The Jazz Century

If you have ever wanted to see Josephine Baker dance, this Introduction gives you the opportunity. “The Jazz Century,” a lively, moving and comprehensive presentation of graphic art, music and film, is on exhibit now through October 18, 2009, at The Centre de Cultura Contemporánia de Barcelona, one of the city’s seven major art museums. Travelers who love art and/or jazz may want to set aside a morning or afternoon to see it and also to attend any of the jam sessions, scheduled to accompany the exhibit. Meanwhile, anyone can view an interactive Introduction to the exhibition online.  It provides select examples of art, film, television clips, photography and audio from the wealth on view.

Much of the exhibition is joyous, like Henri Matisse’s book of rhythmic colored cutouts, “Jazz” (1947) or the film clip of Fred Astaire’s tribute to the great tap dancer, Bojangles, who also appears in the clip. But jazz has more than rhythm; it also has blues.

As I walked through the large exhibition one morning in July, I found three things that literally moved me to tears: first, the singing by Billie Holiday of “Strange Fruit” (1939), a haunting blues song about a lynching (to hear it, go to the Swing section the online Introduction, audio), and then two different photographs. One showed a lynching—a subject I have seen depicted before, but I still found this image disturbing. The other photo showed the naked, charred body of black man who had been burned alive, now surrounded by white men in suits. I also saw a Looney Tunes cartoon of Betty Boop on a safari that I remembered having seen as a child; it showed the prevailing stereotype of Africans when it was made. As I stood looking at this exhibition in Spain, I felt ashamed of my country’s history of violent racial prejudice and its obviousness to the rest of the world. Yet these African-Americans are the people who gave us jazz. This exhibition celebrates them (shown in caricature and in photographic portraits) and their contribution.

The exhibition is organized chronologically, and begins in New Orleans around 1917, when a recording of a Dixieland band first used the word jazz on its album cover. In hindsight, one can see from minstrels, gospel music, coon songs, the cakewalk and ragtime that African-American music was on the verge of making a spectacular breakthrough, which became known as jazz. As an art form, jazz has influenced the graphic arts, photography, television, videos and film, and literature—all of which this exhibition makes vivid through examples.
Many Americans will be familiar with the next section, “the jazz age,” chronicled in the slick black-and-white photographs of Man Ray and the art of Jan Matulka, a Czech-born American painter, and Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican painter and illustrator, whose work appeared in major U.S. magazines like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

The topics covered include
• the Harlem renaissance, where Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong first made their mark and a young artist, Jacob Lawrence, was an art student
• the European jazz scene with Josephine Baker
• the era of swing and boogie woogie
• jazz during the Second World War (William H. Johnson’s painting, “Jitterbugs”)
• Bebop (Thomas Hart Benton’s “Portrait of a musician”)
• jazz in Barcelona, which had its own jazz club and jazz magazine
• jazz on the West coast, mainly California (Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley)
• the Free Jazz revolution, inspired by Jackson Pollock and Romare Bearden
• and the contemporary period, where Winton Marsalis is king (Andy Warhol, Jeff Wall, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kara Walker).

My only disappointment with “The Jazz Century” took place when I tried to order the exhibition catalogue and learned that it was translated into Spanish and French, but not English. Since the exhibition itself catered to English-speakers, I had the mistaken impression that the catalogue would as well.

I highly recommend the exhibition and the online Introduction. The show sets jazz within its worldwide context and 20th century time frame, and convinces the viewer and listener that jazz is responsible for an impressive set of artistic ripples

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