Graham Lock and David Murray, editors of Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

August 14th, 2009

Graham Lock and David Murray,

co-editors of

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

 

 

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About The Hearing Eye

The widespread presence of jazz and blues in African American visual art has long been overlooked. The Hearing Eye makes the case for recognizing the music’s importance, both as formal template and as explicit subject matter. Moving on from the use of iconic musical figures and motifs in Harlem Renaissance art, this groundbreaking collection explores the more allusive — and elusive — references to jazz and blues in a wide range of mostly contemporary visual artists.

   There are scholarly essays on the painters Rose Piper (Graham Lock), Norman Lewis (Sara Wood), Bob Thompson (Richard H. King), Romare Bearden (Robert G. O’Meally, Johannes Völz) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Robert Farris Thompson), as well an account of early blues advertising art (Paul Oliver) and a discussion of the photographs of Roy DeCarava (Richard Ings). These essays are interspersed with a series of in-depth interviews by Graham Lock, who talks to quilter Michael Cummings and painters Sam Middleton, Wadsworth Jarrell, Joe Overstreet and Ellen Banks about their musical inspirations, and also looks at art’s reciprocal effect on music in conversation with saxophonists Marty Ehrlich and Jane Ira Bloom.

With numerous illustrations both in the book and on its companion website, The Hearing Eye reaffirms the significance of a fascinating and dynamic aspect of African American visual art that has been too long neglected. #

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About Thriving on a Riff

From the Harlem Renaissance to the present, African American writers have drawn on the rich heritage of jazz and blues, transforming musical forms into the written word. In this companion volume to The Hearing Eye, distinguished contributors ranging from Bertram Ashe to Steven C. Tracy explore the musical influence on such writers as Sterling Brown, J.J. Phillips, Paul Beatty, and Nathaniel Mackey. Here, too, are Graham Lock’s engaging interviews with contemporary poets Michael S. Harper and Jayne Cortez, along with studies of the performing self, in Krin Gabbard’s account of Miles Davis and John Gennari’s investigation of fictional and factual versions of Charlie Parker. The book also looks at African Americans in and on film, from blackface minstrelsy to the efforts of Duke Ellington and John Lewis to rescue jazz from its stereotyping in Hollywood film scores as a signal for sleaze and criminality. Concluding with a proposal by Michael Jarrett for a new model of artistic influence, Thriving on a Riff makes the case for the seminal cross-cultural role of jazz and blues. #

 

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Book Excerpts

“Out of This World”: Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka,

by David Murray

Sam Middleton: The Painter as Improvising Soloist ,

Interview by Graham Lock

 

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Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita

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“Charlie Parker is reported to have said, ‘Hear with your eyes and see with your ears.’ Who can be sure of what he meant? But perhaps it was a way of saying that African American creativity is so grounded in its music that listening will allow you to better see its paintings, to better read its poetry and fiction.”

– Graham Lock and David Murray

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JJM  In an interview with the poet Michael Harper, Graham, you describe the aim of your books as to “look at the influence of jazz and blues on other African American art forms, and vice versa, though our main emphasis is on the music’s influence and our starting point is that it does have a special and central role in the culture.”  How broad does the definition of jazz go when discussing whether or not a film, painting, or work of literature is influenced by jazz music? Is there also a boundary line to defining what is jazz-influenced in the world of art?

DM  We use the word “jazz” at times in our books, and we also talk about “African American music.”  In essence, we were trying to identify certain aspects of jazz and certain elements of African American music that carry over to other art forms in some ways. For instance, we would find that a work of art contained elements that people would recognize as jazz-like, such as spontaneous improvisation or certain kinds of rhythmic characteristics. So we would be looking for elements like that which carried over rather than having to recognize art that is specifically jazz-influenced.

When we were trying to determine what could be characterized as “jazz-based,” we looked for two things in particular. One was to ask how much of the subject matter is “jazz” — in other words, are they writing about John Coltrane, or is Romare Bearden painting a picture of a musician or a dancer, and how is it being represented? So, content was one level we looked at. The other level, which is somewhat more problematic, is determining how much the characteristics of jazz-like spontaneity and rhythm were brought into the art form, whether literary or visual.

