Why has jazz, an exuberant earthy force at the beginning of the 20th century emerged at the end as the esoteric epitome of cool? The show 'Jazz Century' sets things straight. It traces the journey of jazz, yanked out of cultural context by a white-controlled media.
'Jazz Century' is an entertaining crash course in the genre, tooting out samples of ragtime, swing, boogie-woogie and bebop, and slotting names into context: Count Basie (Thirties), Billie Holliday (Fifties), Ornette Coleman (Sixties). Magazines, record covers, posters and film clips accompany, and an informative website and a series of concerts make sure you don’t miss anything.
Jazz is dated back to 1917; it was the first time the word appeared in print and the year an album was released by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white group. Journalist Ernest J Hopkins enthused about jazz’s spirit and magnetism yet did not mention that it was a highly articulate musical language invented by black musicians.
Jazz inspired writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the term 'The Jazz Age' to refer to the Twenties. Artists Man Ray, Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse envisaged jazz as something precise and abstract. Yet jazz, in ‘weak-minded’ hands, was perceived as dangerous. Lewd illustrations depict black Americans consumed by its devilish charms. Impressionable white ladies may also be overcome and manipulate men into bonking them, as in F W Murnau’s film, Sunrise (1927). Josephine Baker, an African-American showgirl in Paris, performs her waddling ‘danse sauvage’ for a lascivious fireman.
We hear the noises of the black musicians, but not their voices. The Harlem Renaissance, a black ‘reclamation’ of jazz of the Twenties and Thirties features the artwork of Archibald J Motley, one of a few African American painters on show. He captures the spiritual energy of the genre as part of a culture, not exorcised of it.
In 1968, artist Bruce Nauman dedicated a slab of aluminium to John Coltrane, its smooth surface, facedown. Coltrane played his saxophone with his back to the audience; it was as if the man didn’t matter, just the jazz.
The show ends steeped in nostalgia as if it all ended with an interminable Miles Davis trumpet slide. But the search for ‘pure jazz’ is a myth, for it has always been fused with culture: hip-hop, acid jazz, nu jazz, Latin jazz and gypsy jazz move the genre onwards.
El Segle del Jazz is on display at the CCCB until October 18th.