Major works such as ‘Parade’ (1917), Picasso’s ‘Three Musicians’ (1921) and ‘La Creation du Monde’ (1923) reveal a tendency among European artists in the earlier part of the twentieth century to associate American jazz music with African tribal art. In this chapter I hope to explore the possibility that deeper parallels exist between the two forms than the simple labelling of both as “Art Negre”. Given that African art had influence upon twentieth century art, such a study may reveal something of the relationship between jazz and the visual arts.
Both jazz and the arrival of African art in Europe were by-products of the colonial system. Many important ethnological collections were begun in the second half of the nineteenth century in order to stimulate public interest in the colonies and thus promote trade. Pieces were prized for curiosity value and not for aesthetic reasons as ethnologists and others tended to equate stylisation with lack of technical skill. There was a tendency to apply general evolutionary theory to art (and indeed to many other realms of thought unconnected with biology) which was inappropriate but which, paradoxically, was instrumental in eventually attracting ‘primitivist’ artist to tribal art in their ‘search for lower origins’. (1)
Between the time of the colonisation of North America in the seventeenth century and the American Civil War, about forty million people were abducted from coastal areas of West African to be sold as slaves in the New World. Fifteen million survived the journey. These people, whose enforced contact with European culture led to the birth of jazz, hailed originally from the same coastal areas as were ransacked in the nineteenth century during the French colonisation and from which many African artifacts which appeared in European collections were culled.
Jazz has been tentatively defined as:
“the result of three hundred years of blending in the United States of the European and West African traditions; …the predominant components are European harmony, Euro-African melody and African rhythm.” (2)
Thus, the non-European elements which exist within jazz emanate from the same cultural source as much of the “primitive” art focussed upon by European artists. This represents a fundamental parallel between the two forms which is far more significant than their mere association in the minds of Europeans under the rather arbitrary title of “Art Negre”.
Prior to writing the score of ‘La Creation du Monde’ (1923), Milhaud studied jazz in Harlem, where he became particularly aware of its origins in African music:
“With despairing pathos and dramatic feeling she sang over and over again, to the point of exhaustion, the same refrain… This authentic music had its root in the darkest corners of the Negro soul, the vestigial traces of Africa, no doubt. Its effect on me was so overwhelming that I could not tear myself away.” (3)
He also traced jazz rhythm to African origins.
Undoubtedly African art and American jazz held great attraction for Europeans because of their exotic other-worldliness. The Parisian public had already displayed an insatiable appetite for exotica and escapism with their reception of the Russian Ballet in 1913.
“…every chair cover, every lampshade, every cushion reflected the Russian Ballet, the Grecian or Oriental visions of Bakst and Benois.” (4)
This enthusiasm which existed amongst the monied classes of Paris and those centres influenced by Paris can perhaps be dismissed as sheer decadence. It can also perhaps be seen as a reflection of the enthusiasm for Indian, Oriental and archaic philosophy amongst the European intelligentsia between the years 1880 and 1920, a period of
“full-scale ideological reaction from the scientific materialism, atheism, determinism and pessimism of the mid-nineteenth century.” (5)
This period witnessed the crumbling of the old order both spiritually and politically as empires and monarchies failed in the wake of new states and grass-roots nationalistic fervour. Europe at this time was a civilisation in crisis, and the European art world reflected this state of affairs.
One aspect of radical thought has since been labelled “primitivism”. This term describes a common impulse among certain twentieth century artists to identify with art conceived and created outside of the western classical tradition. Broadly speaking, “romantic primitivists” strove to emulate the emotional appeal to the subconscious which they admired in “primitive” art while “intellectual primitivists” studied “primitive art” as an alternative vocabulary of form. Picasso’s primitivism was of the latter kind. He particularly derived forms from those of Ivory Coast sculpture.
High art, such as his, can be directly paralleled with jazz music as both are examples of fusion of European and West African culture. However, while jazz was born of an ‘enforced fusion’, primitivism was a self-conscious, sophisticated kind of fusion.
At this same time also, European composers were seeking inspiration outwith the western tradition. Several used jazz influences in their composition, for instance, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Ravel. The sudden attributing of value to alien art-forms such as African art and American jazz by European artists and composers suggests a crisis of confidence and seems to reflect a feeling of alienation within European culture.
Picasso was friendly with Cocteau and de Beaumont at the time of their growing interest in jazz. In Rome, he often met with Stravinsky. In 1917, he collaborated with Cocteau and Satie on ‘Parade’ written for the Russian Ballet. Picasso’s huge costumes strongly echoed his cubist paintings. The forms, particularly the horse’s head were derived from Ivory Coast masks.
‘Parade’ includes a ‘Rag Time de Pacquebot’ section, described in the score as “sad”, which accompanies the dance of the Little American Girl as she mimes catching a train, driving a car and foiling a bank robbery. America, then emerging as a world power, was regarded as a symbol of progress and the future. (The American Manager’s costume contained a skyscraper; the drop-curtain depicted a city-scape.) Thus America represented a creative energy which perhaps could be described as male in character while African sculpture, a static form born of tribal society, conveyed a powerful spirit of female creativity-fertility. Jazz contained and symbolised both these energies.
