This Stuart Davis image, Owh! In San Pao, was used as the cover for the first edition of Ben’s 1993 book of conversations with jazz musicians, Talking Jazz. In 1997, Ben was commissioned to write an essay on Davis’ relationship with jazz for the catalog accompanying the Stuart Davis exhibition at the Guggenheim in Venice, Italy; the essay was again revisited in 2016 for the Davis retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the de Young Museum in San Francisco
THE JAZZ OF STUART DAVIS
by Ben Sidran
Jazz music sprung seemingly full-blown from the soil around the turn of the century. Nobody knows exactly when or where it arrived, but there is much speculation about how and why the blue notes and field chants and quadrilles and ragtime all came together, not in some kind of magical big-bang, but organically, in a kind of musical primordial ooze, formed from the great fecundity of the American culture.
Some pinpoint the origins of this music at New Orleans, and certainly the Crescent City was the Rift Valley of jazz evolution, both the “home of the blues” and a place, before the US Government shut down the French Quarter in 1917, where the red light district was a twenty-four hour party driven by flamboyant marching bands and brilliant piano players. The plain truth, however, is that jazz was brewing everywhere, all across the country, especially in the rapidly expanding urban ghettos where a critical mass of African-Americans had enough loose change to make playing an instrument a supportable avocation. Not a career as such but certainly a way of life.
The musician articulated the news of the day in black America, and as the African-American community spread northward, in his hands the news emerged as a song, a sob, or a reason to have a party. Because of the optimism and drive of this music -- and in the context of the wringing poverty all around -- his was both the voice of hope and of reason. The jazzman resolved the inequities of daily life, and did it nightly. At the barrooms, social halls and rent-parties all across the landscape, in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, folks used to say “I love the blues, they hurts so nice.”
Of course, there was no pretense of “art” at the time. In fact, not many Americans of the day would have recognized this outpouring of expression as “real music” let alone “art music”. It wasn’t even called “jazz” back then. “Jazz” was a word unused in proper society, slang for what went on in the bed room, which is why it ultimately came to describe this music too, for jazz was born in the brothels and gin joints and “house parties”, where strangers came in off the streets and paid a quarter to drink and get happy. A solitary piano player, sometimes joined by a drum or a trumpet, would rock the house, inventing music out of nothing, pulling snakes and great clouds of joy from thin air while the crowd shouted, “you got it!” and “that’s it, man!” The piano played the “blue” notes of the guitar or the human voice by rubbing a major and a minor third together, resulting in a clash that is a flagrant violation of Western classical harmony and which, therefore, became the hallmark of “ragtime” piano, and later, “jazz”.
Back in 1912, however, the music was probably still called “barrel house” or “honky tonk”, when a young Stuart Davis with his pal Glenn Coleman prowled the rough bars of Newark searching out this organic scene. They were, in his phrase, “particularly hep to the jive”. What is remarkable is that, at the time, there was no jazz available on phonograph records (this was still several years off) and there was virtually no way a couple of young white boys could even know about its existence, let alone its power. But these rough bars in Newark became the crucible from which the soul of a young artist was cast. It was here in the heat of the creative moment that the real world and the world of abstraction came together for Stuart Davis.
“These saloons catered to the poorest Negroes”, Davis remembered, “and outside of beer, a favorite drink was a glass of gin with a cherry in it which sold for five cents. The pianists were unpaid, playing for love or art alone. In one place, the piano was covered on top and sides with
barbed wire to discourage lounging and leaning on it, and give the performer more scope while at work. But the big point with us was that in all of these places you could hear the blues, or tin-pan alley tunes turned into real music, for the cost of a five cent beer.”
Tin-pan alley tunes “turned into real music”: this is the key. For what is “real” is not always what it appears to be -- indeed, is often quite other. What is real is often what is “remembered” to be, the essence of the moment, not the moment itself. Art, then, is the lie that tells the truth. And while tin-pan alley songs were the actual, or literal, artifacts of the day -- just as the gas pumps and street signs that Davis painted were the visual artifacts of the day -- the Negro musicians invented their own way of preserving the everyday essence of mundane songs while, at the same time, exalting their purposes, molding them into something personal, something beautiful, something undeniably modern.