GL  I would add that it wasn’t really us doing the defining. I interviewed people who identified their own work as being influenced by jazz or blues, so that link had already been made by the artists themselves rather than by us trying to find a link. The same could be said about the essays in the books too. We invited people to write on the topic of jazz and blues influences in other African American art forms, and the contributors made the links. We didn’t have a predetermined set of definitions or characteristics. We were open to persuasion — and to skepticism. There’s a great piece by Michael Jarrett in Thriving on a Riff that questions the received wisdom on how these kinds of cross-genre links actually occur. He makes the point that changes in technology and media can change the way influence itself operates.

JJM  What are the earliest links between African American painting and music?

GL  The short answer is I don’t know for sure. There is a painting from the 1890’s by Henry Ossawa Tanner called The Banjo Lesson, which I think is one of the earliest African American paintings to have some musical content. But in terms of jazz and blues actually having an influence on art, this would probably have been in the 1920’s, in the work of painters like Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley.

DM  And you could say the same thing on the literary side. While there are accounts of jazz music going back to the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that artists and writers took jazz themes and tried to compose them artistically. That was when they made this a part of the way they work.

JJM  You wrote, “It is no surprise . . . that the music has played a crucial part in African American visual art. What is surprising is the continuing neglect of this association, and of African American art in general, by both the academy and the commercial art world.”  Why has this association been neglected? Is it a simple matter of racism?

GL  I think it’s clear that racism has played a significant part in the exclusion of black artists from art galleries, and that is certainly the impression I got from talking to black artists. For instance, Vincent Smith, who started painting in the 1940’s, told me in 2003 that the art world in the States was the last bastion of white exclusivity. Several other people that I spoke to said the same sort of thing. On the other hand, there are more African American-run galleries now, as well as an increasing number of African American scholars and curators who are writing about black art, so I think the situation is beginning to improve in the States. However, there is still no wider public appreciation of black art, either in the United States or in Europe, and this neglect extends to the academy too. One of the reasons we did The Hearing Eye was that we couldn’t find any information about jazz and blues influences in African American art — all the books on music and art we looked at dealt almost exclusively with Western classical music and European art.

DM  It could be that people allow racial groups praise for particular things they do well, so, African Americans are praised for “being musical,” it is their “privileged form,” so to speak, and they are not given credit for their work in other art forms.

 

 

 

“[Norman] Lewis’s racial identity, and the signifiers of African American experience that he wove into his canvases, not only challenged the implicit whiteness of abstract expressionism’s supposed universalism but also served as a reminder that, to large numbers of African Americans, freedom itself was itself still an abstract concept in the United States.”

– – essayist Sara Wood

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JJM There is an interesting essay in your book about black artists who rely on folk materials — like jazz music — and leave themselves open to racial stereotyping.

GL  Yes, I guess you’re thinking of Rose Piper, who did some fantastic paintings in the 1940’s based on blues recordings. But she was wary of people’s assumption that this kind of “black subject matter” was all that she, as a black artist, was supposed, or even able, to do. The contemporary collagist Sam Middleton makes a similar point in the book — he loves jazz and has featured it in much of his work but then felt he had to abandon it for a period. He said people were expecting him to paint jazz-related canvases just because he was black. So he quite deliberately began to focus on other kinds of subject matter, from seascapes to classical music, which he also likes.

I think it’s been true of particular styles of painting as well. Black artists have often been “allowed” to paint in the social realist style, whereas they have been excluded from the abstract art canon, which is absurd, because there have been some terrific abstract artists among African Americans — Norman Lewis, for example, who to my mind is among the major figures of the last 50 years, as is Joe Overstreet. There seems to be an expectation that black artists should be confined to painting in a certain way and about certain things, and if they stray outside of that, they are likely to be ignored or heavily criticized. It reminds me of what Anthony Braxton has said about jazz, that it is a zone in which black performers are allowed to play, but if they try to do any other kind of music, like opera or symphonies, they get hammered by the cultural gatekeepers.

