On view at the Boston University Art Gallery, Syncopated Rhythms features works by African American artists, selected from the collection of jazz impresario George Wein and his late wife Joyce Wein. The artworks were created between the early twentieth century and today, but most are dated in the 1940s through 1970s. Artists represented include Romare Bearden, Allan Rohan Crite, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Joseph and Beauford Delaney, Wifredo Lam, Elizabeth Catlett, and many others. An exhibition catalog by scholars Patricia Hills and Melissa Renn provides insight into the works exhibited and an overview of each artist's professional life. The catalog makes evident that while all artists face obstacles to achieving success in an elusive and often low-paying career, for African Americans pursuing an artistic career before the 1960s, especially in the South, there were also racially-based hurdles. Many top-ranking art schools refused to consider black applicants, and more than one of the artists won a scholarship or award only to have it rescinded when the recipient's race became known. (This situation recalls the bad conditions that black jazz musicians faced in the segregated South in that era.) Fortunately, most of these artists received support from family and community, as well as encouragement from other artists. Many African American artists pursuing careers in the 1930s and 1940s found short-term employment with federally-funded arts projects. A number of them received grants to study in the U.S. or Europe from the Julius Rosenwald and Harmon philanthropic foundations, and they joined together for workshops and group shows. Many of the older artists went on to instruct and foster the careers of younger African American artists. On the opening of Syncopated Rhythms on November 18, 2005, George Wein gave a gallery talk, in which he concentrated on the outlooks, goals, and stylistic approaches of the artists, as well as the relationship of their creations to jazz. At the age of eighty, Wein walked a little haltingly with a cane, but at the podium he was still the consummate presenter who has launched and shaped so many musical ventures, including the Newport and other jazz festivals. Wein was avowedly thrilled to present the exhibition at the university where decades ago he earned a bachelor's degree (in pre-medical studies) in the city where he grew up (in a near suburb) and launched his career (he started and ran the Storyville jazz club in the early 1950s). His wife Joyce also grew up, earned a college degree, and was involved in music (classical and jazz) in Boston. Before he talked about the art, Wein said that while he mourned his wife's death in private, he was in the gallery to celebrate the exhibition (which she helped arrange) as a tribute to her life, as well as to the artists who created the works. Wein announced he was speaking without a script and expected the audience to help him improvise his lecturean arrangement clearly enjoyed. He livened his talk with anecdotes from a life as impresario and collector, such as the adventures of acquiring paintings by the mercurial Miles Davis, who was a friend as well as performer in Newport Jazz Festivals and is the one artist shown who's also a major name in jazz. Another story involved sidestepping a fast-talking art dealer's attempt to draw Wein into a bidding war with Bill Cosby, a personal friend as well as fellow collector of African American art. But when some audience members tried to engage Wein in discussions of musicians he'd worked with, record reissues, and other tangents related to his better-known pursuits, he brought the focus back to the artwork at hand and its creators.
He opened by making two points about the relationship between jazz and the artwork in his collection. One of his observations compared the position of a listener at a live jazz concert with that of a viewer at a museum or gallery. The well-behaved concertgoer is committed to, or "stuck with, the musicians on stage for the duration of the performance, whether or not the music holds the listener's attention. If the art viewer, by contrast, is bored or otherwise displeased with the painting in front of him, he can simply move on to the next work in a quest to find the art that speaks to him. Wein's observation and his obvious relish in the museum visitors' advantage immediately brought to mind the similarity to the position of the listener at an open-air music festivalsay, the Newport Jazz Festival. The festival-goer can stop to catch a sample of an act and then decide either to settle in for some serious listening or to discreetly move on to the next tent to hear something different.
The first record I bought was Miles Smiles. Having been a drummer since age two, hearing a young Tony Williams opened up so many possibilities for a 14 year old church drummer. My life changed that day and I've never looked back!