1-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​i​n​a​u​g​u​r​a​l​.​1​-​1.8 | Spar­ti PDF

Davide Spar­ti [trans. Lise Hogan] |

Images of a Sound: Portraits and Pictures of Jazz

As a music form of fluc­tu­at­ing sta­tus, jazz is ear­marked by a fun­da­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of con­tri­bu­tions from var­i­ous cul­tures – from the Afro-Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar expressed in blues or gospel music, to pop­u­lar Amer­i­can song; from mod­ern clas­si­cal music to African dias­poric ele­ments and non-west­ern sources such as Indi­an music. Per­haps because of its mul­ti­ple sources, jazz had to wait a long time before attract­ing the inter­est of schol­ars who were not sim­ply afi­ciona­dos. There­fore, it is only recent­ly that we have come to under­stand jazz as not mere­ly a musi­cal genre, and even less as a closed genre char­ac­ter­ized by a pre­cise ori­gin, by a clear devel­op­men­tal tra­jec­to­ry, by a spe­cif­ic set of pro­tag­o­nists and by a cat­a­logue of accu­mu­lat­ed works. Rather, it cor­re­sponds to a field, a field where sounds, prac­tices, dis­cours­es, and images are inter­wo­ven. The field of jazz, rather than mere­ly jazz. In order to illus­trate the extent to which jazz must be viewed as a cul­tur­al field, I will pro­ceed with an analy­sis from the exhib­it titled “Jazz Eye”, ded­i­cat­ed to jazz album cov­ers, which took place last year at the San­ta Maria del­la Scala Muse­um in Siena. This will allow me to dis­cuss some of the rela­tion­ships between music and visu­al art, and also to cul­tur­al­ly re-con­tex­tu­al­ize jazz. It has always been claimed that jazz reflects the social and urban changes of its times, but

lit­tle atten­tion has been paid to the reverse affir­ma­tion, that is, that twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cul­ture mir­rors jazz, react­ing and respond­ing to its pres­ence, re-elab­o­rat­ing its sounds in visu­al (as well as tex­tu­al and chore­o­graph­ic) forms.

Jazz and visu­al arts

First of all, regard­ing the inter­con­nec­tions between sound and images, it is impor­tant to avoid giv­ing the impres­sion that visu­al arts and jazz have been devoid of exchanges. On the con­trary, there exist var­i­ous rela­tion­ships, although these have often been con­cealed, or pre­sent­ed in a ten­den­tious man­ner. At a first, more super­fi­cial lev­el, con­sid­er this quick review.

Apart from the usage of art­works which have lent them­selves to the world of jazz album cov­ers (from Rousseau to Matisse, from Hop­per to De Chiri­co), var­i­ous artists have been direct­ly involved in the pro­duc­tion of cov­ers, for exam­ple, Romare Bear­den, Michelan­ge­lo Pis­to­let­to, or Andy Warhol. Numer­ous jazz musi­cians have payed homage to paint­ings, such as Cole­man Hawkins' com­po­si­tion titled “Picas­so.” Cor­rel­a­tive­ly, there are var­i­ous jazz musi­cians who are engaged in the graph­ic and pic­to­r­i­al field, such as Ornette Cole­man (always inter­est­ed in con­tem­po­rary art. Cole­man start­ed col­lect­ing art­works– in par­tic­u­lar, Lar­ry Rivers and Robert Rauschen­berg – in 1960, after arriv­ing in New York), or Sun Ra, whose onir­i­cal and cos­mic graph­ics char­ac­ter­ize the cov­ers of the autonomous­ly-run record­ing label Sat­urn Records. The trum­peter Bill Dixon and the drum­mer Daniel Humair also paint. Lar­ry Rivers con­sti­tutes a mod­el case with respect to the con­tact between the two realms. Author of the (col­laps­ing) scene paint­ing of The Slave, the dra­ma of the Afro-Amer­i­can activist and poet Leroi Jones (lat­er Amiri Bara­ka), Rivers, who him­self played sax, often rep­re­sent­ed sax­o­phon­ists engaged in impro­vis­ing (as in his work The Sax­o­phon­ist).  As, and with, de Koon­ing or Kline, he reg­u­lar­ly fre­quent­ed jazz clubs such as the Café Bohemia or the Five Spot (fol­low­ing the urban restruc­tura­tion of Tomp­kins Square Park in the ear­ly 1960s, the Five Spot – sit­u­at­ed on the cor­ner of St Marks and Third Avenue –, was demol­ished to re-open again a few blocks north of Coop­er Square). Alter­na­tive­ly, Rivers fre­quent­ed the Low­er East Side (which became known as the “East Vil­lage” in the ear­ly 1960s) where the musi­cians knew the poets who knew the painters who knew the dancers who knew the musi­cians… Per­form­ing with jazz musi­cians and painters and bal­let troupes and (male and female) poets was a com­mon occur­rence.  Mar­i­on Brown and Archie Shepp (with his Judeo-Span­ish wife Garth and their four chil­dren) also lived on East 5th Street in the East Vil­lage.  The Nuy­or­i­can Poets Café, Slugs, and the Fill­more East were locat­ed here too. Here worked Romare Bear­den, whose col­lage – like an impro­vised jazz solo – draws togeth­er and com­bines every­day objects and frag­ments of adver­tis­ing mate­r­i­al in an unusu­al and star­tling manner.

