A BEARDEN-MURRAY INTERPLAY: ONE LAST TIME
Before 1987, I had only seen the results of the longstanding collaboration between Romare Bearden and Albert Murray by attending exhibitions at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in New York. In two of these (Profile/Part 1: The Twenties, 1978; and Profile/Part II: The Thirties, 1981), Bearden's memories of Mecklenburg County, Pittsburgh and Harlem-as told to Murray-had been concentrated in a series of short narratives handwritten on the gallery wall beneath the collages. Under a collage entitled Sunset Limited, for instance, with a train steaming though a field where a woman held a baby while a horse and chickens fed lazily, was the memory: The last time I saw Liza down at the station when I left for Pittsburgh on the 5:13. Each series was a visual and continuum which had great sonority for me.
By Myron Schwartzman
Callaloo Vol. 11 No. 3, p.410-415
Reconstructing the texture of the interchange by interviewing Bearden and Murray separately starting in 1978, and asking each of them to describe their collaboration, I came to realize that it had begun as early as the first exhibition of "Projections" at Cordier & Ekstrom in 1964. Within the "Projections," huge 4' \ 5' photostatically enlarged black-and-white photomontages hung alongside their companion collages (mostly 9" x 12"); one series was named The Prevalence of Ritual-Albert Murray's title.
On May 27, 1987, I accompanied Murray on a visit to Bearden's Long Island City studio. Bearden was in the midst of creating a series of large jazz collages with Andrew Teabo, a young Canadian painter who had learned from the master over a period of years and was now assisting him with such virtuosity that very few words passed between them: it seemed they could read each other's minds. Some eight collages had been completed, another two were in progress, and the wooden backings had been prepared for a number of others.
What took place was a conversation (largely by Murray, for, as Murray himself said, Bearden's collages stood there speaking eloquently for themselves), in the course of which a number of collages were named, placed in groups moving from jazz soloists, to duets, to ensembles, to a large New Orleans Storeyville scene which framed the ensemble in a mirror, focusing the pattern of the whole. Each collage title was formulated much as jazz musicians would explore all the nuances of a song in the course of an extended improvisation.
The first collage we saw was nearly completed: it depicted a pianist in profile at an upright piano, his large left hand with a wristwatch displayed prominently, a derby cocked down over his head, a cigar in his mouth, a bow-tie and ornate vest. There was nothing "nice" about the look of this man. His face was almost a mask, and his entire bearing suggested that when he sat down at the piano, he meant business insofar as any other piano player was concerned, while at the same time (as James P. Johnson put it) "With the music he played, the ticler's manner would put the question in the ladies' minds: 'Can he do it like he can play it?'" He could not only obliterate the reputation of whoever had had the misfortune to sit at that piano before him, but could play with such virtuosity that whoever followed would approach the instrument with fear and trembling.
To Murray, he recalled the early masters of the stride piano, Willie the Lion Smith and James P. Johnson, whose "Carolina Shout" had suggested the title of one of the greatest of Bearden's collages, now in the permanent collection of the Mint Museum in Bearden's birthplace, Charlotte, North Carolina. James P. Johnson, in a 1955 conversation with Tom Davin later published in The Jazz Review, described Jelly Roll Morton's attitude and bearing as he approached the piano:
". . . he'd take a big silk handkerchief, shake it out to show it off properly, and dust off the stool. He'd sit down then, hit his special chord (every tickler had his special trade-mark chord, like a signal) and he'd be gone!"
Murray went on to tallk about the three second-generation masters, Duke Ellington, Cout Basie, and Fats Waller, each of whom had refined the stride style and made it uniquely his. For Murray, "Duke kept most of it." He then pointed out that one of the most obvious influences of the stridemen on Ellington was the emphasis (like that described by James P.) which he placed on a unique signature opening chord: "Then what we have, was Duke hitting that goddamn first chord, one that nobody ever heard before!"
By then, Bearden and Murray were improvising on these variations, moving toward a title.
* * *
BEARDEN: Good idea, in thinking of a first chord. . .
MURRAY: Uh huh, um hum. You know, since this guy's got this light brown-skinned color on him, he could be Seminole, one of the most famous guys that used to tear everybody up. Basie had a little episode in Good Morning Blues about running into him out in Tulsa-Seminole! He was a left-handed piano player. He had a left hand like everybody else's right hand.
BEARDEN: Yeah. The first thing that Eubie Blake and all the others would say about any pianist was "Let me see his left hand."
MURRAY: That's right! Or if they didn't, they would say: "Been sick? Were you in an accident? You're not using your left hand very much. I guess you just took it out of a cast." He would look around and say: "Well, I was lookin' for your sling!"
