BOOK REVIEW: Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image

Nicolas Pillai Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image
(I. B. Tauris – ISBN 9781784533441. Book Review by Alison Eales)

Nicolas Pillai is a researcher in the School of Media at Birmingham City University. This volume is the latest in a body of research that considers jazz alongside visual art forms (Pillai’s previous work includes a rich strand on the relationship between jazz and comics). Through close analysis of three examples of jazz in film and television, Pillai challenges commonly-held views about the interaction of music and visuals, arguing that jazz has never existed in isolation and that, rather than detracting from the music, film and television have the potential to enrich our understanding of jazz.

The book is extremely current in terms of both its subject and the wider research field in which it sits. The recent proliferation of films with explicit narrative links to jazz offers a rich source of material for analysis, and Pillai capitalises on this in his introduction, arguing that Whiplash sits comfortably in the tradition of horror films. Visual representations of jazz are the subject of increasing scholarship, including Watching Jazz (link), a recent book edited by Björn Heile, Peter Elsdon and Jenny Doctor. Moreover, this book is timely in terms of the social and political contexts in which jazz – often described as a music of rebellion and resistance – is received: Pillai’s analysis of films made by the GPO and the BBC touch upon the roles played by public bodies in constructing and challenging ideas of national identity.

Pillai has deliberately chosen three forms of non-narrative films as the subjects of his core chapters. He first examines A Colour Box, an abstract short made by Len Lye in 1935 as an advert for the GPO. Understanding A Colour Box as a form of advertising, Pillai argues that its music and visuals work together to construct multiple meanings around themes of nationhood. The second chapter examines staged jazz performances and focuses on the work of Gjon Mili, including Jammin’ the Blues and his later films featuring Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, contrasting these films with Mili’s photography in order to interrogate how performance is mediated on screen. Finally, Pillai turns his attention to the BBC series Jazz 625, considering the programme within the wider context of jazz at the BBC, with different departments vying for ownership and control of the music in response to their own shifting priorities.

As well as understanding the musical and visual techniques under analysis, Pillai demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the various influences at play, from the role of the public institution to the live of the private individual. Pillai synthesises approaches from film and television studies and New Jazz Studies, resulting in an interdisciplinary position that emphasises the relationships between jazz, popular culture, and modernity, rather than positioning the music as something that is somehow disconnected from the wider world. This research is enhanced by the explicit consideration of different techniques used by visual artists, touching upon not only film but also photography, animation, typography, design and fine art, to varying degrees. The book is further enriched by carefully-chosen and engaging images.

What is clear from the outset is that this book, like Pillai’s other work, is borne out of a love for both the music and the visual art forms discussed, and a desire to understand the interplay between the audible, the visual, and the emotional. Refreshingly, Pillai addresses humour and joy as part of the experience of listening to – and watching – jazz, avoiding implying a divide between art and entertainment. This is reflected in Pillai’s writing, which is at once authoritative and accessible.

This is a thought-provoking book that addresses a fascinating and still under-researched topic, and will be of great value to scholars working interested in film, television or jazz studies. More widely, though, it will be an engaging read for anybody with an interest in how jazz is represented in the broadcast media, and how this representation can influence our own definitions of jazz.

Alison Eales is completing an AHRC-funded PhD on the history of Glasgow Jazz Festival.

LINK: Interview with Nicolas Pillai

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