Stay­ing with­in the hori­zon of visu­al arts but chang­ing medi­um, we can also con­sid­er Shad­ows, John Cas­savetes' first film (1958). Besides a sound track pro­duced with great sen­si­bil­i­ty by Charles Min­gus, the film reveals an impro­vised use of the movie cam­era. More­over, Cas­savetes resort­ed to a par­tic­u­lar device: he direct­ed the film by only part­ly explain­ing to each actor the role of the oth­er actors, in order to bring out an ele­ment of sur­prise dur­ing the course of filming.

As evi­denced by the Sienese exhi­bi­tion, from the onset of the 1950, it is the record­ing com­pa­nies, espe­cial­ly the inde­pen­dent labels, who cre­ate the most inno­v­a­tive solu­tions in the graph­ic and pho­to­graph­ic field, and in the use of char­ac­ters, trans­form­ing the LP in an aes­thet­ic object (Frank Wolff, for exam­ple, co-direc­tor with Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records, was a pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er). Although it was not able to keep up with musi­cal devel­op­ment, Impulse intro­duced fiery col­ors to reflect the emer­gence of the new music. Con­sid­er today's ECM, whose cov­ers favour black, white and gray over­tones, express­ing a need for space and free­dom of move­ment that is amply reflect­ed in the sub­tle, almost zen ambi­ence of the music. The album cov­er not only char­ac­ter­izes the artist or the sin­gle LP (the image is intro­duced before the sound, and it is often the image that has the capac­i­ty to attract in the audi­to­ry world), but the well-defined iden­ti­ty of the record­ing com­pa­ny. With the arrival of the CD, the cov­er space is more restrict­ed, but the card­board cov­ers col­ored with the pecu­liar tac­tile qual­i­ty of the Ger­man com­pa­ny Win­ter and Win­ter, or the pho­to­graph­ic images of the digi-pak from the Swiss com­pa­ny Hatol­ogy still reveals the capac­i­ty to express sin­gu­lar­i­ty.  More­over, Jazz-pho­tog­ra­phy is not only evi­dence of the musi­cal event – that is, it is not lim­it­ed to mere­ly com­ment­ing on the music. The art of the imme­di­ate snap­shot and that of impro­vi­sa­tion are con­front­ed with the same per­for­ma­tive spon­tane­ity. As Barthes (1982) explained, the essence of pho­tog­ra­phy does not stem from the frame (the crop­ping) but rather, from a sharp detail  that flows out­side of the fram­ing and daz­zles us. Yet, even jazz, as music of rev­e­la­tions and sur­pris­es, is char­ac­ter­ized by the impact of unex­pect­ed moments – sound bites that strike us, tear­ing us away from the pas­sive enjoy­ment of the piece. This is exact­ly what Roland Barthes calls punc­tum, that uncom­mon manifestation/occurrence that invades our per­cep­tion and shat­ters the frame of our expectations.

