Seeing Jazz: Artists and Writers on Jazz

Joel Roberts By

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Seeing Jazz: Artists and Writers on Jazz Foreword by Clark Terry
Afterword by Milt Hinton
Chronicle Books, 1997

Jazz has always been about more than just music. It is an attitude. A spirit. A lifestyle. And probably more than any other musical genre, it has inspired artistic creativity in non-musical forms. Many of the twentieth century's leading writers, poets, photographers, painters, and sculptors have been strongly and directly influenced by the freedom, energy, and vitality of jazz.

"Seeing Jazz" is an ambitious effort to bring together some of the most compelling examples of jazz-inspired art in these various media. The book, which also serves as a catalog for a traveling museum exhibit produced by the Smithsonian Institution, wisely does not attempt to be encyclopedic and opts for eclecticism over didacticism. The more than 100 full-color and black & white illustrations represent a wide variety of artistic styles and include familiar works by such giants of modern art as Mondrian, Matisse, and Man Ray, as well as lesser-known works by more recent artists like Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Noted jazz photographers like Gordon Parks, William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and Milt Hinton provide some of the book's most moving images: a beaming Duke Ellington in the front row of a nightclub, digging Ella; Addison and Art Farmer on a hot evening rehearsing in their boxer shorts; an impossibly cool and dapper Dexter Gordon relaxing in tuxedo and fedora; a still life of Louis Armstrong's horn case.

These pictures stand alongside the words of writers like Langston Hughes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison, as well as reminiscences by dozens of musicians and critics. Some personal favorites among many are Count Basie and F. Scott Fitzgerald, respectively, on Kansas City and Paris in the '20s, Jack Kerouac on bebop, Billy Taylor on Jelly Roll Morton, Smokey Robinson on Sarah Vaughan, and Diz on Bird. Also included are the poetry of John Coltrane and Abbey Lincoln, and the haunting lyrics of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

This attractive and enlightening collection certainly makes the case for the interplay and mutual influence of jazz and the literary and visual arts. Here are artists responding to jazz without musical instruments, capturing the essence of the music in words and images, and providing ample proof that you don't have to be a musician to swing.

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