Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matissse and Joyce
“ Twentieth century society and culture constructed a world of the senses, of the sensuous and erotic, of sounds and sights flashing like the neon lights on Broadway. It was as if, in the midst of crisis, ”
On a Friday evening in early December of last year, I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to hear classical guitarist Jason Vieaux in recital. As I climbed the fabulous steps where Rocky trod, and walked into the interior of this monumental building housing many of the world's greatest art treasures, I heard the sounds of a jazz vibraphone. Turning a corner, I saw a guard lilting back and forth, snapping his fingers joyfully. Then, looking towards the main hall and stairwell, there was Tony Micelli playing the vibes for a large, electrified audience on a rainy night in Philadelphia. Jazz, classical music, art, sculpture, photography, all in one place! As Charlie Parker once said, "Man, it's all music!" This is the central theme of Alfred Appel Jr.'s book, Jazz Modernism.
Appel fervently wants us to know, visually, and musically, that jazz, modern art, and "stream of consciousness" literature all emerged in a steamy, creative, challenging, vital, and violent twentieth century. Furthermore, according to Appel, these various forms of expression were interpenetrating influences upon each other. Thus, for example, Henri Mattisse constructed a series of paintings entitled "Jazz." Igor Stravinsky (believe it or not!) came to hear Charlie Parker one night at Birdland, and Bird, without blinking an eye, did a “chorus” of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite while performing the technically virtuosic "Koko" (aka “Bird of Pardise”), much to the amazement and delight of Stravinsky. The mobile sculptor Alexander Calder owned 78's of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, and other jazz musicians. Konstantin Brancusi, who carved smooth stone in ways that innovated abstract sculpture, wore out some of his own jazz recordings. For Appel, the connections between jazz, art, and literature are palpable, historical, and real, not only concurrent parallelisms of style, form, and content. But the main point articulated and elaborated by Appel is that you can't understand modern art and literature without understanding jazz- the "Shakespeherian rag" of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”- and vice-versa. Twentieth century music, literature, and art share a common “rhythm,” form, and structure.
Jazz Modernism is a book that will befuddle and frustrate jazz critics, scholars, and historians more than it will satisfy them. It is written in a style meant more to bedazzle than to explain and validate hypotheses. Like a jazz musician, Appel plays the theme and then leaps into many variations long into the night. He "riffs" what comes to mind and what fits the mood more than striving to develop his points in a linear, logical manner. He "imagines" a particular musician like drummer Jo Jones looking at a painting when, in reality, that may never have happened. He strikingly compares the background color in Matisse's "The Red Studio" with the almost identical color of an Okeh record label. He correctly perceives that Rauschenberg's collage/painting "Monk" is more akin stylistically and dramatically to the music of John Coltrane: "Retitled 'Coltrane,' Rauschenberg's 'Monk' becomes an epochal masterpiece." In other words, like jazz, Appel is irreverent (think of Fats Waller's interpolated lyrics and Monk's off-centered rhythm and habit of spinning himself around on the stage- which we now suspect may have been the result of a neurological disorder!).
But, again like jazz, Appel is irreverent in order ultimately to bring out the holiness of the music and the art. In other words, for Appel, "Ryhthm Saved the World," as the title of a Louis Armstrong track reminds us and as the black dialogue (black in the sense both of “dark side” and African American) in Eudora Welty's novel, "Powerhouse," manifests. For Appel, the same rhythm-a-ning that characterizes jazz is also present in Mondrian's parallel lines and squares, Matisse's cutouts and colors, and Calder's dancing mobiles. Jazz rhythm serves the same purpose for Appel as does the River Liffey for Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake: it is the dark source of all that exists. Appel is a kind of metaphysician of jazz music. Appel, a professor of English at Northwestern University, intimates in his memories of New York jazz clubs during the 1940’s and 1950’s, that jazz is his first love. He wants to give it the dignity and meaning it deserves.