Music, protest and freedom

Sec­ond­ly, the crossover of image and sound is artic­u­lat­ed on the ref­er­en­tial lev­el of the con­tent. Album cov­ers – to remain on the sub­ject – rep­re­sent a mir­ror of the times and of their polit­i­cal changes.

Despite de-seg­re­ga­tion­ist pro­vi­sions, blacks in the1960s could shave white men in bar­ber shops, but they could not share a drink in the same club; they could look after the white man's chil­dren, but were not allowed to use the front door of the house. Even the drink­ing foun­tains in the parks were marked “White”  (because of dis­crim­i­na­tion in mort­gage loans, it would not be until 1967, in Levitt­town, Penn­syl­va­nia, that an Afro-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly would be able for the first time to buy their own home). As a means of protest against such a sit­u­a­tion, in 1960, four black men orga­nize a sit-in in Greens­bor­ough, North Car­oli­na. Before the end of the semes­ter, six thou­sand stu­dents in the South emu­late them (more than two hun­dred would end up in jail), and in 1961, they would num­ber sev­en­ty thou­sand, includ­ing among them many white activists. The record We insist. Free­dom Now by the drum­mer Max Roach actu­al­ly depicts a sit-in event. Album cov­ers begin to reflect the polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that jazz musi­cians attribute to their own artis­tic mission.

Seg­re­ga­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion deter­mined trav­el arrange­ments, the clubs in which they could play (as well as their rela­tion­ship with the audi­ence – there were even laws that pro­hib­it­ed “frat­er­niz­ing with white cus­tomers”), wages, and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to access the world of cin­e­ma and tele­vi­sion. If it was com­mon prac­tice for whites to play with blacks in Afro-Amer­i­can clubs, it was unheard-of for blacks to play with whites in pres­ti­gious white clubs. As Lionel Hamp­ton relates, he and Ted­dy Wil­son, on tour with the group led by Ben­ny Good­man, were sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly treat­ed like ser­vants, valets, or water-boys des­tined to assist the star. Like ser­vants, they were made to enter the hotels through the ser­vice doors, and when­ev­er, by con­tract, they had the right to sleep in the build­ing, they were lodged in the base­ment, next to the boiler.

When, in the 1960s, Son­ny Rollins con­duct­ed the quar­tet with Jim Hall on the gui­tar (that is, the Son­ny Rollins Quar­tet, not the Jim Hall-Rollins Band), the club own­ers and sound tech­ni­cians invari­ably and imme­di­ate­ly addressed them­selves to Hall regard­ing any ques­tions about the per­for­mance, ignor­ing Rollins (Nisen­son 156). When, in a New York East End cabaret, Peg­gy Lee announced that she want­ed to do an imi­ta­tion of the great Bil­lie Hol­i­day, rejoic­ing broke out, while at that same time, Bil­lie Hol­i­day was on the street, unem­ployed and gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered a drug-addict. Char­lie Parker's moth­er remained a poor house­wife while the record com­pa­ny cashed in mil­lions thanks to her son's records. This dis­re­gard for Afro-Amer­i­cans, more­over, infus­es even the dis­cur­sive approach to jazz. Who wrote the first book about jazz? A Bel­gian (Robert Gof­fin). Who com­piled the first discog­ra­phy? A French­man, Delau­nay. Who named the first streets or parks after jazz musi­cians? France (Bechet and Arm­strong) and Eng­land (Max Roach Park in Brixton).

Going back to album cov­er images, even though cul­tur­al mem­ber­ship often tends to be con­cealed with­in abstract fig­ures (Miles Davis' first album for Colum­bia, titled “Miles Ahead!” was ini­tial­ly released with the pho­to­graph of a white woman in a sail­boat), from the end of the 1950s rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black women (young mod­els, rather than musi­cians) became less uncom­mon.  How­ev­er, as Gitler not­ed (Gen­tile et al. 47), a cov­er with a ful­ly-dressed man and woman was with­drawn and sub­sti­tut­ed by a dif­fer­ent image. The orig­i­nal image of Count­ing Five in Swe­den depict­ed  (black) trum­peter Joe New­man with his (white) wife Rig­mor (the mixed, or inter­ra­cial, union was con­sid­ered an obsta­cle to the sale of the album…).

