Museum jazzed up by exhibit
Jazz Seen, an exhibit on display at the Walker Art Museum, is an attempt at translating the feelings and emotions behind jazz music into a wide array of visual and cultural imagery. It was put together with the input from Associate Professor of Music James McCalla, who uses the it as a source in his class History of Jazz II.
Three pieces in the exhibit directly reference jazz. The first, by Roy de Carava, is the original album cover to Miles Davis's Porgy and Bess from 1958. Considered by many as the greatest American opera, Porgy and Bess was adapted from a novel written by DuBose Heyward. Davis's groundbreaking album was his second collaboration with the great arranger Gil Evans, whom he was to work with numerous times over his entire career.
The two other pieces specifically derived from jazz are photographs showing prominent female vocalists of their time. The first is a rare glimpse of a laughing Billie Holiday taken from the late 1940s, showing Billie as she leans back in her chair, smiling. The second photograph, a late 1960s picture of Betty Carter, emphasizes a similar playfulness. The exhibition then moves on through what can best be called a "jazzy" aesthetic, relinquishing the few historical captures on display for pieces of abstracted art.
In a series of photolithographs entitled Jazz 1947, Henri Matisse creates a collection of brightly colored shapes swirling against a yellow square background, trimmed by a white border. With two pieces from Jazz 1947, Matisse invokes through modernist techniques many of the most common associations we usually make with jazz music. On another piece, the viewer can make out both the word CIRQUE and a dark dancing figure cut out of a white column, suggesting something of a festive atmosphere. Matisse also utilizes the color blue in both pieces (more prominently in the latter); possibly hinting at the blues as an important precursor of jazz music. His lithographs swirl in a kind of dynamism that invokes the swing music of the Big Band era. On the Matisse, McCalla comments, "It is the both the rhythm and movement of the two pieces that really touch on jazz music."
The remainder of the exhibit is composed of a series of black and white photographs, mostly taken in New York City by acclaimed artists such as Robert Louis Frank, Louis Farmer and Todd Webb. The photos range from a black and white aerial shot of the Daily News Building taken in 1935 by Berenice Abbot to a photograph of Third Avenue by Todd Webb from 1946. Most of the photographs suggest the mystery typified by the smoky jazz clubs of a city that never sleeps. McCalla points to one photograph in particular, which depicts two young black men sitting in Grand Central station, wearing "the sharpest, nattiest clothes, where we as viewers don't even know if they are musicians or two hip cats of their time." McCalla continues by saying that he likes "not only their clothing but their sense of self-assurance sitting together and obviously on top of the world. It captures most of the emotional and feelings we have with Bebop. The spirit of Bebop is in their meat hats and their whole thing."
Other portraits, like Black Woman Standing Beside Light Pole, a Walker Evans photograph of a woman standing on the corner of a street, suggest the kind of cultural revolution and racial strife that culminated in the Harlem Renaissance.
Tucked into the corner hall of the bottom floor of the
Walker Art Museum, the show feels a bit limited, though, as McCalla points
out, the wing itself is dedicated specifically for academic venues, and
has always remained the same size. With strong intentions and a limited
framework, the exhibit makes a more than valid attempt at recreating the
full spectrum of cultural and social repercussions that jazz produced
throughout the Twentieth Century. In a college community sometimes ignorant
of jazz and its far-reaching capabilities, the exhibit is a small step
forward in an ever-expansive world.
Jazz Seen is on exhibit through September 28.