“The great artists do not seek their forms in the mist of the past, but take the deepest soundings they can of the genuine, profoundest centre of gravity of their age.” (1)
Jazz has always been associated with the city and has done much to reflect the distinct character of twentieth century urban life. In this context it has appealed to various artists who have sought to express the relationships between man, machine and the new urban environment.
The popularity of jazz in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was partly due to Europe’s fascination with all things American. George Grosz described German attitudes:
“We stared at the American tourists who had the courage to walk out on the street without hats. We admired their clothes, their side padded shoulders, their trousers that narrowed at the shoetops… We listened to ragtime singers and watched the Americans dance.” (2)
Jazz came to symbolise the wildness and freedom associated with the New World. As some types of jazz might loosely be interpreted as the American black population’s celebration of freedom from slavery, so jazz in general came to suggest to Europeans the imagined freedom of life in an optimistic young nation.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote:
“We could not understand America, though jazz and Hollywood films had brought it into our lives. Like most young people at the time, we were passionately devoted to Negro spirituals and working songs, and the blues… because they were born of huge, collective emotions, common to each and every one of us, these songs touched us individually, at the point of deep intimacy common to us all.” (3)
Jazz originated in New Orleans and Chicago and went on to flourish in urban centres both in America and abroad.
Europeans would have associated it particularly with New York, the most progressive American urban centre, which was assumed by many to be the blueprint for cities of the future. When De Kooning left Holland for New York he imagined he would find:
“broad clean streets in a glare of white light and everywhere the sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.” (4)
The new technology via which Europeans came into contact with American images and jazz music would have reinforced their association of the two with the dynamism of the modern city. Hence jazz attracted artists such as Mondrian and Leger just as ‘noise music’ appealed to the Fuurists. When Man Ray visited New York in 1919 he produced several futuristic airbrushed abstractions one of which was entitled ‘Jazz’.
The French painter Albert Gleizes produced a canvas referencing ‘Jazz’ four years earlier, also in New York.
While providing a means of escape for city people, jazz dance music actually reflected the hectic pace of city life:
“a rapid tempo with many short notes gives the impression of excitement – pleasurable or otherwise according to the other features of the music”. (5)
A preoccupation with increased tempo of modern life became evident at this time in the visual arts. The American artist Arthur Dove produced linear abstractions which were executed while listening to popular music.
He explained “The music things were done to speed the line up to the pace at which we live today.” (6)
The preoccupation with energy and speed were notable in the work of the Futurists. (Marinetti was known as ‘the caffeine of Europe’.) The Futurists took as their domain the whole bewildering flux of industrial and motorised experience, seeking to express “the consciousness of disjoined feelings and chaotic sensations, understood as the new reality.” (7)
In 1911 and 1912, Severini executed several paintings of nightclub interiors:
“He shows us many people agitated by the same rhythm – very nearly prefiguring jazz rhythms – in pictures composed of jagged jolting lines, painted in the brightest most clashing colours.” (8)
In paintings such as Balla’s ‘Dynamic Expansion and Speed’ an actual visual pulse is used to suggest movement relative to time:
The ‘vertical’ arcs which form this pulse are irregularly intersected by less dominant lines travelling in opposing directions. The painting is based upon studies of automobile wheels but the pattern which has emerges as a formula for representing their movement is strikingly consistent with the structure of jazz rhythm. This consists of a dominant beat constantly opposed but never obliterated by secondary rhythms. As with a photograph, the frame of the painting seems to impose arbitrary limits, the suggestion being that the movement continues beyond its bounds. Thus Balla suggests movement and speed by using ‘rhythmic’ devices which seem to lead to fragmentation, first as a result of the intersections and oppositions within the painting and secondly, because the pulse marches on and off the canvas as if the painting were able to capture only the fragment of a vision and not a unified whole.
A specific visual pulse has been used as a device for suggesting increased tempo, the visual structure of which follows the structure of jazz rhythm. Such a structure, therefore, could be regarded as a ‘blueprint’ for expressing energy and speed.
