From the dripping paint of Jackson Pollock to the paper cutouts of Henri Matisse and the tap routines of Fred Astaire, jazz has inspired some of the greatest artists of the past century. Those influences are celebrated in “The Jazz Century,” a new Paris exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum that runs through June 28.
Designed both for jazz aficionados and curious visitors, the show charts the 100-year history of jazz through magazines, posters, letters, cartoons, record covers, photographs, films and paintings. “The influence of jazz goes beyond music,” says Daniel Soutif, the exhibition’s curator and a lifelong jazz enthusiast. “For people who love jazz, it becomes part of your life.”
A timeline takes you from the origins of jazz in the United States and its arrival, during World War I, in Europe to the Harlem Renaissance and the Swing Era, World War II and bebop, and the free jazz movement and contemporary jazz. Melodies of the different periods accompany the visitor, mixing flavors in a sort of quiet jam session.
The great women and men of jazz, from Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, are there, referenced in portraits by Carl Van Vechten or on record sleeves by Andy Warhol. Their stories are told through an array of objects selected to show how the energy and effusiveness of New Orleans dance halls pervaded both global popular culture and great works of art.
“The Blue Book,” a pleasure seekers’ guide to New Orleans, gives a nod to the illicit and sensual associations of early jazz. Other items include a Picasso sketch of what he called “a very beautiful barbarous dance’” and a creased abstract by Man Ray titled “Jazz” that the photographer liked to carry around in his wallet. In a clip from Swing Time, Fred Astaire in stereotypical blackface makeup pays homage to tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Pollock, in particular, is all about jazz, says Soutif, and not just because he listened to Dixieland music as he dripped and flung colored paint over canvases laid out on the studio floor. Standing before Pollock’s “Watery Paths,” Soutif says it’s impossible not to hear the music in the serene turbulence and fluidity of his painting. He says the artist also influenced the free jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who featured Pollock’s “White Light” on the inside of his album “Free Jazz.”
The museum also ran a series of concerts in March under the banner “Africa Jazz” that featured artists such as Jack DeJohnette and Dimi Mint Abba. For springtime, visitors to Paris who are hungry for live jazz, Soutif recommends checking out the annual Banlieues Bleues Festival, which runs in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburbs from March to April. This year, the festival ran from March 6 to April 10 and paid homage to New Orleans.