JJM  Yes, and this was certainly true of the boundaries Hollywood once imposed on African Americans. They could be in a film as long as they expressed the characteristics of ignorance and fear and laziness. It is also well known that scenes depicting integration were cut so the film could be shown to a southern audience. So, there was a real consistency across all art forms about what type of art African Americans could participate in, and within what boundaries.

DM  That’s right.

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“Monk taught me not to be afraid to take a chance, not to be afraid of making a mistake. Duke Ellington taught me that within the bounds of the thirty-two-bar song, you can weave colors – but within a discipline. Louis Armstrong…taught me a sense of humor and the pride to have while working. Your work is the interpretation of your free spirit, if you have one. Coltrane…taught me you were permitted to go as far as you want to go as long as you remember the principle you started out with.”

– painter Sam Middleton

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 JJM To what extent did jazz music and the blues guide artists’ experiments with abstraction?

GL  It’s curious that Jackson Pollock is often associated with free jazz, I guess because Ornette Coleman used one of his paintings on the cover of the Free Jazz LP. But in fact Pollack predates free jazz. As far as we can tell, he was a big fan of swing and New Orleans jazz.

I don’t think you can draw up rules about this, because it seems to me that these artists, whoever or whatever their influences, are all influenced in very different and personal ways. The artist Joe Overstreet — whose Storyville series of paintings is partly influenced by New Orleans jazz and by his admiration for Louis Armstrong — said that he experimented with putting paint on newspaper, and then putting the newspaper onto the canvas, and this technique felt right to him for those particular paintings because he realized the texture that he got from the paint on the canvas reminded him of the texture of the music. That seems to me to be a very specific and personal kind of influence, to do with how he heard the music, and in lots of cases, influence works in this extremely subjective way.

DM  This is one of the things that our project generally found, that individual artists work in different ways. It was never very clear that they would compose while listening to the music, and in very few cases did we come across any really direct sense in which they were being inspired somatically to paint in a particular way. It would be nice to think that Jackson Pollock was listening to Ornette Coleman as he was painting, but as Graham said, he was listening to much earlier and less “free” music. So while there is a general feeling that these freewheeling paintings are influenced by some sort of freewheeling jazz, it is quite hard to pin down.

 

 

JJM  Richard King, one of your collection’s essayists, wrote that “It is not painter Bob Thompson’s choice of subject matter but his way of handling color and structural-spatial arrangements that were jazz influenced.”

GL This idea of jazz and blues impacting on the formal aspects of art is really intriguing to look at because, as Dave says, it is so slippery and subtle. Just thinking about it now, for example, there does seem to be some kind of recurring link between abstraction in art and musical influence. I’m thinking, for example, of the way Sara Wood, in her essay on the painter Norman Lewis, could link his interest in bebop with his approach to abstract expressionism. There is also a very interesting relationship between the figurative and the abstract in the work of, say, Joe Overstreet or Rose Piper, which may be linked in some way to the influence of the music.

JJM  How do the paintings of Rose Piper reflect the “sound” of the recordings she named her paintings after?

GL  Well, I try in The Hearing Eye to suggest a few possibilities. It’s all speculative, because by the time I was able to talk to Rose Piper, her memory had deteriorated so badly that she was unable to remember the paintings themselves, let alone the recordings that had influenced them. But in her Back Water canvas, for example, which we know was partly a response to Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” the foreground figure of the young woman perhaps corresponds to the voice of the singer — in terms of its dominant presence, its somber tone, et cetera — while the painting’s busy background of swirling waters and floating debris can be compared to the animated piano that James P. Johnson plays on the record.

In Piper’s slightly later, semi-abstract canvases, the correspondence is less literal and more elusive. I would liken her distortions and exaggerations of the figure, as a means of depicting heightened emotions, to the blues’ use of vivid hyperbole for the same reason, whether it’s about sitting on top of the world or pouring water on a drowning man. There’s a kind of stylized quality to the blues, a combination of terseness and exaggeration, which I think is akin to the semi-abstraction of the art.