‘Parade’ was a rebellion against the bankruptcy of the art establishment and derived vigour from forms unassociated with European high art. It was a taste of what Apollinaire called “the New Spirit” and set the tone for performance in the post-war years.
Picasso painted the two versions of ‘The Three Musicians’ in 1921, four years after ‘Parade’.
An immediate precedent and likely source of inspiration lay in a painting of the same name and same dimensions by a minor cubist, Henry Hayden which was exhibited at the Salon de Independants in 1920. According to Theodore Reff,
“its brittle forms lack the depth and majesty of Picasso’s and its abrupt rhythms, although suggestive of the syncopated beat of jazz, lack the power and resonance of his”. (6)
Hayden’s figures play a guitar, a banjo and a saxophone while Picasso’s two paintings contain a guitar, a clarinet, a violin and an accordion – all instruments familiar in jazz and ragtime bands in this period. Reff concludes that the chief interest of the earlier work
“may indeed be as a revelation of the importance of jazz itself in the creation of ‘The Three Musicians”. (7)
In view of the funereal overtones of Picasso’s paintings painted shortly after Apollinaire’s death and Max Jacob’s entry into a monastery, the close link between jazz and New Orleans funeral parade music may well be relevant.
Picasso told Malraux that the real revelation for him of the primitive art he saw in the Trocadero in 1907 was not the sculptural form but magical power, the power to make his own art a means of
“intercession… against everything, against the unknown, menacing spirits…” (8)
and ultimately against death.
The theme of man subject to elemental forces beyond his control (no longer called God) was echoed in ‘La Creation du Monde’, the collaboration between Leger, Milhaud and Cendrars which pushed the Swedish Ballet to the threshold of modern ballet. Cendrars chose a primordial creation myth as a subject for the scenario. Milhaud composed a jazz-influenced score which is sometimes quite nightmarish and awe-inspiring. He later recalled:
“Leger wanted to adapt curtain and scenery with African divinities expressive of power and darkness. He was never satisfied that his sketches were terrifying enough.” (9)
The use of jazz and African art together to induce mesmeric superstitious awe perhaps reflected the artists’ recognitions that to be born into the twentieth century was to be born into a pagan place. American jazz suggested the milieu of the big American cities where the individual’s life was ruled by remote corporate concerns just as surely as primitive man existed at the mercy of natural phenomena. (Thus the phrase “concrete jungle”?)
It has been noted that Leger’s designs
“smoothed away the rawness of primitive art. Its primitivism was, in a sense, classicised…” (10)
Similarly, Milhaud acknowledged that he had transformed jazz
“to convey a purely classical feeling”. (11)
This stereotypical reduction of African art permeated fashion, style and interior decoration, particularly as simplicity of form and emphasis upon geometric qualities were central to the concerns of the Art Deco movement.
“The utilisation of African art forms in the Art Deco movement lent a sense of the dramatic to interior design, suggesting the theatrical foundations that had originally popularised these forms”. (12)
Thus jazz influenced twentieth century art by providing a living, moving counterpart to a silent, hieratic form, namely African art. The fact that jazz was semi-European in origin made it more accessible to Europeans than a purely African musical form. The fact that it hailed from America, where it enjoyed great popularity, made it more accessible still. This in turn made African art and primitivist art more acceptable and allowed them to exert a broader influence:
“…decoration was in the air… the currents were mostly foreign and reached life through the theatre…” (13)
There were therefore significant parallels between African art and American jazz in addition to the arbitrary labelling of both as “Art Negre”. Both jazz and the arrival of African art in Europe were by-products of colonialism and were brought into sharp focus as the empire system collapsed. As well as being forms which existed independently of the European high art tradition, African art and the African elements of jazz emanated from the same cultural source. Thus, Picasso’s “intellectual primitivism” and jazz can be said to represent parallel fusions of cultures. Jazz and African art each represented energy, creativity and new alternatives, the starkness of which reflected the alienation of modern times. Through its use in the theatre jazz enabled African art to exert a broader influence within the cultural mainstream.
Cecil Beaton wrote in the 1920s:
“Our standards are so completely changed from the old that comparison or argument is impossible. We can only say, ‘But we like no chins! Du Maurier chins are as stodgy as porridge; we prefer high foreheads… we prefer flat noses… We flatten our hair on purpose to make it sleek and silky and to show the shape of our skulls, and it is our supreme object to have a head looking like a wet football on a neck as thin as a governess’s hatpin!’” (14)
1. Goldwater, R Primitivism in Modern Art. New York, 1967 p. 253
2. Stearns, M The Story of Jazz. New York, 1956 p. 282
3. Milhaud, D Notes Without Music. London, 1967 p. 137
4. Sitwell, O Great Morning. London, 1948 p. 27
5. Gibbons, T Rooms in the Darwin Hotel. Western Australis (University of), 1973 p. 1
6. Reff, T ‘Picasso’s Three Musicians: Maskers, Artists and Friends’. Art in America. Vol 10, December 1980 p.136
7. Reff, T Loc. cit.
8. Reff, T ibid p. 137
9. Milhaud, D ibid p. 148
10. Rubin, W (ed) Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art. Vol 2, New York, 1984 p. 482
11. Milhaud, D ibid p. 149
12. Rubin, W (ed) ibid p. 483
13. Sitwell, O Loc. cit.
14. Howell, G In Vogue. London, 1975 p.56