I went to see the Jack Bush exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada last week and came away with some thoughts, probably not all that original, about the relationship between jazz and the visual arts.
Bush, a Canadian painter, was active from the Forties through the Seventies. He was acclaimed internationally, spent a lot of time in New York and hung out with New York painters and critics. The abstract expressionists tended to be big jazz fans and haunted the Greenwich Village clubs. So did writers like Jack Kerouac.
It’s easy to see why. The painters, and some of the writers, of that period, rejected more formal styles. Like jazz musicians, they improvised, they took risks. New York, in the Forties and Fifties, was full of risk-taking musicians. The jazz they played had not entered the mainstream. It was controversial. No wonder there was a kinship between the contemporary painters and the musicians. The New York abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock called jazz “"the only other creative thing happening in this country.”
Bush himself was almost pushed into an improvisational approach to painting. In 1947, he began working with a psychiatrist to help him deal with anxiety problems. According to Bush’s diaries, snippets of which appears to great affect with some of the paintings, in the National Gallery exhibition, the psychiatrist urged him to start “from scratch on a blank canvas with no pre-conceived idea, and just let the thing develop in colour, form and content.”
That sound like anything you know?
Jack Bush was a jazz fan, painted to music and sometimes invoked musical themes in his paintings and their titles. One of the paintings in the National Gallery show is entitled Basie Blues.
As someone who has no talent whatsoever in the visual arts, I’m envious of the painter’s ability to leave something tangible in the form of a painting — particularly something big and bright like many of the works of Jack Bush. I picture him standing in front of the canvas, perhaps listening to jazz and responding, on the canvas, to what is going through his mind. I can also see the relationship between him and someone like, say, Charlie Parker, who was all the rage with the New York painters of his era.
In case you were wondering how all this relates to a JazzWorks, there is indeed a connection to be found. Just as visual artists are inspired by jazz, so are jazz musicians inspired by the visual arts. Seven years ago, saxophonist Frank Lozano and an all-star JazzWorks faculty group (John Geggie, Jim Lewis, Jean Martin and Kim Ratcliffe), recorded “Colour Fields”, an terrific album named after the style of abstract painting that attracted Jack Bush. Lozano compositions in that album include Rothko and Kandinsky. It is too easy to liken the musicians to abstract painters, but the analogy is unavoidable.
More recently, Ted Nash, a jazz camp visiting faculty member on several occasions, composed and arranged a suite of music for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra entitled “Portrait in Seven Shades.” It’s beautiful, less abstract than the Lozano disk, but equally attentive to the spirit of the painter’s gift. The titles of the seven movements say it all: Monet, Dali, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Chagall, Pollock.
In his notes, Ted makes the comparison clear: “Many parallels can be drawn between the two forms of art. Like painters, musicians talk of colours, layers and composition. Several expressions are used to describe styles in both fields — impressionistic, abstract, pop. And of course there is the blues.”
Also: “Musicians and painters often experience the same struggles, successes and self doubts when creating and later sharing their creations. When artists embrace their own truths, working on art can be an opportunity to discover something new from within.”
Modern jazz musicians are sometimes asked, accusingly, “Where’s the melody?” The equivalent for a modern artist is the observation: “That doesn’t look like a table.” With respect to this, I like the quote from Matisse in the notes to Ted’s album: “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”
Matisse, by the way, produced, in 1947 a book called Jazz, with text alternating with bright paper cutouts. A website devoted to his work says “Matisse viewed jazz as a ‘chromatic and rhythmic improvisation.’ The title Jazz evoked for Matisse the idea of a structure of rhythm and repetition broken by the unexpected action of improvisations. The artist wrote to a friend in late 1947, ‘There are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience.’”
What brought this to my attention, weirdly enough, was a Matisse Jazz 2015 calendar that I saw on sale in an Ottawa bookstore. It’s inescapable. So there you go. Art and Jazz: See the exhibition, buy the albums, get the calendar.
Comments will be 'approved' before they are made visible. If you are leaving a comment, please sign it with your full name. Anonymous comments won't be published.
About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.