 

 

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“African art is like the blues; you know, when a blues musician sings a line, he’ll sing it twice but he’ll do something different with it the second time. He won’t repeat the same thing. If you look at African art, it’s never the same; it looks the same but it never is, it’s more free, what we call free symmetry, and African music is like free symmetry.”

– artist Wadsworth Jarrell

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JJM  Essayist Robert O’Meally wrote that painter Romare Bearden “approaches his subjects not as a portrait painter might, or a landscape artist . . . but in the manner of a jazz musician.” He went on to talk about how you can understand jazz music’s aesthetic values in Bearden’s work, and how the process of making art is “jazz-like.” I think it goes back to what we were saying about where an artist gets his or her inspiration from, and what their process is. How these art forms are all interconnected is what makes this topic fascinating…

DM  While there is agreement that there are connections, they are as different as the artists themselves, and difficult to pin down. What we consistently find in all of the essays, as well as in everything that we write, is that we all want to make these connections, but as soon as we do we find that they are very tenuous, and very difficult to actually specify or define. In what sense is the art we write about “jazz-shaped” or “jazz-like”? As you say, that is one of the fascinating things about this.

GL  I think it was one of the impulses behind the books, to explore these cross-genre relationships in more depth. People had been aware of links between jazz and painting or jazz and poetry but tended to write about them in rather vague terms, invoking notions of spontaneity, improvisation and so forth, yet it’s a lot more complex and interesting than that. For instance, there’s a great essay in The Hearing Eye by Johannes Völz that asks, what about the role of the viewer in this cross-genre influence? If you’re looking at a canvas that’s “jazz-influenced”, how is that influence perceivable? How do you see it? How do you “hear” it? And how does that visual experience compare to listening to the music? So the focus is not only on tracing the musical influence on the painter but on the viewer too. We also look at other visual art forms. There are chapters on the photographer Roy DeCarava and the quilter Michael Cummings, and there is Paul Oliver’s survey of the graphic art in early advertisements for blues records — these are all fascinating areas.

JJM  This fascination carries over into film as well. There were several interesting essays in your books concerning the films that can be considered “jazz-related,” as well as the music written for them.

DM  One of the interesting things about working on the film portion of Thriving on a Riff was that, in most cases, we were writing about African American writers and artists who were working in a white-produced and white-directed Hollywood studio system. They worked within a “white agenda.” To some extent you could say that the treatment of jazz in film is different than in art because it is often already hedged about and censored when it appears in films in a way that art by an African American artist or writer is not. The influences come through more channels, and they come more disguised or controlled.

JJM  What is an example of a film that is “jazz-related” without it being a film on jazz or a jazz personality?

GL  Mervyn Cooke contributed an essay about Anatomy of a Murder, which is an example of a film whose content didn’t have much to do with jazz, but with a film score by Duke Ellington, the music is likely to be jazz-related. The question then becomes, how is this music being used in the film?

DM  We considered going into the direction of looking at jazz influences in experimental film, where directors like John Cassavetes deliberately use film to try and be improvisatory, where they create an experimental interface between the music and the film. Well, in a way, the films our contributors have chosen to write about are not that sort of film. They are more about how jazz found its way into film rather than being primary.

JJM How did the growing acceptance of jazz as an art music change the way jazz music was used in Hollywood?

GL  I am trying to remember what Mervyn Cook said in his chapter, where he talked about symphonic jazz becoming popular in the 1950’s, and how that affected the way jazz was used in Hollywood. I think his argument is that it had a modernizing influence in terms of the film score, even though many jazz fans and critics did not like symphonic jazz per se.

DM  It also raises a question, when you say “the growing acceptance of jazz,” because, in what way? Because jazz was an increasingly accepted form of popular entertainment, but when you look at film scores, they attempted this classical sound in a grand attempt to get jazz in an orchestral version . . . I suppose at that point, that becomes available, and it is on the palette of the composers who write a film score.

GL  I also wonder about the influence of bebop in this area. The idea of bebop musicians presenting themselves as artists rather than as entertainers, which had been the case in the past. I think that would have had a broad impact. It would have made people at least think about that topic. Although, as David Butler points out in his chapter on John Lewis’s score for Odds Against Tomorrow, very few black composers were given the chance to score films by the major Hollywood studios and that situation didn’t change very quickly.