Let's not for­get that in 1960, in New Orleans, the Afro-Amer­i­can drum­mer Ed Black­well and his (white) wife Frances were impris­oned for mis­ce­gena­tion. And again, when the black trum­peter Roy Eldridge played in Artie Shaw's band, one piece was to be per­formed as a duet with the (white) singer Ani­ta O' Day. But, the local author­i­ties insist­ed that they place them­selves at oppo­site ends of the stage, with two sep­a­rate micro­phones. Hence, it is not sur­pris­ing to find Ornette Coleman's famous cov­er with the Bill of Rights set afire.

Nor is it sur­pris­ing, ulti­mate­ly, that the record has nev­er been re-released by Impulse, and that today it remains impos­si­ble to find. Voic­ing their resis­tance to this sit­u­a­tion, the Afro-Amer­i­cans orga­nized polit­i­cal ral­lies where musi­cians did their own part. The Free­dom Rid­ers orig­i­nat­ed in 1961,  a mixed group of peo­ple (blacks and whites, young and old, men and women, athe­ists and believ­ers) propos­ing to trav­el from Wash­ing­ton to New Orleans using pub­lic trans­port and dis­trib­ut­ing them­selves spon­ta­neous­ly in dif­fer­ent places.  “The Free­dom Rid­er” is also the title of a drum solo on Art Blakey's album of the same name (Blue Note, 1961). In 1963, the Six­teenth Street Bap­tist Church in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, was dyna­mit­ed, killing four chil­dren who were attend­ing their Sun­day school lessons. That same year, Coltrane, in “Alaba­ma” mourn­ful­ly evoked these deaths. The piece “The Funer­al” was ded­i­cat­ed by Archie Shepp to the mem­o­ry of Medgar Evers, Sec­re­tary of the NAACP in Mis­sis­sip­pi, shot to death in Jack­son by a white racist. “Mal­com, Mal­com – sem­per Mal­colm”, also by Shepp, com­bines music and poet­ry to evoke the fig­ure of Mal­com X. In this piece, based on a poem repro­duced in the lin­er notes of the album Fire Music, Shepp is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly recit­ing poet and sax­o­phon­ist, accom­pa­nied by the bow of the clas­si­cal­ly-trained con­tra­bass play­er David Isen­zon and the drum­ming of J.C. Moses. The trum­peter Lee Mor­gan com­posed a piece elo­quent­ly titled Mr Keny­at­ta, as well as Angela, ded­i­cat­ed to Angela Davis. Around the same time, the singer Nina Simone com­posed “Mis­sis­sip­pi God Damn”, which becomes a sort of hymn among the activists dur­ing those years. Roach's record­ing We insist. Free­dom Now should have been released in 1963, on the cen­ten­ni­al anniver­sary of the Abo­li­tion of Black Slav­ery. The album's sub-title would become the name of a Black nation­al­ist par­ty (more­over, the use of music as polit­i­cal protest is not exclu­sive to the 1960s; clos­er to our times Lester Bowie expressed in The Fire “this” Time his indig­na­tion for the far­ci­cal pro­ceed­ings of the Los Ange­les police offi­cers who had beat­en Rod­ney King to death. The images of the beat­ing, filmed by an ama­teur video, cir­cu­lat­ed through­out the world, and the acquit­tal trig­gered the worst riot since World War II).

The cre­ative process

Per­tain­ing to the rela­tion­ship between images and sounds, there is final­ly a third, more under­ground affin­i­ty between jazz (impro­vi­sa­tion) and – cer­tain – visu­al arts, cen­tred on the notion of process, action and operation.

