Book review

Alyn Shipton – “The Art of Jazz: A Visual History”

Alyn Shipton – The Art of Jazz: A Visual History
(Imagine! Publishing. 256 pp. Book review by Leonard Weinreich)

In this sumptuous book, jazz historian, broadcaster and double-bassist Alyn Shipton celebrates the way jazz reshaped Western culture, inspiring some of the most radical developments in 20th Century art, and demonstrates that, when cultures collide, it’s wisest to expect the unexpected.

Exuding a spirit of liberation and joy, jazz challenged accepted conventions and incensed a plethora of narrow-minded viewpoints, meeting much resistance. But protestations were no match for the jazz effect. Irresistible to the European avant-garde, its impact on visual artists in the early 1920s was wide-ranging and comprehensive. At modernism’s most hallowed temple, the radical Bauhaus school of design in Germany, students and teachers even set to organising their own jazz band.

As Shipton shows, jazz energy spent the next fifty years propelling modernism. Even the shortest list of significant European painters from that era who were affected by jazz would cause instant drooling amongst Sotheby’s clientele: Picasso, Matisse (who later created a splendid volume of cut-outs entitled ‘Jazz’), Braque, Mondrian, Cocteau, Dix, and Leger. And there were plenty more where they came from.

Among American artists, the influence was felt even earlier. African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner painted ‘The Banjo Lesson’ in 1893. Stuart Davis, a pioneer of Pop Art, was producing canvasses influenced by jazz as early as 1915 (a couple of decades later, he returned the compliment by teaching painting to a couple of fine musicians: Chicago drummer George Wettling and clarinettist Pee Wee Russell). Among abstract expressionists, Larry Rivers played bebop tenor and Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s record collection included hard-boiled Chicago jazz, Fats Waller, Lester Young and Billie Holiday. And there were many others, all the way to Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat in more recent times.

Apart from the music itself, fans grew to admire the art worn on the sleeve. In the 1940s, pioneer graphic designers Jim Flora at RCA Victor and Alex Steinweiss at Columbia, with more than a degree of hommage to Bauhaus teacher and painter Paul Klee, both transformed cardboard squares into sophisticated artworks for 78rpm record albums. The age of vinyl LPs detonated an explosion of vivid graphics on the outside to express the art inside, particularly among the specialist indie labels: Paul Bacon’s work for Riverside; or at the West Coast labels of Contemporary and Pacific Jazz, where Lester Koenig and Dick Bock commissioned the hottest photographers and coolest designers.

The Ertegun brothers, owners of Atlantic Records, were discerning art collectors and it showed on their covers. Yet another enthusiastic collector, Norman Granz applied the sinuous drawings of David Stone Martin (profoundly influenced by Ben Shahn) to a celebrated portfolio of sleeves for his Jazz at The Philharmonic organisation and labels. But the undisputed heavyweight graphic champ of jazz album sleeves was pipe-smoking art director Reid Miles whose edgy designs blended his idiosyncratic typography with the dramatic monochrome photographs of Blue Note label co-founder Francis Wolff (and even an occasional colour illustration by Andy Warhol). Reid Miles also supervised a group of stylish covers for Prestige including (your reviewer’s personal favourite on page 89) Phil Hays’s lumpy line drawing of a trumpet for Mile Davis’s Cookin’. Jazz albums maintained their graphic supremacy even through the psychedelic era and well into the restrained minimalism of ECM.

Like musicians, the best jazz photographers create art within the moment by arresting moody images through smoke and cymbals. Here, they’re brilliantly represented by masters Bill Gottlieb, Bill Claxton, Herman Leonard, Dennis Stock, Lee Friedlander, Gjon Mili and Francis Wolff. If (fingers firmly crossed) the success of Shipton’s book leads to a second edition, maybe extra room can be added to include Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks (who played jazz piano), Milt Hinton (equally adept on bass and single lens reflex), Ed van der Elsken, Eugene Smith and Burt Goldblatt (also a fine illustrator).

Alas, pressure on space means this book is unable to address the influence of jazz on sculpture (Brancusi collected jazz records; Calder, father of the Mobile; and Julie Macdonald’s majestic carvings of Charlie Parker;) film, architecture (the Chrysler Building and the entire Art Deco movement), the decorative arts (Clarice Cliff and Royal Doulton in the U.K. alone) and even the effect on ‘highbrow’ composers like Ravel, Shostakovitch and Stravinsky. Roll on second edition, fuller and fatter.

Although the titanic talents of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Monk, Davis, Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat ‘King’ Cole created enduring art from humble origins, public appreciation of their contribution and its significance is bound to be sketchy. Western culture’s debt of gratitude to jazz is enormous. And recognition is well overdue. The Art of Jazz is a good start.

But here in Britain, with the praiseworthy exception of Rhythm & Reaction, a modest London exhibition curated by Professor Catherine Tackley a few years ago, the haughty art establishment has treated jazz with indifference at best, or disdain at worst. Perhaps this indispensable book will convince an ambitious curator that the moment has arrived to mount a blockbuster exhibition showing the many ways jazz changed the world. In which case, book early to avoid the queues.

Meanwhile, for avid jazz fans everywhere, that’s Christmas sorted.

Alyn Shipton’s The Art of Jazz, with a foreword by John Edward Hasse is published on 20 October 2020

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