Many years later, Davis would say, “My attitude toward life is realistic. But realism doesn’t include merely what one immediately sees with the eye at a 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. Certainly not.”
For the whole of his creative life, Davis would disdain mere abstraction in art and prefer to think of his work as having, “A realism that every man on the street has the potential to see. But in order to see, would have to see it in himself first. Would have to give value to those qualities which an artist gives...to whatever is the artist in him.” And, when pressed on the subject, he referred to this quality of being “able to see” as being “hip”, a term he said he learned “in the jazz bars and saloons”.
This new jazz music was straight off the streets. It was the people’s music. There was no distinction between high or low art in the protean world of jazz, just as there were no such distinctions at the Henri school, where Davis absorbed the tenets of a radical, anti-academic perspective on painting. There, he reported, art was “not a matter of rules and techniques...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. It took art off the academic pedestal and, by affirming its origin in the life of the day, developed a critical sense toward social values in the student.” Therefore, as in jazz, “any preconceived ideas about racial, national or class superiorities could not thrive in its atmosphere.”
Indeed, Stuart Davis went beyond a mere egalitarianism to see the world of black music as a kind of metaphor for the plight of the arts in America. As he wrote to a jazz critic in the 1940’s, “This discrimination against Negroes as a race, which has also included the Negro as an artist, is the fate of most genuine artists, regardless of race or class. It is a simple fact that most people, without relation to their social or economic status, do not give art a place of importance in their living scheme. Their indifference to the great Negro bands and solo artists remains the same when they are confronted with a modern painting.”
Often, during key moments of his career, Davis returned to the imagery of jazz to describe his situation. A striking example was the remark he later made about his experience of attending the famous 1913 Armory Show, where, for the first time, he saw the paintings of the European Fauvists and Cubists en masse. Immediately, he sensed an “objective order”, particularly in Gauguin and Matisse, that gave him “the same kind of excitement I got from the numerical precision of the Negro piano players...and I resolved that I would quite definitely have to become a ‘modern’ artist.” To Davis, jazz was a paradigm of modern creation.
One could speculate that jazz might literally have acted as a catalyst for him, particularly the music of pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, his favorite musician from the late 20s until his death. Hines’ flashing, angular lines, and especially the clusters of colors and trills that he threw off so effortlessly, had their analog in the high key colors of Davis’s work. And Stuart Davis did, on occasion, connect his own painting directly to various jazz techniques. For example, of the painting “Hot Still-Scape In Six Colors -- Seventh Ave.Style”, he wrote that “six colors were used ...as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups.” If one wanted to be literal, one could say that his colors were his chord voicings, and the juxtaposition of planar surfaces his harmonic structures.
For what a jazzman does in his “spontaneous composition” is take the standard chord changes from popular song -- the planar surfaces of the song -- and work his way through and around these sign posts, these “objects” of everyday experience. It is not the objects themselves that are important but the way in which the musician weaves his tale. Gradually, a great player develops a way of doing it, a gesture that is recognizable as his own path through the harmonic underbrush. That same gesture can then be extracted and used in a new context in future compositions, so that ultimately, even though he is still working on a solution to the problems inherent in playing, for example, the second four bars of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”, it sounds nothing at all like that song. The chord changes become his excuse to make and remake that particular gesture, to reexperience the feeling that was there the first time. In time, alternate chords are substituted for the standard ones, like new planes of existence, and additions, refinements, and extrapolations are added. But still, one is essentially working on the memory of those four bars from “I Got Rhythm”.
Just so, just as 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. While the high key colors became his “tone”, the sound of his artistic voice, the planar surfaces became his harmonic structure, his compositional signature.
