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Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matissse and Joyce

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


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