Graham Lock and David Murray, editors of Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film

August 14th, 2009

Graham Lock and David Murray,

co-editors of

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Literature and Film






About The Hearing Eye

The widespread presence of jazz and blues in African American visual art has long been overlooked. The Hearing Eye makes the case for recognizing the music’s importance, both as formal template and as explicit subject matter. Moving on from the use of iconic musical figures and motifs in Harlem Renaissance art, this groundbreaking collection explores the more allusive — and elusive — references to jazz and blues in a wide range of mostly contemporary visual artists.

   There are scholarly essays on the painters Rose Piper (Graham Lock), Norman Lewis (Sara Wood), Bob Thompson (Richard H. King), Romare Bearden (Robert G. O’Meally, Johannes Völz) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Robert Farris Thompson), as well an account of early blues advertising art (Paul Oliver) and a discussion of the photographs of Roy DeCarava (Richard Ings). These essays are interspersed with a series of in-depth interviews by Graham Lock, who talks to quilter Michael Cummings and painters Sam Middleton, Wadsworth Jarrell, Joe Overstreet and Ellen Banks about their musical inspirations, and also looks at art’s reciprocal effect on music in conversation with saxophonists Marty Ehrlich and Jane Ira Bloom.

With numerous illustrations both in the book and on its companion website, The Hearing Eye reaffirms the significance of a fascinating and dynamic aspect of African American visual art that has been too long neglected. #




About Thriving on a Riff

From the Harlem Renaissance to the present, African American writers have drawn on the rich heritage of jazz and blues, transforming musical forms into the written word. In this companion volume to The Hearing Eye, distinguished contributors ranging from Bertram Ashe to Steven C. Tracy explore the musical influence on such writers as Sterling Brown, J.J. Phillips, Paul Beatty, and Nathaniel Mackey. Here, too, are Graham Lock’s engaging interviews with contemporary poets Michael S. Harper and Jayne Cortez, along with studies of the performing self, in Krin Gabbard’s account of Miles Davis and John Gennari’s investigation of fictional and factual versions of Charlie Parker. The book also looks at African Americans in and on film, from blackface minstrelsy to the efforts of Duke Ellington and John Lewis to rescue jazz from its stereotyping in Hollywood film scores as a signal for sleaze and criminality. Concluding with a proposal by Michael Jarrett for a new model of artistic influence, Thriving on a Riff makes the case for the seminal cross-cultural role of jazz and blues. #



Book Excerpts

“Out of This World”: Music and Spirit in the Writings of Nathaniel Mackey and Amiri Baraka,

by David Murray

Sam Middleton: The Painter as Improvising Soloist ,

Interview by Graham Lock



Interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita



One Night Stand, 1974

by Romare Bearden


“Charlie Parker is reported to have said, ‘Hear with your eyes and see with your ears.’ Who can be sure of what he meant? But perhaps it was a way of saying that African American creativity is so grounded in its music that listening will allow you to better see its paintings, to better read its poetry and fiction.”

– Graham Lock and David Murray


Dizzy Atmosphere, by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie


JJM  In an interview with the poet Michael Harper, Graham, you describe the aim of your books as to “look at the influence of jazz and blues on other African American art forms, and vice versa, though our main emphasis is on the music’s influence and our starting point is that it does have a special and central role in the culture.”  How broad does the definition of jazz go when discussing whether or not a film, painting, or work of literature is influenced by jazz music? Is there also a boundary line to defining what is jazz-influenced in the world of art?

DM  We use the word “jazz” at times in our books, and we also talk about “African American music.”  In essence, we were trying to identify certain aspects of jazz and certain elements of African American music that carry over to other art forms in some ways. For instance, we would find that a work of art contained elements that people would recognize as jazz-like, such as spontaneous improvisation or certain kinds of rhythmic characteristics. So we would be looking for elements like that which carried over rather than having to recognize art that is specifically jazz-influenced.

When we were trying to determine what could be characterized as “jazz-based,” we looked for two things in particular. One was to ask how much of the subject matter is “jazz” — in other words, are they writing about John Coltrane, or is Romare Bearden painting a picture of a musician or a dancer, and how is it being represented? So, content was one level we looked at. The other level, which is somewhat more problematic, is determining how much the characteristics of jazz-like spontaneity and rhythm were brought into the art form, whether literary or visual.

GL  I would add that it wasn’t really us doing the defining. I interviewed people who identified their own work as being influenced by jazz or blues, so that link had already been made by the artists themselves rather than by us trying to find a link. The same could be said about the essays in the books too. We invited people to write on the topic of jazz and blues influences in other African American art forms, and the contributors made the links. We didn’t have a predetermined set of definitions or characteristics. We were open to persuasion — and to skepticism. There’s a great piece by Michael Jarrett in Thriving on a Riff that questions the received wisdom on how these kinds of cross-genre links actually occur. He makes the point that changes in technology and media can change the way influence itself operates.