Stuart Davis often, perhaps inadvertently, described his personal experiences in terms any jazz man can understand. Once, for example, during the 20s, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, after years spent dragging a sketching easel, large canvases and a back pack along with him, “looking for things to paint”, it suddenly dawned on him that “packing and unpacking all this junk” was irrelevant to his purpose. Subsequently, he went out with only a small sketch book, and the results were both dramatic and freeing. As he remembered, “It seems that in all this tramping around with full equipment I had actually learned something. All that I was required to cash in on some of this information was to stop lifting things up and putting them down for a while.”
Sly humor aside, Davis is reporting a basic tenet of the jazz life: at some point, one must stop studying the information and become the information. A jazzman might say, as Charlie Parker once did, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” As the practice of art is transformative, so the music is a by-product of this transformation.
During the 20s, after Davis finally stopped dragging the easel to the sea coast, he began using the schooner in new, unimagined ways. “In abandoning the weighty apparatus of the outdoor painter, I did not at the same time abandon nature as subject matter,” he wrote. “My studio pictures were all from drawings made directly from nature. As I had learned in painting outdoors to use a conceptual instead of an optical perspective, so, in my studio compositions, I brought drawings of different places and things into a single focus. The necessity to select and define the spatial limits of these separate drawings, in relation to the unity of the whole picture, developed an objective attitude toward the size and shape relations. Having already achieved this objectivity to a degree in relation to color, the two ideas had now to be integrated and thought about simultaneously.” Then, Davis used the musician’s argot to describe the future: “The ‘abstract’ kick was on.”
For six decades, jazz fueled the art of Stuart Davis. Together, they grew up, matured, became sophisticated. But always, they kept the pulse of the people on the street, and in the little clubs and hangouts where the real news was being passed along. By the 40s, Davis had gravitated to musicians, like George Wettling of the Eddie Condon mob, who had their own scene and stood for anti-commercial, small combo jazz, and stayed liberally doused with portions of straight whiskey. They talked a hip dialect designed, in part, to exclude those who weren’t initiated or “in the know”, and were notoriously unable to feign accommodation for middle class opinions on any subject. Davis’ own speech was a wonderful melange of intellectual gambit and jazz slang, a Damon-Runion-esque drawl that matched the sly humor of his work with a deep affection for the musicians’ scene. These social pioneers held forth in rooms large and small, uptown and down, from Harlem to The Village, overhung with a pall of bluish smoke, the blurred hum of conversation and the insistent musings of a good jazz band.
And if, in Davis’ term, the artist’s canvas was “a cool spot in a hot environment”, the music continued throughout his career to be the fire that kept the pots boiling. Like the musicians around him, he continued to challenge the supremacy of European tradition, redefining modernism with a thoroughly American humor and spirit. And like those jazz musicians, he persevered in the face of yawning indifference from the critical establishment for many years. For just as the academies were slow to pick up on Stuart Davis, so too jazz was a cultural stepchild in the “legitimate” press until well into the 1930s. Perhaps Rudy Vallee, the musical idol of the day, spoke for most Americans when he said, “I have no definite conception of what ‘jazz’ is, but I believe it should be applied to the weird orchestral efforts of various bands up in Harlem. They have a style all their own, and at times it seems as though pandemonium had broken loose. Most of the time there is no distinguishable melody....it is absolutely impossible for even a musical ear to tell the name of the piece” That review, with the substitution of a very few words, might well have been written around the same time by an American art critic about the work of Stuart Davis.
And yet, both Davis and the music he loved prevailed and were vindicated. Jazz supplanted the European tradition and, ultimately, found it’s analog in Davis’ paintings, particularly such masterpieces as “Rapt at Rappaports” and “Owh! in San Pao”. Davis’ hip visual poetry created an iconographic language, composed of hot colors and modern slang, that captured the harmonic rubs and angular, syncopated grooves of the music he loved. It was as if jazz had come to three-dimensional life through his art.
In his diary of 11 October, 1948, Stuart Davis wrote, “Art...has nothing to do with Logic or Sensibility. It has to do with Intuitive impulse carried out as an Act. The Act is the Fact, and all the Art quality is in it.” Nothing could sum up the spirit of jazz more succinctly.