A good – his­tor­i­cal – start­ing point is the con­ver­gence between sur­re­al­ism and jazz, with its con­cern for the conscious/unconscious dimen­sion of the artis­tic cre­ation. Decades ago in his famous Entre­tiens, André Bre­ton lin­gered over the sur­re­al­is­tic prac­tice of auto­mat­ic writ­ing, direct­ed at open­ing up an access way to a deep and self-repro­duc­tive lan­guage reveal­ing itself through the artist. Julio Cortázar, in a con­fer­ence titled “A few aspects of the short sto­ry”, has declared that the major­i­ty of his own short sto­ries were born from unex­pect­ed asso­ci­a­tions and from ill-defined bridges in space and time – that is, they have been “decid­ed” in a latent region, at the mar­gins of his own will, in a non-diur­nal area. (1994, p. 1317). Jazz aris­es from that same psy­chic region. Cortázar's com­par­i­son of impro­vi­sa­tion to auto­mat­ic writ­ing is not unjus­ti­fied.  «Mi sono inter­es­sato al jazz per­ché in quel momen­to [gli anni Trenta] era la sola musi­ca che si avvic­i­nasse alla nozione di scrit­tura auto­mat­i­ca, di improvvisazione totale del­la scrit­tura.   Sic­come ero sta­to molto attrat­to dal sur­re­al­is­mo ed ero immer­so nel­la let­tura di autori come Bre­ton, Crev­el, e Aragon (…) il jazz mi offri­va un equiv­a­lente musi­cale del sur­re­al­is­mo, una musi­ca che face­va a meno del­lo spar­ti­to» (Cortázar 215).

I became inter­est­ed in jazz because at that time (the Thir­ties) it was the only music that came close to auto­mat­ic writ­ing, writ­ing as total impro­vi­sa­tion. Since I had been attract­ed to sur­re­al­ism and became immersed in read­ing authors like Bre­ton, Crev­el, and Aragon (…) jazz offered me the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of sur­re­al­ism, music that eschewed a score.”

In the fig­u­ra­tive arts con­nect­ed to sur­re­al­ism, one should remem­ber, on the one hand, the works of Dubuf­fet, who ded­i­cat­ed at least one work of art explic­it­ly to jazz, Grand Jazz Band (Oil on can­vas, 1944, exhib­it­ed in New York at the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art), and, on the oth­er hand, the works by Mat­ta, par­tic­u­lar­ly Jazz 1 and Jazz 2.

Most of all, the sur­re­al­ist reflec­tion rais­es an epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tion: can one play (cre­ate) some­thing that is yet unknown? In her Lec­tures in Amer­i­ca (181), Gertrude Stein won­dered if there could be a way of express­ing what one knows that did not come about as an out­come of our mem­o­ry. Let's con­sid­er Kei­th Jarrett's ear­li­er solo impro­vi­sa­tions. There is in Jar­rett an explic­it attempt to make music emerge not as the imple­men­ta­tion of a pre­con­ceived idea, but in such a way that it reach­es expres­sive areas that the musi­cian only knows in an obtuse way.  This attempt espe­cial­ly assumes the form of a neg­a­tive con­trol: I con­trol myself in such a way that music flows autotel­ical­ly with­out being obstruct­ed by the mem­o­ry of what has been con­sol­i­dat­ed with the pas­sage of time. For­mu­lat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly, it is a mat­ter of main­tain­ing a state of max­i­mum sen­si­bil­i­ty with­out rely­ing upon spe­cif­ic ideas, acti­vat­ing a cog­ni­tive style that is not focused, nor fixed, for that mat­ter, on deter­mined mod­els. Rather than being cen­tered on one's ideas, it is nec­es­sary to de-cen­ter one­self, in order to let the tac­it dimen­sion oper­ate. As Jar­rett put it in an inter­view (1995), the jazz musi­cian has to dis­cov­er a way of start­ing an impro­vised per­for­mance with­out any men­tal­ly pre-estab­lished goals (a spe­cif­ic motif or melody in mind), as if enabling his hands to start the per­for­mance with­out him. It is as if the music – the emerg­ing sounds – were tak­ing the lead. The modal­i­ty of which we are speak­ing does not impli­cate a refusal of the musician's knowl­edge. Cer­tain­ly, the lat­ter pro­ceeds in the light of a deter­mined (and per­son­al) con­cep­tion of music. But he relax­es his cog­ni­tive con­trol over the musi­cal direc­tion. We thus find a para­dox: if we try too explic­it­ly to obtain a state of autotel­ic flow, we obstruct it. There­fore we are back to the men­tal dis­po­si­tion of which the sur­re­al­ists spoke: a par­tic­u­lar state of vig­i­lance, between relax­ation and wake­ful­ness, where the con­scious and the uncon­scious are tran­si­to­ry and reversible. At the heart of the artis­tic cre­ation, then, there is a sort of immo­bil­i­ty, a state of readi­ness. Not a doing, and even less a non-doing, but a way of let­ting the music dis­play itself through the artist.