JJM  What are the earliest links between African American painting and music?

GL  The short answer is I don’t know for sure. There is a painting from the 1890’s by Henry Ossawa Tanner called The Banjo Lesson, which I think is one of the earliest African American paintings to have some musical content. But in terms of jazz and blues actually having an influence on art, this would probably have been in the 1920’s, in the work of painters like Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley.

DM  And you could say the same thing on the literary side. While there are accounts of jazz music going back to the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920’s that artists and writers took jazz themes and tried to compose them artistically. That was when they made this a part of the way they work.

JJM  You wrote, “It is no surprise . . . that the music has played a crucial part in African American visual art. What is surprising is the continuing neglect of this association, and of African American art in general, by both the academy and the commercial art world.”  Why has this association been neglected? Is it a simple matter of racism?

GL  I think it’s clear that racism has played a significant part in the exclusion of black artists from art galleries, and that is certainly the impression I got from talking to black artists. For instance, Vincent Smith, who started painting in the 1940’s, told me in 2003 that the art world in the States was the last bastion of white exclusivity. Several other people that I spoke to said the same sort of thing. On the other hand, there are more African American-run galleries now, as well as an increasing number of African American scholars and curators who are writing about black art, so I think the situation is beginning to improve in the States. However, there is still no wider public appreciation of black art, either in the United States or in Europe, and this neglect extends to the academy too. One of the reasons we did The Hearing Eye was that we couldn’t find any information about jazz and blues influences in African American art — all the books on music and art we looked at dealt almost exclusively with Western classical music and European art.

DM  It could be that people allow racial groups praise for particular things they do well, so, African Americans are praised for “being musical,” it is their “privileged form,” so to speak, and they are not given credit for their work in other art forms.

JJM There is an interesting essay in your book about black artists who rely on folk materials — like jazz music — and leave themselves open to racial stereotyping.

GL  Yes, I guess you’re thinking of Rose Piper, who did some fantastic paintings in the 1940’s based on blues recordings. But she was wary of people’s assumption that this kind of “black subject matter” was all that she, as a black artist, was supposed, or even able, to do. The contemporary collagist Sam Middleton makes a similar point in the book — he loves jazz and has featured it in much of his work but then felt he had to abandon it for a period. He said people were expecting him to paint jazz-related canvases just because he was black. So he quite deliberately began to focus on other kinds of subject matter, from seascapes to classical music, which he also likes.

I think it’s been true of particular styles of painting as well. Black artists have often been “allowed” to paint in the social realist style, whereas they have been excluded from the abstract art canon, which is absurd, because there have been some terrific abstract artists among African Americans — Norman Lewis, for example, who to my mind is among the major figures of the last 50 years, as is Joe Overstreet. There seems to be an expectation that black artists should be confined to painting in a certain way and about certain things, and if they stray outside of that, they are likely to be ignored or heavily criticized. It reminds me of what Anthony Braxton has said about jazz, that it is a zone in which black performers are allowed to play, but if they try to do any other kind of music, like opera or symphonies, they get hammered by the cultural gatekeepers.

JJM  Yes, and this was certainly true of the boundaries Hollywood once imposed on African Americans. They could be in a film as long as they expressed the characteristics of ignorance and fear and laziness. It is also well known that scenes depicting integration were cut so the film could be shown to a southern audience. So, there was a real consistency across all art forms about what type of art African Americans could participate in, and within what boundaries.

DM  That’s right.


“Monk taught me not to be afraid to take a chance, not to be afraid of making a mistake. Duke Ellington taught me that within the bounds of the thirty-two-bar song, you can weave colors – but within a discipline. Louis Armstrong…taught me a sense of humor and the pride to have while working. Your work is the interpretation of your free spirit, if you have one. Coltrane…taught me you were permitted to go as far as you want to go as long as you remember the principle you started out with.”

– painter Sam Middleton


 JJM To what extent did jazz music and the blues guide artists’ experiments with abstraction?

GL  It’s curious that Jackson Pollock is often associated with free jazz, I guess because Ornette Coleman used one of his paintings on the cover of the Free Jazz LP. But in fact Pollack predates free jazz. As far as we can tell, he was a big fan of swing and New Orleans jazz.

I don’t think you can draw up rules about this, because it seems to me that these artists, whoever or whatever their influences, are all influenced in very different and personal ways. The artist Joe Overstreet — whose Storyville series of paintings is partly influenced by New Orleans jazz and by his admiration for Louis Armstrong — said that he experimented with putting paint on newspaper, and then putting the newspaper onto the canvas, and this technique felt right to him for those particular paintings because he realized the texture that he got from the paint on the canvas reminded him of the texture of the music. That seems to me to be a very specific and personal kind of influence, to do with how he heard the music, and in lots of cases, influence works in this extremely subjective way.

