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5. Masculine Heroes   

14. Becoming Visible

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Activities: Context Activities

Jazz Aesthetics

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Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, New York, N.Y.

[3075] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947), courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0428 DLC].
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Though twenty-first-century American youth may associate jazz with "easy listening," it is important to consider jazz's revolutionary influence on the literature and aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s. For American writers of this era, jazz referred not only to a musical style but also to a style of dance, literature, dress, and art. Jazz's rebellion could be felt in the freedom of improvisation, as well as the ability to take old melodies, split them apart, and make them fit a new rhythm and a new worldview.

The history of jazz is rich and complex. As a musical art form, its roots go back to African and African American musical traditions, spanning tribal drumming, slavery field chants, gospel, ragtime, and the blues. Once it entered the mainstream, jazz and the blues, often referred to together, quickly became recognized as one of the first truly original American art forms. In the 1920s, a time known as the "Jazz Age," and beyond, this musical form has enjoyed a widespread public popularity in the United States and Europe.

There are a variety of jazz styles, but most jazz is characterized by improvisation. Rhythmic jazz typically has a forward momentum called "swing" and uses "bent" or "blue" notes. Jazz often includes "call-and-response" patterns in which one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers another. Jazz musicians place a high value on finding their own sound and style, and that means, for example, that trumpeter Miles Davis sounds very different from trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Since jazz musicians play their songs in their own distinct styles and often improvise, a dozen different jazz recordings of the same song will each sound different.

The influences of jazz on the literature of the 1950s were extensive. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin were among the midcentury writers who incorporated jazz motifs into their works. The use of jazz may also apply more generally to postmodern notions of pastiche and rebellion. Visual artists, such as Romare Bearden, were also influenced by jazz and used it as a subject in their work.

  1. Comprehension: How might the "improvisation" of jazz have a direct bearing on the sense of improvisation that occurs in postmodern literature?

  2. Context: In Ellison's Invisible Man, what "melodies" from literature, art, music, and culture does the narrator quote? How does he remake them? You may want to begin with his use of Louis Armstrong's "Black and Blue," or compare Ellison's narrative style to other works of jazz, dance, or art.

  3. Exploration: One writer who continuously demonstrates the influences of jazz and the blues in his poetry is Langston Hughes. Read some of Hughes's poems aloud and try to determine how this music influences his writing. Compare what Hughes does in his poetry to the prose styles of Ellison and Baldwin. Are there similarities?

[3071] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0285 DLC].
During the 1940s and 1950s, America was still a segregated nation, but jazz was one of the few areas where African Americans were accorded respect, and black and white musicians played together.

[3074] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Louis Armstrong, Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0024 DLC].
Audiences and musicians have called Armstrong the greatest jazz musician of all time. Raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, Armstrong was a huge influence on jazz and on later trumpet players such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Equal parts great musician and performer, he was sometimes criticized for his shuffle-along down-South stage personality "Satchmo." See "Note on Commercial Theatre" by Langston Hughes for a comment on the "whiting" of black culture. Jazz was crucial to the poetry of the Black Arts movement.

[3075] William P. Gottlieb, Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister Downbeat, New York, N.Y. (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory, William P. Gottlieb Collection [LC-GLB23-0428 DLC].
Known as "Lady Day," jazz legend Billie Holiday got her start in obscure Harlem nightclubs. The white gardenias in her hair in this photo were one of her trademarks. Gottlieb's collection includes portraits of jazz greats such as singers Sarah Vaughan and Cab Calloway, guitarist Django Reinhardt, and pianist Art Tatum. For a depiction of female blues singers, see Gwendolyn Brooks's "Queen of the Blues."

[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977].
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz was an important theme in modernist writing and visual art. Jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow, nicknamed "Little Louis" due to her Armstrong-like playing style, is eulogized in Colleen McElroy's poem "It Ain't Blues That Blows an Ill Wind."

[5479] Winold Reiss, Drawing in Two Colors (c. 1920),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5687].
Offset lithograph of African American man dancing. Also titled Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I. German-born Winold Reiss (1886-1953) studied in Munich before moving to New York in 1913. He is best known for his portraits of African Americans and Native Americans. Poets, novelists, and painters incorporated imagery and rhythms from jazz in their work. In 1924 Aaron Douglas began studying with Reiss: the style and colors of Douglas's work reflect Reiss's influence.

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