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Book Review

If Modern Art and Literature Had a Soundtrack, It Would Be Jazz



From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce

by Alfred Appel Jr.

Alfred A. Knopf

286 pp., $35


"Jazz Modernism" is an erudite tome pulsing with bebop music, drawing in the retina with classics of modern visual art and using definitive examples of early to mid-20th century literary art to establish the place of classic jazz in the great modernist tradition of the arts.

Focusing on jazz from 1920 to 1950--especially the groundbreaking work of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Jack Teagarden and Charlie Parker--"Jazz Modernism" attempts to draw distinct parallels between these musical greats and those figures whom Alfred Appel Jr. views as the jazz musicians' counterparts in the visual and literary arts. Though the connections Appel traces are at times tenuous, there's excitement and rhythm to the reading.

Appel considers the paintings and drawings of Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger and Joan Miro, for example, along with the spare sculptures of Alexander Calder and the collages of Carlo Carra (the book teems with art, 127 full-color illustrations).

He also investigates the literary art of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, William Faulkner and others. His intention is to determine how these modernist artists may have been influenced by the jazz of their era, and how their art, in turn, may have affected the music.

"Jazz Modernism" is written the way a jazz musician performs, with spontaneity, riffs that spark our attention at times, and at others, seem to drone on, moving in directions the reader may not be prepared to follow. Jazz drummer Jo Jones becomes a kind of narrative presence, given life by Appel to serve as "the interactive force responsible for accenting the music ... making it all accessible."

Jones is used erratically as a foil for Appel's broad pronouncements. (Jones seems to appear and disappear throughout the narrative at the author's whim.) We're told, for instance, that Matisse's "Interior with a Violin Case" is "a good example of a needy case." Appel explains: "If the violin is being played (the case is empty), the sonic effect isn't enough for Jo Jones" who wants "to transfuse and renovate Matisse's wishy-washy interior" to match the dynamism of Matisse's "Jazz" series, which, "Jones must see as the chromatic equivalent of so many riffs by Basie's brass and saxophone sections .... "

Are you digging it? If not, perhaps Appel's improvisational jazz approach is less than successful. Rather than warming his audience up and then leading us into the esoterica of his theories, Appel jumps in with a hefty degree of arcane material, offering correlations that, though self-evident to him, may require more explanation and background for those not already converted.

To be fair, these moments of confusion trade off with brilliant licks of artistic syncopation, insight and delightful humor.

Moving between visual, literary and musical art in this highly liquid way, Appel outlines many lucid insights, as with this description of Mondrian's basic geometry being an embodiment of boogie-woogie: "Synesthesia rules and the painting swings," he writes of "Broadway Boogie Woogie." "Listen especially to its driving horizontal lines: 'Yellow white yellow / blue yellow yellow / red yellow yellow yellow.' "

Looking at the painting as we read these lines, we see his point. At other times, though, his comparisons are indistinct, as in this discussion of Louis Armstrong's "Shine": "Armstrong's scat attack bounces the phrases around like grotesquely sprung eyeballs in some of Picasso's preliminary drawings for 'Guernica' (1937); flying body parts and vectors in comic-strip brawls and Tex Avery's animated cartoons of the forties ... "

The most intriguing part of the book is Appel's explication of James Joyce's "Ulysses," particularly the Molly Bloom chapter, which he hails as the century's greatest piece of vernacular prose. (Appel is a professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University.)

In jazz terms, he tells us, Molly's narrative pulse of 86 beats per minute "is at least fifteen years ahead of its time ...," a precursor of jazz. Though many have found that particular Joyce text difficult to penetrate, Molly's "syncopations" become palpable, Appel explains, if one punctuates the opening passages with slashes, which he does on the page, adding a musical dimension to a piece of iconic modernist writing.

To get the reader in the right groove to appreciate Joyce, Appel suggests the publication of a paperback volume containing only the excerpted Molly Bloom chapter, packaged with a compact disc of jazz performances set on or very close to Molly's metronomic beat.

This is a great idea, and one which brings up a problem for those readers lacking an encyclopedic grasp of jazz history and a extensive library of original jazz recordings: Without the ability to hear the music that Appel references, many of his riffs come off flat, if not nearly silent.

Still, the narrative is engaging, particularly Appel's depiction of jazz musicians subverting the bland and at times racist material they were asked to perform.

Ultimately, "Jazz Modernism" provides, if not an ironclad argument linking these artists, then a cogent demonstration of the modern artists' quintessential ability to transfigure the banal into original art--jazz musicians wholeheartedly included in that "modernist" classification.

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