DM  This is one of the things that our project generally found, that individual artists work in different ways. It was never very clear that they would compose while listening to the music, and in very few cases did we come across any really direct sense in which they were being inspired somatically to paint in a particular way. It would be nice to think that Jackson Pollock was listening to Ornette Coleman as he was painting, but as Graham said, he was listening to much earlier and less “free” music. So while there is a general feeling that these freewheeling paintings are influenced by some sort of freewheeling jazz, it is quite hard to pin down.

JJM  Richard King, one of your collection’s essayists, wrote that “It is not painter Bob Thompson’s choice of subject matter but his way of handling color and structural-spatial arrangements that were jazz influenced.”

GL This idea of jazz and blues impacting on the formal aspects of art is really intriguing to look at because, as Dave says, it is so slippery and subtle. Just thinking about it now, for example, there does seem to be some kind of recurring link between abstraction in art and musical influence. I’m thinking, for example, of the way Sara Wood, in her essay on the painter Norman Lewis, could link his interest in bebop with his approach to abstract expressionism. There is also a very interesting relationship between the figurative and the abstract in the work of, say, Joe Overstreet or Rose Piper, which may be linked in some way to the influence of the music.

JJM  How do the paintings of Rose Piper reflect the “sound” of the recordings she named her paintings after?

GL  Well, I try in The Hearing Eye to suggest a few possibilities. It’s all speculative, because by the time I was able to talk to Rose Piper, her memory had deteriorated so badly that she was unable to remember the paintings themselves, let alone the recordings that had influenced them. But in her Back Water canvas, for example, which we know was partly a response to Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” the foreground figure of the young woman perhaps corresponds to the voice of the singer — in terms of its dominant presence, its somber tone, et cetera — while the painting’s busy background of swirling waters and floating debris can be compared to the animated piano that James P. Johnson plays on the record.

In Piper’s slightly later, semi-abstract canvases, the correspondence is less literal and more elusive. I would liken her distortions and exaggerations of the figure, as a means of depicting heightened emotions, to the blues’ use of vivid hyperbole for the same reason, whether it’s about sitting on top of the world or pouring water on a drowning man. There’s a kind of stylized quality to the blues, a combination of terseness and exaggeration, which I think is akin to the semi-abstraction of the art.




“African art is like the blues; you know, when a blues musician sings a line, he’ll sing it twice but he’ll do something different with it the second time. He won’t repeat the same thing. If you look at African art, it’s never the same; it looks the same but it never is, it’s more free, what we call free symmetry, and African music is like free symmetry.”

– artist Wadsworth Jarrell


JJM  Essayist Robert O’Meally wrote that painter Romare Bearden “approaches his subjects not as a portrait painter might, or a landscape artist . . . but in the manner of a jazz musician.” He went on to talk about how you can understand jazz music’s aesthetic values in Bearden’s work, and how the process of making art is “jazz-like.” I think it goes back to what we were saying about where an artist gets his or her inspiration from, and what their process is. How these art forms are all interconnected is what makes this topic fascinating…

DM  While there is agreement that there are connections, they are as different as the artists themselves, and difficult to pin down. What we consistently find in all of the essays, as well as in everything that we write, is that we all want to make these connections, but as soon as we do we find that they are very tenuous, and very difficult to actually specify or define. In what sense is the art we write about “jazz-shaped” or “jazz-like”? As you say, that is one of the fascinating things about this.

GL  I think it was one of the impulses behind the books, to explore these cross-genre relationships in more depth. People had been aware of links between jazz and painting or jazz and poetry but tended to write about them in rather vague terms, invoking notions of spontaneity, improvisation and so forth, yet it’s a lot more complex and interesting than that. For instance, there’s a great essay in The Hearing Eye by Johannes Völz that asks, what about the role of the viewer in this cross-genre influence? If you’re looking at a canvas that’s “jazz-influenced”, how is that influence perceivable? How do you see it? How do you “hear” it? And how does that visual experience compare to listening to the music? So the focus is not only on tracing the musical influence on the painter but on the viewer too. We also look at other visual art forms. There are chapters on the photographer Roy DeCarava and the quilter Michael Cummings, and there is Paul Oliver’s survey of the graphic art in early advertisements for blues records — these are all fascinating areas.

JJM  This fascination carries over into film as well. There were several interesting essays in your books concerning the films that can be considered “jazz-related,” as well as the music written for them.

DM  One of the interesting things about working on the film portion of Thriving on a Riff was that, in most cases, we were writing about African American writers and artists who were working in a white-produced and white-directed Hollywood studio system. They worked within a “white agenda.” To some extent you could say that the treatment of jazz in film is different than in art because it is often already hedged about and censored when it appears in films in a way that art by an African American artist or writer is not. The influences come through more channels, and they come more disguised or controlled.


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