JJM  Bebop was all part of the modernist movement, and I am sure there was a comparing of jazz music — that was now being looked at as a modernist art — with modernist film. If you look at how Elmer Bernstein was using jazz, it was elementary compared to the way John Lewis used it in his film. Bernstein admitted to using jazz music in some of his films as associating it with sort of unsavory characters. One of the films, Walk on the Wild Side, was set in New Orleans in a house of ill repute, so he sort of connected jazz to this sleazy component, whereas John Lewis, in Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959, looked at it as a modernist would, and communicated from that perspective.

DM  Certain instruments, especially the saxophone, were used by filmmakers as a way of implying a link to sex or it does have this, as you say, association. The saxophone would often be used quite easily as sort of implying a link to sexiness or transgression.

 

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“We’re born into a society that has inherited all sorts of prejudices – racial, religious and even musical, and this one concerning jazz, like most prejudices, has its roots in truth or reality at some point…It is a subtle prejudice and I find myself fighting it within myself. The times I’ve used jazz to color my music have been in films with sleazy atmospheres – The Man with the Golden Arm was about narcotics, Sweet Smell of Success dealt with some very unsavoury characters in New York, and Walk on the Wild Side was largely set in a New Orleans house of ill repute. So I’m guilty, although I don’t think it’s necessary to use jazz in this way. It’s simply something that is very difficult to avoid.”

– – Elmer Bernstein

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JJM  How does film music play a role in a film’s racist or anti-racist concerns?

GL  Well, the essay by Ian Brookes on To Have and Have Not examines how the director Howard Hawks uses jazz to underscore the film’s anti-fascist stance. (It’s set in Vichy-controlled Martinique during World War II.) As Ian shows, Hawks does this in several ways, from a simple shot of black and white musicians playing together, to the band quoting “Limehouse Blues,” which has various levels of signification since it brings to mind Django Reinhardt, which reminds us of the Nazis’ anti-gipsy policy, which in turn reminds us of their other racial policies. And the implicit anti-fascism of the integrated band also had a message for American audiences, of course. Hawks apparently agreed with Sterling Brown that jazz is an inherently democratic form and Ian not only examines how this affects the way Hawks deployed the music, he also suggests that it influenced Hawks’s own working methods in making the film.

In terms of a film’s racist concerns . . . It’s not quite the same thing, but there’s an extremely interesting essay in Thriving on a Riff by Corin Willis that looks at the strategies Hollywood employed to undermine the impact of black musical performance on screen. Basically, he’s saying that minstrelsy was given an extra lease on life because several of its techniques were adopted by Hollywood to contain the power of African American popular music. This may help explain why the jazz presence in film has been so circumscribed compared, say, to its presence in literature.

JJM There are a wealth of writers who were influenced by jazz, among them Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison, Jack Kerouac . . . Poetry and jazz has long been connected, and so often John Coltrane is the centerpiece of a poet’s work, including one of the poets you interviewed, Michael Harper.

DM  It is really noticeable how many poets write about Coltrane, enough so that it is almost a genre in its own right. Critics like Kimberley Benston have written entire chapters about Coltrane poets.

GL  I think it is partly attributable to the achievements of Coltrane himself. He was such an outstanding figure. His peak years coincided with the rise of a black nationalist consciousness — black power — and a heightened cultural awareness within the African American population.

DM  It is interesting because a comparable figure in jazz music is Charlie Parker, who gets coverage and significance in musical terms but the writers didn’t pick him up in quite the same way as Coltrane. He appears in disguised forms, for example as a doomed jazz musician in James Baldwin’s work. Ralph Ellison was the most prominent African American writer of the 1950’s and 1960’s, but he was not a fan of bebop — of Parker’s music. So, Parker didn’t get that coverage so directly to the same degree as Coltrane, although he does in graffiti in the famous phrase “Bird Lives.” But it is noticeable that the great writers didn’t look at him in that way.