The most rel­e­vant visu­al artist we can evoke in this area is Jack­son Pol­lock, who explic­it­ly invokes sur­re­al­ism (he was inter­est­ed in sur­re­al­ist automa­tism, the idea of spon­tane­ity in auto­mat­ic design), as well as jazz. If we ana­lyze Jack­son Pollock's method of drip­ping paint on the can­vas as a way to com­pose a work of art – some­thing marked by a for­mal bal­ance, by a cor­re­spon­dence amongst ele­ments – the result is ridicu­lous: even a child could do it. More­over, how does one frame this type of art? As a process, not a (fin­ished) prod­uct. This can be seen in the famous doc­u­men­tary film on Pol­lock, shot by the art pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hans Namuth between 1950 and 1951: the work of art is pri­mar­i­ly the oper­a­tion, the per­for­ma­tive process.

Hence­forth the term Action paint­ing, coined in 1952 by Harold Rosen­berg (Pol­lock nev­er defined him­self as an action painter).  It was only ex post, when the process was com­plet­ed, that his works would be giv­en titles. Although he adhered to an aes­thet­ic, Pol­lock lib­er­at­ed him­self from the cat­e­go­ry of the pre-designed and fin­ished prod­uct (one can also think of the par­tic­u­lar case of Calder's mobiles, or of Tinguely's self-destruc­t­ing kinet­ic con­struc­tions: as of 1960, dur­ing an instal­la­tion in front of New York's Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, Tingue­ly fab­ri­cat­ed self-destruc­t­ing “objects”, made from iron scraps and pieces of mechan­i­cal waste fine­ly sol­dered togeth­er, objects des­tined to be reduced to dust from friction).

In Pollock's case, pri­ma­ry impor­tance is giv­en to the impli­ca­tions of the pas­sage of the can­vas rest­ing on the easel – as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al win­dow – to the can­vas laid down on the floor, an are­na into which Pol­lock can enter, crouch down and turn in any direc­tion, fac­ing every bit of space and free­ing him­self from the tyran­ny of the hor­i­zon­tal line (it is impor­tant to be inside the frame Pol­lock told the mag­a­zine Pos­si­bil­i­ties, in the win­ter of 1947).  There is no sin­gle access door to the paint­ing: you can go in or out any­where. The mar­gin does not mark the end of the artist's world (and the begin­ning of the out­side, or of real­i­ty), but lets it con­tin­ue, indef­i­nite­ly. This is valid in an anal­o­gous man­ner for impro­vi­sa­tion. By priv­i­leg­ing what is in due course, impro­vi­sa­tion is, strict­ly-speak­ing, end­less, notwith­stand­ing wan­ing ideas and ener­gy, and con­clud­ing nar­ra­tive cycles. After the flow of music, there is noth­ing left of the impro­vi­sa­tion except a mem­o­ry – the trace – of some­thing that has already passed. Hence, what remains can­not be rep­re­sent­ed as the refined, final out­come of a spe­cif­ic inten­tion (cfr. Spar­ti 2007). It is impor­tant to avoid the fal­la­cy of ret­ro­spec­tion, which con­sists in look­ing at a process from the point of view of a refined prod­uct, as if inter­pret­ing the process only in func­tion of an antic­i­pat­ed completion.

