Stuart Davis, Art Gallery

Swing Era: Painting the Jazz Product

Stuart Davis, Swing Landscape, 1938. Oil on canvas, 86 3/4 x 172 7/8 in. Bloomington, Indiana University of Art

As a young New York artist during the 1910s, Stuart Davis (1892-1964) painted realistic renderings of jazz saloons in order to get at the heart of the modern urban experience. Davis later recalled that he was:
. . . particularly hep to the jive, for that period, and spent much time listening to the Negro piano players in Newark dives. About the only thing then available on phonograph records was the Anvil Chorus. Our musical souls craved something a bit more on the solid side and it was necessary to go to the source to dig it. These saloons catered to the poorest Negroes, and outside of beer, a favorite drink was a glass of gin with a cherry in it which sold for five cents. . .
But the big point with us was that in all of these places you could hear the blues, or tin-pan alley tune[s] turned into real music, for the cost of a five cent beer.
As jazz itself became increasingly commercialized and popularized, however, it could no longer be seen as an artful (African-)Americanization of the commercialism of tin-pan alley. The urban African-American experience as personified by jazz could no longer represent the the "primitive" emotional and artistic core of America.

By the Swing Era, jazz was America's most popular musical genre. The technological intervention of the recording industry had brought jazz to a greater number of Americans by immortalizing it on records and broadcasting it through the radio. These technologies made jazz a universal, pervasive part of the American landscape. Davis found that, although he no longer set out with the explicit purpose of painting the "jazz scene," his paintings, which had made a drastic shift in style from realist to abstract, could not help being informed by the pervasive (commercialized) jazz sensibility of American culture. He wrote:

. . . I have always liked hot music. There's something wrong with any American who doesn't. But I never realized that it was influencing my work until one day I put on a favorite record and listened to it while I was looking at a painting I had just finished. Then I got a funny feeling. If I looked, or if I listened, there was no shifting of attention. It seemed to amount to the same thing--like twins, a kinship. After that, for a long time, I played records while I painted.
Davis' works now concentrated on tecnological communication of jazz, rather than on creation of jazz music itself. Jazz no longer reflected the particular sensibilities of the urban African-Americans who initially created it; rather, the broadcasting of jazz both caused and reflected a shift in the sensibilities of all Americans. Davis explained:
[Movies and radio] allow us to experience hundreds of diverse scenes, sounds and ideas in a juxtaposition that has never before been possible. Regardless of their significance they force a new sense of reality and this must of course be reflected in art.
Davis employed this new method of envisioning reality in 1938's Swing Landscape, a mural depicting the Gloucester Massachusetts waterfront which Davis created for the Williamsburg Housing Project in New York. Abstract colors, lines, and curves reflect entry of the "swing sensibility" as a tangible force on the American landscape.

Such abstract representations of the jazz "product" and its influence on American culture as a whole erased race from the picture, and stood in stark contrast with earlier realistic portraits of the early urban African-American jazz scene. Davis' visual depictions of jazz during the swing era thus paralleled the "whitening" of jazz in the form of swing.


Resources: Donna M. Cassidy, Painting the Musical City: Jazz and Cultural Identity in American Art, 1910-1940, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1997.
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