JJM  Coltrane was such an inspiration to the black arts poets and the black arts movement, who looked to jazz musicians for inspiration in general, but in particular, Coltrane represented musical freedom. Black arts poets must have admired him for that alone…

DM  I suppose the writer who gives a wide range of discussion in that sense is Amiri Baraka, who we can find covering all the periods of jazz and who took the longest look at this subject.

GL  I have a somewhat cynical comment to add here. Coltrane’s popularity with poets may have been in part because, once he’d died, they could write anything they liked about him. They could use him for their own ends, as it were, and he couldn’t answer back. Of course, after the vicious criticisms that had been heaped on him by some of the white jazz press, you can understand why black poets wanted to valorize him — and often in militant terms that Coltrane himself would probably not have endorsed. It’s also the case that he died at the height of his achievements. There’s no knowing what he would have done with his music had he lived longer, or whether it would have been as well received.

DM  As you would expect, the poems about Coltrane vary so much in style and quality. There are poems in which he is the subject — they could be elegies or whatever — and other poems are designed to try to recapture the sound of his instrument, where poets experiment with language to try to close the gap between language and music. So, the poetry is in the range of writing about Coltrane, trying to be him, and trying to exemplify him in the structure of the composition itself.

The other question, of course, is the question of the quality of the writing. One of the thorniest areas in literature and music, it seems to me, is poetry and jazz. The overlap between poets and musicians should work, but so often it doesn’t, because if you look at the many attempts of putting the poetry and jazz together, you will find some really bad poems out there.

JJM  Jazz is a difficult subject to turn literary. So often the results are very corny and feel forced…

DM  Exactly. I know we found some good ones to publish, but there are so many more bad ones. You find one and believe it to be a worthy attempt, but both the musician and the artist seem to be constrained, or the art is not coming out in the best way.

 

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“Contemporary American poetry is vitally interested – as many poets are personally interested – in two of the central principles of the jazz art: improvisation…and ‘voice,’” and that these two principles point “toward yearnings in poetry – often yearnings away from the printed page – that make jazz the land of heart’s desire.”

– – poet Charles O. Hartman

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JJM  Which poets have been successful in combining the compatibility and tension between the language and jazz?

DM  Jayne Cortez is a poet with musical credentials, and who has performed with very serious musicians. She is an example of someone who explored this, although people would have differing views about how successful she was within the form. Amiri Baraka is another one who comes to mind.

GL  I think Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown were pioneers in this area. In Thriving on a Riff both Steven Tracy and Michael Harper talk about Sterling Brown’s interest in blues and jazz and how he incorporated those influences in his poetry, although as far as I know he didn’t perform with musicians to any great extent. More recently, Michael Harper himself would be a prime example of someone who can make this happen, for instance in his collaborations with bass clarinetist Paul Austerlitz — some examples of which we have on the Riff website.

DM  Yes, and Nathaniel Mackey, who writes fascinatingly about it in his critical essays, and also in his novels, which are based around the idea of a jazz band. I think he really does explore the interface of the two forms, and is one of the people who pushes it theoretically the furthest. He performs his work with jazz musicians as well. It is a tricky form, no question about it.

JJM  You talked earlier about how poets would try to adapt their poetic style to reflect the music of Coltrane. Is it even possible to successfully mimic jazz music with poetic language?

DM  When I encounter poems where the poetry is, for example, broken up in lines in an attempt to get the rhythm of somebody like Coltrane, I don’t know how to read them. There is a sense in which they are a different media, and this is one of the challenges we have, isn’t it? The more one media tries to imitate the other media, the more constrained it becomes. The most interesting work is often the work where this is a relationship, but I can’t quite pin them down. The poetry looks bleak when simulated.

GL  I talked to Bill Dixon about the issue of poets writing about Coltrane (although this isn’t in the book). He knew Coltrane quite well, I think, and his view is that all the poets who wrote about Coltrane were basically parasites who tried to jump on the Coltrane bandwagon. His argument is that the poems were grossly inferior to the music they referenced. I’m not sure I agree with him entirely, and certainly not with regard to poets such as Jayne Cortez and Michael Harper, but I think in some cases what he says is probably true.