Thanks to his can­vas laid down on the floor, Pol­lock also has bet­ter con­trol over the drip­pings, so that they are not too ran­dom­ly scat­tered (by drip­ping and mix­ing paint col­ors, Pol­lock is not so much invent­ing, but rather re-elab­o­rat­ing the tech­nique of drip­ping which was already cur­rent among dadaists and sur­re­al­ists – hence, his nick­name “Jack the drip­per”). It is not sim­ply a mat­ter of let­ting loose in an indis­crim­i­nate man­ner but rather of fol­low­ing an addi­tion­al pro­ce­dure: Pol­lock paints “in coun­ter­point”, on suc­ces­sive lay­ers. Again, as in impro­vi­sa­tion­al jazz, what is cru­cial is the capac­i­ty to remain open to the emerg­ing music in such a way as to respond to it cre­ative­ly. Con­trol and the absence of con­trol alter­nate in a process that requires the nec­es­sary con­fi­dence to almost let one­self be led by the chang­ing course of the blobs of col­or. Which is real­ly the con­fi­dence (and the desire) to play, in the musi­cal as well as in the child­ish sense of the term. It is there­fore not by chance that Ornette Cole­man chose pre­cise­ly Jack­son Pollock's paint­ing White Light for the cov­er of his most inno­v­a­tive album: Free Jazz.

This again evi­dences the fact that the way in which Pol­lock played with col­ors recalls the impro­vised jazz per­for­mance (nor is it by chance that Jane Ira Bloom record­ed “Chas­ing Paint”, impro­vis­ing on the sopra­no sax­o­phone with a visu­al inspi­ra­tion pro­vid­ed by Pollock's works).

I would like to con­clude this brief analy­sis with a look at the case of the painter Jeff Schlanger, and his par­tic­u­lar visu­al approach to impro­vised music. Schlanger tran­scribes (or bet­ter yet, “incor­po­rates”) in anoth­er artis­tic medi­um – the more spa­tial and “slow­er” medi­um of visu­al arts – the process of dynam­ic cre­ation of impro­vised music. His attempt is not one of rep­re­sent­ing or of cap­tur­ing a par­tic­u­lar moment of the per­for­mance, but of wit­ness­ing a flow in the course of its exe­cu­tion. For this rea­son, Schlanger, who simul­ta­ne­ous­ly uses two paint­brush­es, starts paint­ing when the per­for­mance begins, sus­pend­ing his actions at the moment the per­for­mance ends.

Fur­ther­more, he adapts his assault on the can­vas in accor­dance with the musi­cal pro­gres­sion, more or less intense or aggres­sive, more or less con­trolled or splat­tered.


We live in a video­cen­tric age which puts great empha­sis on the com­plet­ed and defin­i­tive object, and which has sanc­tioned the exis­tence of a place of wor­ship for it: the muse­um. But an impro­vi­sa­tion – the verb reveals it bet­ter than the noun -- is pri­mar­i­ly an action, the action of gen­er­at­ing music dur­ing the course of a per­for­mance. By ana­lyz­ing a solo as a fin­ished prod­uct, we risk los­ing sight of “the phe­nom­e­non” itself: the emer­gence, sound after sound, of a musi­cal sense.  In the case of the com­pos­er, and espe­cial­ly because he, like many painters, can take all the time he wants to decide what to “express,” the process falls into the back­ground and the text that he pro­duces is rel­e­vant (also in eval­u­a­tive terms). The term “com­po­si­tion” still refers to a cre­at­ed prod­uct, while the gen­er­at­ing process itself appears to be sub­sidiary. On the con­trary, pre­cise­ly because it is not final­ized in an exter­nal prod­uct (it pro­duces a result, but not a prod­uct), impro­vi­sa­tion is always an ongo­ing process, always expos­ing its own prac­tice. In the impro­vised solo there is no goal out­side the process that might con­sti­tute a devel­op­ment toward a con­clu­sive end. And by def­i­n­i­tion, each process is “in progress” (a com­plet­ed process is incon­ceiv­able). Those who paint or sculpt – typ­i­cal­ly – accu­mu­late objects, solid­i­fy­ing the past, but those who impro­vise stand alone in the present. Impro­vi­sa­tion exists only in its process, exhaust­ing itself as it is pro­duced. Dri­ven by a dif­fer­ent log­ic, a log­ic sit­u­at­ed in, and con­tin­gent on, a cre­ation in the present, the jazz musi­cian does not play for eter­ni­ty, and not even for the fol­low­ing day, but rather for – and in – the spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances in which he finds him­self, on this par­tic­u­lar evening, with these par­tic­u­lar musi­cians in front of this par­tic­u­lar pub­lic, sit­u­at­ed around him. (Béthune 112).

