[Dixielandjazz] How to Look at Music and Hear Art - Was Dada Bauhaus etc.

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu May 29 10:26:59 PDT 2003

For those who dismiss Art as meaningless, or "hauntingly evocative"
(Just kidding Bill) or rant and rave because they don't understand,
consider the following.

Here is a book review from The Christian Science Monitor, September
2002. List mates who are serious about pursuing the links between Visual
Arts and Aural Arts might consider reading the book under review. Note
that it concentrates on Armstrong, Waller, Ellington etc., some of our
OKOM heroes.

I haven't read it yet, but have ordered it because it sounds

Steve Barbone

Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce
By Alfred Appel Alfred A. Knopf 282 pp., $35

How to look at music and hear art

By Carlo Wolff

This piquant, playful book scrambles and quickens the senses by showing
the parallels between key jazz influences such as  Fats Waller and Louis
Armstrong, their literary contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and James
Joyce, and their fine-arts compatriots Matisse, Picasso, and Alexander

By explaining how their social context led such masters to flex their
artistic muscle and so broaden the scope of popular culture, Alfred
Appel teaches us how to "look at" jazz and "hear" art. Linking Matisse's
"Jazz" series to the sculpture of Alexander Calder and the evolving
artistry of Armstrong illuminates all three.

But, if Appel can be impish, he also can be pedantic. And by restricting
his discussion to artistic developments in the first half of the 20th
century, he fails to address more recent, more self-consciously modern
movements such as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and Jackson Pollock's
Action Painting. Perhaps this Nabokov expert and professor emeritus of
English at Northwestern University either has not assimilated such
material or doesn't like it.

In any case, Appel certainly has attitude: "The millennial blather of
1999," he writes, "included the selection and publication of lists of
the 100 Best in most everything, from athletes to novels. As a longtime
university teacher, I was frequently asked, 'What will last?' Forced to
the wall, I gradually formed a short list of the modern masters who were
still definitely holding their own with the educated public."

Appel argues effectively that the racially subversive, ultimately
integrative jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, and Waller (and, tangentially,
Benny Goodman) is "the touchstone of accessibility," largely because
when these men made music, jazz was popular. It no longer is, however;
long marginalized by rock and pop, jazz is more than ever the equivalent
of fine art and, as such, as likely to be heard in museums as in

Meanwhile, Appel puts it all together. He is an engaging critic who
parses everything from Calder mobiles to Monk tunes, drawing on his own
rich experience to illustrate how culture crosses and interweaves.

One of his strongest anecdotes involves a night in 1951 when Igor
Stravinsky (and Appel) caught a gig by bop saxophone master Charlie
Parker at Birdland: "Parker immediately called the first number for his
band, and ... was off like a shot," he writes. "They were playing
'Koko,' which, because of its epochal breakneck tempo  (over 300 beats
per minute on the metronome) Parker never assayed before his second set,
when he was sufficiently warmed up.... At the beginning of his second
chorus, he interpolated the opening of Stravinsky's 'Firebird Suite' as
though it had always been there, a perfect fit, and then sailed on with
the rest of the number."

One can only speculate about a Parker-Stravinsky collaboration. Whatever
opportunities might have been missed, Appel joyously notes how the
highfalutin and the highflying twined that night ? and from the 1920s to
the 1950s, when the different forms of popular art were at times
mainstream, at times modern, at times both.

While jazz is the book's platform, art (both fine and literary ) is its
illustration and, more profoundly, its doppelgänger. Not only is the
book packed with imagery spanning Walker Evans photographs, baseball
shots, pictures of classic record labels, and fine art, it's loaded with
connective critical tissue.

Appel conveys how jazzily Hemingway writes in "The Killers": "His
repetition of the physical verbs 'come' and 'go' make everything seem to
move or jump, even though the two killers are usually seated or standing

And he beautifully communicates the tense kinetics of Mondrian's
"Broadway Boogie Woogie": "Mondrian's basic geometry is boogie-woogie
for the nonce, the left hand's 'vertical' bass line ostinato (propulsive
repeated figures) playing against the right hand's 'horizontal' dotted
eighth or sixteenth notes, heavy chords, simple riffs, tremolos, and
choruses of percussive single notes, spaced variously, positing a
stop-and-go-traffic neon-light time overview of Broadway and Times

"Jazz Modernism" is far more than an investigation of the relationship
between modern jazz and modern art. In his analysis of Armstrong's
career, Matisse's deceptively simple, emotionally complex paintings,
Evans's photographs, and the evolving depictions of the provocative
Josephine Baker, Appel also delves into the links between artistic
representation and racial attitude. And even if he isn't
straightforward  (the puns are often stretched and Appel occasionally
strains for the bon mot) that's not necessarily a fault.

What he attempts is not linear, after all. Appel aims to conflate
disciplines usually considered in parallel. In so doing, he stimulates
far more than he confounds.

• Carlo Wolff writes about music from his home in Cleveland.

Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce
By Alfred Appel Alfred A. Knopf 282 pp., $35

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