In Thriving on a Riff, there’s an essay by Bertram Ashe on the contemporary writer Paul Beatty, whose novel Tuff includes a satirical portrait of an ageing black nationalist poet — this guy and his friends are always banging on about Coltrane, much to the disgust of his son, who says their “bullshit poetry” has turned him off the music and is probably killing Coltrane’s record sales! So I guess there’s been a backlash by a younger generation of black writers, who don’t buy into the idolatry or the rhetoric of that kind of poem.

DM  One of the things I noticed while working on the literary section of the book is the feeling that, because jazz music holds such a privileged position within African American culture, invoking its name or to make a reference to blues culture within the work creates a credibility or a sense of racial identity. So it becomes a sort of “name dropping” or a bowing to tradition that can come up empty in some cases.

JJM  What does jazz-influenced art, literature and film teach society about life?

GL  I’m not sure how to answer that question. Speaking for myself, working on this project has taught me that there’s so much great art out there — by which I mean painting, literature, film, whatever — that still isn’t getting the recognition or the level of attention it deserves. Exploring the work of fantastic painters like Norman Lewis and Joe Overstreet and fantastic writers like Sterling Brown has been hugely rewarding for me. I hope everyone who reads these books will find something that’s equally rewarding for them.

 

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“Plunge…into the very depths of the soul of our people, and drag forth material, crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.”

– painter Aaron Douglas, in a letter to Langston Hughes concerning the need for African American artists to develop an aesthetic that is not merely “white art painted black.”

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

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

 

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Book Excerpts

“Out of This World”: Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka,

by David Murray

Sam Middleton: The Painter as Improvising Soloist ,

Interview by Graham Lock

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About Graham Lock and David Murray

Graham Lock is a freelance writer, Special Lecturer in American Music, University of Nottingham, and author, Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music, Chasing the Vibration: Meetings with Creative Musicians, and Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton, and editor, Mixtery: A Festschrift for Anthony Braxton.

David Murray is Professor of American Studies, University of Nottingham, and author, Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Early Indian-White Exchanges, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts, and Matter, Magic and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief.

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Graham Lock and David Murray products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on March 14, 2009

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our conversation with art historian on Alfred Appel

 

 

 

# Text from publisher.

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“Style” by Laurie Kuntz

Poetry

Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Black History

The Harlem Globetrotters/photo via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: The Harlem Globetrotters...In this 2005 interview, Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, discusses the complex history of the celebrated Black touring basketball team.

Black History

photo of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
A Black History Month Profile: Zora Neale Hurston...In a 2002 interview, Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, talks about the novelist, anthropologist, playwright, folklorist, essayist and poet

Black History

Eubie Blake
A Black History Month Profile – Pianist and composer Eubie Blake...In this 2021 Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Eubie Blake biographers Ken Bloom and Richard Carlin discuss the legendary composer of American popular song and jazz during the 20th century

Feature

Jamie Branch's 2023 album "Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))"
On the Turntable— The “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” in 2023 jazz recordings...A year-end compilation of jazz albums oft mentioned by a wide range of critics as being the best of 2023 - including the late trumpeter Jamie Branch's Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))

Essay

"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.

Interview

photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.

Interview

IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.

Poetry

Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. This edition is influenced by Stillpoint, the 2021 album by Zen practitioner Barrett Martin

Playlist

“Latin Tinges in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...A nine-hour long Spotify playlist featuring songs by the likes of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Dizzy Gillespie that demonstrates how the Latin music influence on jazz has been present since the music’s beginnings.

Poetry

[Columbia Legacy]
“On Becoming A Jazz Fanatic In The Early 1970’s” – 20 linked short poems by Daniel Brown

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.

Feature

George Shearing/Associated Booking Corporation/James Kriegsmann, New York, via Wikimedia Commons
True Jazz Stories: “An Evening With George,” by Terry Sanville...The writer tells his story of playing guitar with a symphony orchestra, backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Short Fiction

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/via Picryl.com
“Afloat” – a finalist in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest – is about a troubled man in his 40s who lessens his worries by envisioning himself and loved ones on a boat that provides safety and ease for all of them.

