found jazz an inspiration for their work which in turn inspired American artists, jazz crossed the ocean back to Europe. There in his final days, Henri Matisse (1869 1956) confined to a wheelchair and no longer able to paint, perfected a way to channel his creative energies by using a scissors to create paper cutouts that are now considered among his major achievements. He was able to relive a childhood filled with clowns, ponies and plants and to collect these in a book entitled "Jazz." It was perhaps only this work that truly "freed and liberated" him in his last years.

Perform this experiment. Listen to a jazz recording while looking at an abstract painting. You will see all of the cross currents at work here. And you will enjoy the experience immensely.

Fred Stern, a poet and writer on the arts, has written more than 50 articles on various aspects of the arts for The World & I Online since 2004. His poetry collection 'Corridors of Light' is available from and on the web.

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