by Scott Krane

Chaim Soutine (?)
By Scott Krane
By Scott Krane
By Scott Krane

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SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express -- verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner -- the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

André Breton (1924, The Surrealist Manifesto)


Recently, when asked about Freud, European modernism and early American jazz music, my friend Ted Gioia wrote me in a casual email that:

"My first book [(circa the ‘80s)] The Imperfect Art, deals with the relationship of jazz to concepts of modernism. But, at a minimum, you should check out the chapter ‘Jazz and the Primitivist Myth’ (also published in the Musical Quarterly). This chapter shows how the same European art critics who praised jazz were also interested in the influence of African art on modernism. Some of the connections here are little known and surprising."

I figured he was referring to the African mask trope in Parisian art during the turn of the 19th century ahead. (i.e. Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.") Aesthetes and historiographers have frequently made this observation. The African mask itself was in vogue during these years in that city. But what is African is not necessarily jazz.

My opinion was this: Not enough has been said about the origins of jazz music. Not as they pertain to the call-and-response of “sorrow songs” or "blue note" variations on the pentatonic scales. Nor, for that matter the numerous variations on a swing rhythm or ways to make that rhythm swing.

What I plan to explore in this essay is not the molding of gospel in prohibition era nightclubs but: To what shelves of the library might the study of jazz improvisation (that is post-Baroque musical improvisation, that fits naturally with the above listed characteristics of jazz music) bring us? What happens when we look beyond the cultural implications of the African tragedy and World War I? What about the psychological and aesthetic innovations of European modernism?

Jazz music of course became especially popular in the years directly following the First World War. But while the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was in vogue in New York City, launching the careers of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, playing those strange sounds; and while Duke Ellington and Cootie Williams were painting that town blue, what was happening in Europe, namely in the world of poetry and art, was directly influential on the development of the jazz aesthetic.

It is not just a coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim absolutely adored jazz musicians, patronized them even. This artistic epoch: the heyday of jazz in America (right before the "jazz age") and Surrealism in Europe, are both based on and affected by the study of the subconscious by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

The jazz age was about the unleashing of sexuality and this could be witnessed in the music, the sculpture, the cinema and the painting – so, how pleasantly appropriate is it that we list Freud, the first Western clinical physician of sex, as a propeller of the jazz movement.

But the Freud/jazz connection goes way beyond sexuality.

Guillaume Apollinaire was a French writer and he coined the artistic term, “Surrealism,” which is based on dreams and the subconscious. André Breton was another French writer who expounded on Apollinaire’s ideas in his famous 1924 essay, “The Surrealist Manifesto.” Breton writes, eventually crediting Dr. Freud:

"Under the pretense of civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy; forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance with accepted practices."

This undoubtedly applies to sexual behavior, dancing and Abstract Expressionism in visual art, but may be dually applied to jazz improvisation.

(In 1973, Don Cherry enacted an Andre Breton poem, aurally, on trumpet in various locations in Paris.)

"It was, apparently, by pure chance that a part of our mental world which we pretended not to be concerned with any longer -- and, in my opinion by far the most important part -- has been brought back to light. For this we must give thanks to the discoveries of Sigmund Freud…"

In jazz improvisation there is the unleashing of spontaneity that is otherwise anaesthetized by a written work of music (especially belonging to the harmonic and rhythmic standards of the Western canon). As does jazz improvisation come from deep in the subconscious of the musician, so too the dream-inspired art that followed Impressionism.

Breton is mostly taken by Dr. Freud’s seminal 1899 work, The Interpretation of Dreams and more importantly his 1920 work Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In the former work, Dr. Freud claims that dreams occur to humans as a sort of wish fulfillment, a communication between the unconscious and the conscious self. In the latter work he claims that dreams do not necessarily have to come from any kind of unconscious wish. In between these two works, a short essay Freud wrote that was entitled “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” showed the Dr.’s shift between the two formerly-mentioned scientific-cum-philosophical stations that explain the origins of dreams.

