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Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African-American Literature and Film by Graham Lock and David Murray

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These two anthologies, Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and Blues Influences in African-American Literature and Film,” and The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African-American Visual Art can be read together or slowly consumed together. Both books, edited by Graham Lock and David Murray (Lock is a writer; Murray, a British scholar) are collections of essays and interviews on jazz and blues and how both are central to American culture and the black experience. This is new ground (the essays being new) but the subject matter is hardly new because jazz and blues’ cultural analysis is widespread.

Thriving on a Riff is the more familiar terrain; essays about how African-American literature and film are abundant and almost interchangeable for film considering film, jazz, and blues, developed in popular culture side by side in the 20th century as a result of technology. “Thank, Jack, For That: The Strange Legacies of Sterling A. Brown” by Steven C. Tracy is representative of the depth of Thriving on a Riff . Brown is the most important jazz-blues poet in history and it is appropriate he is celebrated and examined here. Likewise, the interview with long time spoken word jazz-poet superstar, Jayne Cortez, “Giving Voice,” (Lock asks the questions) fits as well.On the film side, Mervyn Cooke’s piece on Duke Ellington, “Anatomy of a Movie: Duke Ellington and 1950’s Film Scoring,” is an impressive addition to the literary canon on Ellington’s musical legacy proving again that jazz-blues-cinematic explorations have only just begun.

The Hearing Eye also edited by Lock and Murray feels a bit fresher (unexplored might be more accurate) because visual art (paintings, photography, and other visual forms) is not the daily pulse of a community like music and movies. But appropriately, Romare Bearden, the celebrated African-American visual artist who painted as if he were composing jazz or blues, is discussed in two essays (“‘We Used to Say Stashed’: Romare Bearden Paints the Blues” by Robert G. O’Meally, and “‘Blues and the Abstract Truth’ Or Did Romare Bearden Really Paint Jazz?” by Johnannes Volz.). Both present passionate writing on a key figure in black visual art in America. Paul Oliver’s “‘Selling That Stuff’: Advertising Art and Early Blues on 78’s” is probably the best work here though there are many to pick. Oliver, a long time writer on the blues, provides a classy account of “race” music through the history of advertising and promotion in the field. Oliver’s well known catchy writing is in place. It sets the standard for an anthology that takes chances repeatedly and delivers.

Originally Published