It has been noted that a ‘new rhythmic impulse” came into classical music at the turn of the century and this is attributed to study of European folk music and Oriental and exotic music on the part of composers such as Debussy. This trend perhaps suggests that classical composers were drawn to rhythmic music as expressing the character of modern life even before the avant-garde or the general public became interested in jazz music. In any case, in 1921, Jean Cocteau enthusiastically hailed jazz as being, by comparison with Impressionist music,
“what a tank would be by the side of an 1870’s state carriage.” (9)
In Europe, particularly in Germany, early jazz was often compared with machine sounds, not surprisingly perhaps as in the early 1920s ‘jazz’ often meant
“heavily punctuated, relentless rhythm, with drum, rattles, bells, hooters and twanging banjos…” (10)
Brecht expressed the connection when he wrote
“An episode in an American feature film, when the dancer Astaire tap-danced to the sounds of the machine room, showed the astonishingly close relationship of the new noises and percussive rhythms of jazz.” (11)
In this sequence, the machine room provided a regular rhythm onto which Fred Astaire superimposed complex rhythms with the sound of his steps, thus producing rhythms like those of jazz. Astaire’s rhythmic contribution was crucial to this effect for jazz is not machine-like of itself. The combination of a regular pulse and soloists working at once in sympathy and in opposition to that pulse provide the excitement of jazz.
Stravinsky understood this:
“Which of us, when listening to jazz, has not fell an amusing and almost giddy sensation when a dancer or solo musician persists in making irregular accentuations but does not succeed in diverting the ear from the regular metrical pulse beaten out by the percussion?” (12)
Mondrian in his essay ‘Jazz and Neo-Plasticism’, stated
“Mechanical rhythm is repetitive like nature’s rhythm. This has its place in nature but not in fully human life… …Man has a rhythm unique to man. He opposes his rhythm to nature’s rhythm and creates his own environment in opposition to nature.” (13)
Thus the individual improvising over a pulse within jazz can be seen to parallel the triumph of man’s individuality over nature and the machine, in short, over the repetitive grind of life.
Mondrian himself seems to improvise over a regular structure in his last compositions ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ (1943) and ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ (1944) just as a jazz soloist might improvise over a rhythm and chord structure.
The individual responding to a mechanistic pulse could however appear to parallel the integration of man and machine in modern society, even to the extent of man becoming machine-like – a common theme for artists in the twentieth century.
Josephine Baker, the American jazz dancer, was described by a ‘Vogue’ writer as “a shining machine a danser”.
Mondrian commented of her
“All modern dance appears limp beside this powerfully sustained concentration of speed.” (14)
He also observed that when many people responded to the same jazz rhythm
“the bias to individuality ceases… Even sensuality is transcended… Continuous action holds passion in check…” (15)
Summarising the purpose of his stage designs for ‘La Creations du Monde’ (1923), the score of which was heavily jazz influenced, Leger wrote
“Man becomes a mechanism like everything else…” (16)
Leger’s prime concern was the integration of the performers into the setting and the transformation of the dancers into mechanised, dehumanised elements. He realised the latter by breaking up the forms of the dancers and by employing simple geometric shapes culled from primitive art in their costumes and in the overall design.
In fairy tale and myth, the ‘victorious hero’ is a symbol of consciousness. The design, scenario and score of ‘La Creation du Monde’ were all intended to suppress the individuality of the performers and thus create a vision of man’s existence as machine-like or animal-like.
Milhaud’s jazz sections involve the full bass complement of the orchestra in the production of powerful swing rhythms. For Leger, simple geometric shapes represented common elements of the new mechanical environment. In this context, it is interesting to note that Frantisek Kupka’s jazz paintings from the 1930s are loose variations of his machine series from that period.
Preoccupation among the Futurists with movement, energy and states of chaos led to a tendency towards fragmented form within their work. Elsewhere other artists and writers experimented with fragmentation.
A masterpiece of modern literature, ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S. Eliot, was published in 1922. Like the Futurists, Eliot used fragmented form to parallel the chaos of modern times. However, a classicist by training, he perceived the situation as catastrophic:
“These fragments have I shored against my ruins.” (17)
(Jazz music appears with the poem as a symbol of decadence.)
In 1958 the Italian sculptor Marino Marini observed
“As soon as art has to express fear, it must of itself depart from the classical ideal… Until recently, the sculptor aimed at full sensual and powerful form. But for the last fifteen years, sculpture prefers forms in disintegration.” (18)
Within jazz, fragmentation of regular form constantly occurs through syncopation and the use of the blues scale. Moreover, fragmentation and irregularity are in fact positive elements within the African tradition from which jazz comes:
“while the whole European tradition strives for regularity – of pitch, of time, of timbre and of vibrato – the African tradition strives for precisely the negation of these elements – that is their regularity.” (19)
Though for many, jazz was simply escapism, some artists used its influence within their work to express positive attitudes towards fragmentation. In ‘Parade’ (1917) and Matisse’s ‘Jazz’ (1948), both composed of
“cacophonous vignettes, seemingly unrelated, but part of a subtly unified totality…” (20)
the breaking up of an older is embraced as a joyful opportunity for new creativity to emerge.
In his designs for ‘La Creation du Monde’ Leger strove for visual ‘unity through disintegration’ which was reflected in Milhaud’s jazz-inspired score, both through contrasts between jazz and classical motifs and also through the fragmented nature of the rhythmic and melodic form of jazz itself.
Mondrian commented in 1927 that jazz was a revolutionary phenomenon for it was ‘destructive-constructive’ and expressed at once
“the joy and the seriousness which are largely missing from our exhausted culture.” (21)
He added that jazz appeared simultaneously with movements in various spheres that were consciously trying to
“abolish form and create a freer rhythm. Futurism gave the major impulse. Cubism led painting to break form and organise it anew.” (22)
He considered Neo-Plasticism to be carrying this through consistently and was very optimistic about the way in which the life of the city seemed unconsciously to be emulating the ‘open rhythm’ which he strove for inhis art.
“…the metropolis gives the illusion of universal rhythm which is strong enough to displace the old rhythm… The noise of vehicles, etc, contains opposing relationships whereas the church bells have only the rhythm of repetition.” (23)
Mondrian also noted in 1927
“The rhythm of the metropolis visually and audibly expresses the oppression of labour.” (24)
He recommended jazz music as a means of escape. Interestingly, while other arts were discouraged, music (singing) was encouraged among the slave population both because of its power as a palliative and because the slaves seemed to work better when they sang. Music, most easily of the arts, could be allied to the forces of repression – it could provide a powerful but transitory catharsis leaving no object on which attention could be focussed and it thus remained inarticulate.
“Jazz as such could not have come about without the further social changes which resulted from the abolition of slavery and the appearance of urban Negro communities with a strong oral tradition.” (25)
Thus an “oppressed, alienated race of ex-slaves” (25) provided a form of popular music for the masses, now the ‘slaves’ of capitalism and the machine age.
As Florine Stettheimer wrote, New York had “at last grown young with noise, and colour and light and jazz…” (27)
Charles Demuth executed various watercolours of New York nightlife including several of Harlem jazz musicians.
Jazz represented a positive feature of the urban landscape for many American artists such as Stuart Davis, Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas.
For Bearden, ‘art celebrates a victory’. He recently described listening to jazz singers such as Bessie Smith when he was a boy
“…she’s talking about a poignant personal event – her love is gone. But behind her the musicians are ‘riffing’, changing something tragic into something positive and farcical. …That’s what the blues say and that’s what I believe – life will prevail.” (28)
Ben Shahn rendered jazz subjects in various media in the 1940s and 1950s and collaborated on the design for Jerome Robbins’ ballet ‘New York Export: Opus Jazz’ which carried a social message about the under-privileged urban roots of jazz. Significantly, the graphic styles of these artists are strongly echoed in jazz-related graphics of the 1950s and 1960s.