Poetry

The poet Connie Johnson in 1981
In a Place of Dreams: Connie Johnson’s album of jazz poetry, music, and life stories...A collection of the remarkable poet's work is woven among her audio readings, a personal narrative of her journey and music she considers significant to it, providing readers the chance to experience the full value of her gifts.

Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt from Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song, by Judith Tick...The author writes about highlights of Ella’s career, and how the significance of her Song Book recordings is an example of her “becoming” Ella.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII

Interview

photo courtesy of Henry Threadgill
Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards, co-author (with Henry Threadgill) of Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music...The author discusses his work co-written with Threadgill, the composer and multi-instrumentalist widely recognized as one of the most original and innovative voices in contemporary music, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Poetry

art by Russell duPont
Three jazz poets…three jazz poems...Takes on love and loss, and memories of Lady Day, Prez, Ella, Louis, Dolphy and others…

Playlist

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“A Baker’s Dozen Playlist of Ella Fitzgerald Specialties from Five Decades,” as selected by Ella biographer Judith Tick...Chosen from Ella’s entire repertoire, Ms. Tick’s intriguing playlist (with brief commentary) is a mix of studio recordings, live dates, and video, all available for listening here.

Poetry

"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #169

This trumpeter was in the 1932 car accident that took the life of famed clarinetist/saxophonist Frankie Techemacher (pictured), and is best remembered for his work with Eddie Condon’s bands. Who was he?

Interview

From the Interview Archive: A 2011 conversation with Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway...In this interview, Shipton discusses Cab Calloway, whose vocal theatrics and flamboyant stage presence made him one of the country’s most beloved entertainers.

Community

Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII...announcing the six Jerry Jazz Musician-published writers nominated for the prestigious literary award

Poetry

Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Devotion” – a poem and 11 “Musings on Monk,” by Connie Johnson

Photography

photo of Mal Waldron by Giovanni Piesco
Beginning in 1990, the noted photographer Giovanni Piesco began taking backstage photographs of many of the great musicians who played in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, that city’s main jazz venue which is considered one of the finest in the world. Jerry Jazz Musician will occasionally publish portraits of jazz musicians that Giovanni has taken over the years. This edition is of the pianist/composer Mal Waldron, taken on three separate appearances at Bimhuis (1996, 2000 and 2001).

Interview

Leffler, Warren K/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin...

Community

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi Városi Könyvtár / Petanovics fényképek, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
.“Community Bookshelf, #1"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Short Fiction

photo by Pedro Coelho/Deviant Art/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 DEED
“After The Death of Margaret: A True Novella” by S. Stephanie...This story -- a finalist in our recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest -- harkens back to Richard Brautigan's fiction of the '70s, and explores modern day co-worker relationships/friendship and the politics of for profit "Universities"

Short Fiction

painting of Gaetano Donizetti by Francesco Coghetti/via Wikimedia Commons
“A Single Furtive Tear” – a short story by Dora Emma Esze...A short-listed entry in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, the story is a heartfelt, grateful monologue to one Italian composer, dead and immortal of course, whose oeuvre means so much to so many of us.

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950’s Quartets...Long regarded as jazz music’s most eminent baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was a central figure in “cool” jazz whose contributions to it also included his important work as a composer and arranger. Noted jazz scholar Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets, and Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht discuss Mulligan’s unique contributions to modern jazz.

Book Excerpt

“Chick” Webb was one of the first virtuoso drummers in jazz and an innovative bandleader dubbed the “Savoy King,” who reigned at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom. Stephanie Stein Crease is the first to fully tell Webb’s story in her biography, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America…The book’s entire introduction is excerpted here.

Short Fiction

pixabay.com via Picryl.com
“The Silent Type,” a short story by Tom Funk...The story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, is inspired by the classic Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue” which speculates about what might have been the back story to the song.

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work

Art

Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: “Outtakes” — Vol. 2...In this edition, the authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder share examples of Cha Cha Cha record album covers that didn't make the final cut in their book

Pressed for All Time

“Pressed For All Time,” Vol. 17 — producer Joel Dorn on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1967 album, The Inflated Tear

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive