Arthur Dove, Art Gallery

Swing Era: Painting the Jazz Product

Arthur Dove, Swing Music (Louis Armstrong), 1938. Emulsion, oil, and wax on canvas, 17 1/2 x 26 in. Art Institute of Chicago.


A 1938 Life magazine article justified its title: "Swing: The Hottest and Best Kind of Jazz Reaches Its Golden Age," with the following explanation of the swing genre:
. . .all definitions agree that Swing is based on: 1) a driving but fluid and unmechanical rhythm over which 2) soloists improvise as they play. Whatever the definition, everybody admits that of all jazz Swing is musically the most vital and interesting.
In Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong also offers this union of soloist and skillful improvisation as the brilliant defining characteristic of swing:
Any average player, if he's worth anything at all, can follow through a score, as it's written there in front of him on his instrument rack. But it takes a swing player, and a real good one, to be able to leave that score and to know, or 'feel,' just when to leave it and when to get back on it.
Armstrong then went on to describe swing music as "a music that is truly American," stating that "until swing music came, America had no music it could really call its own."

In his abstract paintings of the late 1930s, Arthur Dove sought to establish a uniquely American style of visual art by emulating the uniquely American improvisational swing soloist. He experimented with line, color, and form to reflect the innovative rhythms of the swing musician.

In the 1938 painting Swing Music (Louis Armstrong), Dove provides a visual translation of the music of Swing's great father, Louis Armstrong. He employs red, a color often associated with Armstrong's instrument, the trumpet, in such phrases as "red hot trumpet" (also a Richard Rodgers song).

This painting was inspired by Dove's viewing of the 1937 film Artists and Models, in which Armstrong and his band appeared. The work dramatizes the Swing genre's uneasiness about the place of race in a now-mainstream music. The title of the painting celebrates Armstrong and the inspiration he provided for Dove. Nevertheless, the abstracted forms erase Armstrong's racial identity, just as Swing is sometimes seen as a "whitening" of jazz and erasure of its strong African-American roots.

Swing, and its technological dissemination, made jazz an experience common to all Americans. The music thus lost its status as a reflection of urban life. As it came to be seen as a pervasive part of American culture, writers, visual artists, and scholars began to study Swing and hypothesize its significance. In doing so, even when they celebrated the contributions of Swing artists, as Dove does in his tribute to Louis Armstrong, these thinkers robbed jazz of some of its status as an artful reflection on society. Now that jazz was so mainstream and commercialized, it was no longer viewed as an analytical art. The essays, paintings, and films which examined Swing were seen as the true instances of analysis.


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

Previous Painting | Next Painting