Earlier in the century, Europeans such as Otto Dix and Carl Hoffer presented jazz as a feature of urban corruption. Dix actually liked jazz but included the jazz band in his triptych ‘Grossstadt’ as an element of his realistic documentation of Berlin’s decadent nightlife during the Weimar period.
Jazz was also often considered decadent by Americans as a result of its Storyville connections and, of course, because entertainment, pleasure or cultivated diversion could only be considered suspect in a country dedicated to the Protestant work ethic.
In this chapter, I have explored the complex association of jazz with new technology and the urban environment and have suggested ways in which jazz has paralleled or directly influenced fine artists in their representation of the modern world.
The pace and rhythmic structure of jazz has been used to articulate the energy of life in the machine age. The human response to jazz rhythm has served to suggest either triumph of individuality or loss of individuality resulting from man’s relationship with the machine and mass culture. Of course, jazz music is (or was) mass culture and has been a there for artists commenting on the moral implications of urban life and twentieth century progress as well as for artists celebrating the dynamic transience of the moment.
Lion Feuchtwanger parodied the American love of exact information in a book of poems calle ‘Pep J.L. Wetcheeks amerikanisches Liederbuch’:
In executing modern music the turnover of energy is immense.
Whereas for a song by Brahms the energy expended has been reckoned
At 32 to 35 kilogram-metres per minute, that required for a jazz hit has been found to be much more intense.
Amounting in the case of the drummer alone to between 48 and 49 kilogram-metres per second.
Against that, the Dutch ornithologist Jaap ten Klot has established that when hens of whatever nationality
Hear music, particularly when played on a mouth-organ, the increase in their egg output will be sizeable.
So in view of its admirably hygienic effects on both animal and human vitality
A certain amount of musical activity would seem to be by no means inadvisable.
1. Jung, C Man and His Symbols. London, 1964. P.286
2. Grosz, G A Little Yes and a Big No. New York, 1946. p.263
3. Beauvoir, S de The Prime Of Life. London, 1965. p.114
4. Hadler, M ‘Jazz and the Visual Arts’. Arts Magazine. Vol. 57 June, 1983. p.91
5. Oxford Companion to Music Scholes P. (ed). London, 1970. p.875
6. Zilczer, J ‘Synthaesthesia and Popular Culture. Arthur Dove, George Gershwin & the Rhapsody in Blue’. Art Journal Vol 44 Winter 1984
7. Kozloff, M ‘The Futurist Campaign: Art can only be violence, cruelty, injustice’. Art Form. Vol 10 January 1972. p.46
8. Seuphor, M Abstract Painting: Fifty Years of Accomplishment from Kandinsky to the Present. New York, 1962 p.25
9. Cocteau, J Cock and Harlequin. London, 1921 p.14
10. Huxley, A Antic Hay. London, 1923 p.28
11. Willet, J Brecht On Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic. London, 1964 p.119
12. Hodier, A Jazz – Its Evolution and Essence. New York, 1956 p. 260
13. Mondrian, P ‘Jazz and Neo-Plastik’ (1927) The New Art. The New Life. Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian. Holtzman, H (ed) London, 1987 p.219
14. Mondrian, P loc. cit.
15. Mondrian, P ibid p.222
16. Rubin, W Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art. Vol. 2. New York, 1984 p.482
17. Eliot, T S The Wasteland. London, 1922
18. Jung, C ibid
19. Chanan, M ‘Henry Peasants and All That Jazz’. Art International. Vol 14 March 1970 p.37
20. Cowart, J et al Henri Matisse: Paper Cut-outs. New York, 1977 p.45
21. Mondrian, P ibid p.217
22. Mondrian, P loc. cit.
23. Mondrian, P ibid p.221
24. Mondrian, P loc. cit.
25. Chanan, M ibid p.38
26. MacGregor, C Pop Goes The Culture London, 1984 p.81
27. Hadler, M ibid p.94
28. Berman, A ‘Romare Bearden: I paint out of the tradition of the blues’ Art News Vol 55 December 1980 p.62
29. Willet, J The New Sobriety. Art & Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33. London, 1978 p.99