The essay suggests that the creative writer finds his muse during a state of wakeful daydreaming, a similar psychic state to the “serious” imaginative play of children. What the essay does not do, however, is explain improvisation as it serves our purposes in pinning the aesthetic and psychological origins of the jazz tradition. Nonetheless, we can make the argument based on the time frame, that the same psychological aesthetic which influenced Surrealism (and Dada) in Europe after World War I, influenced the development of jazz music during the same years, in the United States. The reason we can build such a theoretical bridge is based on spontaneity and creativity. In an April 22, 2013 blog post in Psychology Today, Dr. James C. Kaufman (co-author of The Psychology of Creative Writing [2009]) explains:

"Beyond the obvious connection, the insights and ideas from my pursuit of creative writing have continued to play into my research career. Indeed, I think it underlies two of my theories of creativity. When I actively wrote, as I've mentioned, I would write nearly anything. Nonetheless, I tended to stick to the larger domain of writing. I showed virtually no aptitude for music or art. Could I have been successful if I had tried a radically different domain as a creative outlet?"

The answer to his question is rhetorically yes. While Apollinaire is a poet, Joan Miró a painter and Art Tatum, a pianist, they all incorporated both spontaneous and ordered improvisation in their given arts. The main reason we should be confident to draw such dramatic conclusions has to do with how André Breton defines Surrealism: "Pure psychic automatism” (PPA). That is: writing, painting, drawing based on the mind’s automatic impulse to output creativity.


The era of modernism also brought avant-garde innovations in the realm of classical music. However surreal, this music was not influenced by psychic impulse (PPA) and the unchartered territories of the human mind. It was Apollonian, cerebral, but not improvisatory. Other styles of organized sound did not go down such an aesthetic path until the Second World War, at least. And so it is specifically Freud and specifically jazz music that we are looking to match. In the first paragraph of Creative Writers and Daydreaming, Freud explains:

"We laymen have always been intensely curious to know—like the Cardinal who put a similar question to Ariosto—from what sources that strange being, the creative writer, draws his material, and how he manages to make such an impression on us with it and to arouse in us emotions of which, perhaps we had not even thought ourselves capable. Our interest is only heightened the more by the fact that, if we ask him, the writer himself gives us no explanation, or none that is satisfactory;…"

We liken this experience to that of the jazz musician and the audience member. As humans playing musical instruments, those with less talent cannot possibly explain what it is that makes jazz, jazz. “…and it is not at all weakened by our knowledge that not even the clearest insight into the determinants of his choice of material and into the nature of creating imaginative form will ever help to make creative writers [or jazz musicians] of us.” Freud writes. Read what Freud writes, writes Freud: reminding us of such Dadaists as Hans (Jean) Arp and Marcel Duchamp. “We must not neglect…to go back to the kind of imaginative works which we have to recognize, not as original creations, but as the refashioning of ready-made and familiar material. Even here” he writes “the writer keeps a certain amount of independence, which can express itself in the choice of materials and in changes in it which are often quite extensive.” Freud writes, evoking later texts by Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The study of constructions of folk-psychology such as these is far from being complete, but it is extremely probably that myths, for instance, are distorted vestiges of the wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful fantasy.” So too, the jazz musician, improvising a solo not only a highly psychological experience but is also drawing from traditional and ancient rhythms, melodies, harmonies and pitches that are embedded in the culture. This is also so in the narrative art of storytelling which would be come more psychic and distracted, like jazz musicians trading riffs, characters traded narrative and central roles in experimental fiction.

At first, the jazz musician was extremely mimetic. The plunge-mute. The deep blue taxi club.

Another key artist of this era was a painter from France known as Chaim Soutine. His paintings, as common in modernism focused less on representation than on aesthetics: shapes, colors, textures, etc. In an article for The Village Voice written sometime in the late ‘90s, Peter Schjeldahl referred to him as “the jazz painter.” In the future, Henri Matisse too would admit jazz’s influence on him when he made his 1947 book "Jazz." However, these prints took their inspiration from the circus: an equally surreal experience as an early jazz performance at Ellington’s Cotton Club, with dancers, skits and comedy.


Suffice it to say it is a liberty of this essayist to cross early jazz with the sort of creative writing that Dr. Freud was referring to as per Andre Breton. While he visited and mildly enjoyed Coney Island, Freud detested America, declaring that it was a "mistake." Nevertheless, Freud did not care for music.

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Scott Krane