Monday, March 23, 2015

And All That Jazz

“Reality in art is composed of shapes and colors.
Stuart Davis

According to jazz pianist and academic Ben Sidran, in the early years of the 20th Century “The musician articulated the news of the day in black America… The jazzman resolved the inequities of daily life, and did it nightly.” An enthusiastic member of their audience was the soon to become modernist artist Stuart Davis. Along with fellow members of the Ash Can school he would visit the Newark bars that played this music.

“These saloons catered to the poorest negroes,” Davis has recalled. “But the big point with us was that in all these places you could hear the blues, or tin-pan alley tunes turned into real music, for the cost of a five cent beer.”

About being a member of the Ash Can school Davis has said “it was the expression of ideas and emotions about the life of the time…the idea was to avoid mere factual statement and find ways to get down some of the qualities of memory and imagination involved in the perception of it.”
Davis was invited to hang five watercolors in the 1913 Armory Show and it was there that he discovered the work of the European Fauvists and Cubists in general and Gauguin and Matisse in particular. Whose work, he has said, gave him “the same kind of excitement I got from the numerical precision of the Negro piano players.”

After a year in Paris, Davis return to American and proceeded to give the European Synthetic Cubism an American voice. As Sidran wrote in his essay The Jazz of Stuart Davis, “just as [in jazz] a chord sequence from a standard song can be resolved in any number of ways and then reinserted into a future composition, so too Stuart Davis used the reduced essence of ordinary things - a schooner’s mast, an egg beater - over and over again in new ways. These then became the chord changes of his own compositions. Whilst the high key colors became his ‘tone’, the sound of his artistic voice, the planar surfaces became his harmonic structure, his compositional signature.”

A critique that is reinforced by Davis’ statement “For a number of years Jazz had a tremendous influence on my thoughts about art and life.

But to which he adds a caveat that alludes to his Ash Can beginnings “My attitude toward life is realistic. But realism doesn’t include merely what one immediately sees with the eye at any given moment. One also relates it to past experience. One relates it to feelings, ideas and what is real about that experience is the totality of the awareness of it. So I call it realism. By realism I don’t mean realism in any photographic sense.”

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