Although it main­tains var­i­ous rela­tion­ships with the spa­tial arts (as we have seen), jazz becomes, all in all, a sym­bol of that process that always remains on the point of real­iz­ing itself, sig­nalling and rep­re­sent­ing the actu­al pas­sage of time.


Barthes, Roland. Cam­era Luci­da. Reflec­tions on Pho­tog­ra­phy. New York: Hill and Wang,


Béthune, Chris­t­ian. Adorno et le jazz.  Analyse d’un déni esthé­tique. Paris: Klincksieck,


Cortázar, Julio. Entre­tiens avec Omar Prego. Paris: Folio/Es­sais-Inédit, 1986.

---. Gal­li­mard. I rac­con­ti. Paris: Ein­au­di-Gal­li­mard, 1994.

Gen­tile, Enzo and Fran­cen­sco Mar­tinel­li, eds. Siena Jazz Eye. Cat­a­l­o­go del­la mostra

senese. Milan: Maz­zot­ta, 2008.

Gitler, Ira. “Il fas­ci­no supre­mo del vinile.” Siena Jazz Eye. Cat­a­l­o­go del­la mostra senese. Eds. Enzo Gen­tile and Francesco Mar­tinel­li. Milan: Maz­zot­ta, 2008. 43-8.

Mer­lo, Mir­co. “How I cre­ate.” Inter­view with Kei­th Jar­rett. March 1995.

www​.kei​th​jar​rett​.it. Web. 7 Dec. 2010.

Nisen­son, Eric. Open Sky.  Son­ny Rollins and His World of Impro­vi­sa­tion. New York:

Da Capo Press, 2000.

Spar­ti, Davide. Il cor­po sonoro. Oral­ità e scrit­tura nel jazz. Bologna: Il Muli­no, 2007.

Stein, Gertrud. Lec­tures in Amer­i­ca. New York: Ran­dom House, 1935.

Image Notes

Blakey, Art. The Free­dom Rid­er. Blue Note, 1961.

Ira Bloom, Jane. Chas­ing Paint. Arabesque, 2003.

Bowie, Lester. The Fire «this» Time. In&Out, 1992.

Cole­man, Ornette. Free jazz. Atlantic, 1960.

---. Cri­sis. Impulse, 1969.

Coltrane, John. Live at Bird­land. Impulse, 1966.

Davis, Miles. Some­day my Prince Will Come. Colum­bia, 1961.

Mead, Dodd. Pol­lock Paint­ing. New York: Dodd Mead, 1980.

New­man, Joe. Count­ing Five in Swe­den. World Pacif­ic, 1960.

Rogers, John. “Jeff Schlanger.” Flickr.

http://​www​.flickr​.com/​p​h​o​t​o​s​/​c​r​a​y​o​n​s​e​m​b​l​e​/​6​7​9​9​8​5​6​5​3​/​i​n​/​s​e​t​-​7​2​1​5​7​6​0​0​5​8​1​0​6​8​0​38/ Web. 7 Dec. 2010.

Shepp, Archie. A. Shepp & the New York Con­tem­po­rary Five. Sto­ryville, 1963.

---. Fire music. Impulse, 1966.

Simone, Nina. Nina Simone In Con­cert. Philips, 1964.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.