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Seeing Jazz: Artists and Writers on Jazz by Elizabeth Goldson

Published by Chronicle Books in association with the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, this handsomely printed (in China) collection is visually appealing. For the most part, the artists are painters and photographers, and the writers musicians and such literati as Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Julio Cortazar, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Edgar Wideman. There are a foreword by Clark Terry, an afterword by Milt Hinton (some of his good pictures, too), and introductory text throughout by Robert O’Meally. The main material is rather arbitrarily divided into three sections entitled “Rhythm,” “Improvisation” and “Call and Response.”

Readers of this magazine will probably find the best “writing” to be that of the musicians themselves, particularly that of Bechet, Basie and Billy Taylor, the last of whom gives an honest account of meeting Jelly Roll Morton. Many of the main authors tend to be mannered, just as the paintings seem to be more artsy than relevant. But then the book’s title refers to how these people saw jazz and employed it in a metaphorical sense. The abstract paintings, for example, are emotional expressions promoted presumably by experience of the music and colored in a fashion the artist customarily favored. In this way they may be seen as personal as improvised solos, but there is often a flamboyance that would seem overly exaggerated in jazz, corny, or even commercially motivated. What is finally illustrated is the impact of jazz on other arts with other disciplines. But catching the joy as it flies, almost a prerequisite of jazz improvisation, is not similarly possible with pen or brush. Stuart Davis used to listen to Earl Hines records as he worked, and it was he who recommended Romare Bearden to do the same. If you look at their pictures on pages 49 and 52, you will see very different responses, but neither of them is dazzled or patronizing as some of the other painting gentlemen are.

Some of the novelists obviously enjoyed jazz and made effective use of it, but they very rarely swing. Gordon Parks comes closest in a tribute to Johnny Hodges and “Edward” (Ellington, that is) opposite a cute Herman Leonard photograph of Rabbit in Paris.

On top of all the fat, coffee table books of jazz photographs, this collection suggests that many lovers of the music are now turning to pictorial representations of it. The significance of this is considerable, especially since they can seldom have visualized it in the terms of the artists and writers encountered here. They will not, however, fail to note that everyone is in step except the sousaphone player at the New Orleans funeral on page 23.

Originally Published