[Looking further at the collage:] Well, you can tell that this guy is a dandy. He reminds me of Seminole, who was also a guitar player-same thing, left handed. Left handed guitar player. When he hit town, boy, those people at the Rhythm Club took notice. And Basie said, "I didn't know anything about him, but I met him out there in Tulsa, and that was enough."
[Now thinking about names:] Yeah, okay, maybe you get variations like "Seminole Comes to Town"; "Seminole Opens"; or "Arrives in Harlem," you know?
MURRAY: Or you could have a completely ambiguous title, like "The Statement"! [Both laugh]. That's visual, auditory, and everything else, right? "The Statement" [savoring it for its appeal]. Then put on a subtitle like "Uptown Manhattan, 1924." [They laugh]. Or 1923, something like that.
BEARDEN: That's good.
MURRAY: You know what I mean? He makes a total statement. It's real subtle, given its plastic elegance.
* * *
By then they had the title, a synthesis of the "opening chord" from their conversation about Duke Ellington, the idea of an opening from the conversation about Seminole, and the concept of that opening as a statement. Hence: "Opening Statement." Murray summed it up:
"I think what Romy's captured in that collage is a significant moment in the tradition of the Harlem stride piano player, which incidentally is also connected with the rent party, performance, as well as what became the basis of the compositions of people like Lucky Roberts, James P. Johnson, the 'Beetle' Henderson-the people under whose influence Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Count Basie came to maturity.
"There's an emphasis on playful elegance that Romy's got in the dress, which already suggests the elegance of his movements. And there's no question about the fact that the sounds which came out of the piano were consistent with everything about him. There's something about that which recalls James P. Johnson's description of the care with which these piano players selected their wardrobes, how they made their entrances, and how they took the time to pull their very fancy silk-lined overcoats off, and, instead of folding them, lay them lengthwise along the top of the upright piano in prominent display. Then they sat down at the piano, dusted the stool off with a silk handkerchief-sporting a fancy hat which cost a lot of money, cocked at a certain angle, took out a very fine cigar, and a gadget to clip it with, took a light, put it down, made a few runs on the piano to see if it were in tune, showing off their diamonds, rings, as well as their cufflinks. At that time, I don't think that wrist watches were very prominent. But if they had been, they would have come into play too, as Romy has chosen to depict him here. They probably had these fancy vest pocket watches, studded with fancy chain through a buttonhole. Because you see, he is wearing a waistcoat."
BEARDEN: Yeah, when I first came to the city with my mother and father, way back when I was a little boy, I lived on 53d Street with my Aunt Anna. And then later, there was another Afro-American community around 98th and 99th Street, right off Central Park West. Then people began to move up around 133rd, 135th Street. And when I moved to 115th Street and Morningside Drive, I met a heavyweight boxer. I used to come up all the time to see Benny Leonard-he was living there. So that was a whole change around the neighborhood.
MURRAY: Now at that time, a number of people had been performing in the Tenderloin section of New York. Something about this painting suggests the style with which some of the sharpest guys were still having their tailoring done downtown, below 42nd Street.
The rent party had to do with the fact that these people had recently moved into these big fancy Harlem apartments, which sometimes were beyond their normal means. And they would augment their incomes by having a party. In addition to serving drinks and food, they would have one more thing. They would have a piano there.
BEARDEN: The Rhythm Club started in the 20's. When you gave a party, you always called the Rhythm Club and said "I want a piano player."
MURRAY: And the fancy piano players-they were stride or Easter Ragtime piano players-would come in and play, and sometimes contests would take place. These doings would go on all night. And the proceeds would help the renters to keep the place intact. This is not a story of poverty; this is a story about elegance, and high living, and realizing yourself on a high level. We're talking about urbanity, we're talking about all that sort of thing. So this statement that he makes: a soloist coming into town made a statement, and the statement was in his bearing, in his being, his style, as well as his sound.
MURRAY: Much of that is suggested, and much more. You've got a whole story out of this painting.
* * *
Here then was the collaboration at work. If Murray had done most of the talking, it was because, as Murray put it, Bearden "is sustained by another set of dynamics. His statement is there. It can stand on its own, without anything, but sometimes people want a certain type of association to go with it. You know how some people are. You show them a picture, they want a legend. You recount a legend, they want illustration.
"Romy is too consistent with all of this stuff not to know precisely what he is doing, and it's the literary man that has to come to terms with what he's doing. It's his consistency which makes it possible to say this is a Bearden. What is 'a Bearden'? A Bearden statement. That's always the whole thing. Now, he might deal with a 'chapter,' he might deal with a sequence, or he might deal with just a detail, but it will all go together ultimately because there's a consistency in the way his sensibility works. And the literary legend-maker, as it were, tries to find clues to that consistency."
BEARDEN: Sometimes it gets too abstract to work out in my mind. You need some other kind of reinforcement. I think all artists do.
MURRAY: Once a person develops an identity, then there's a consistency about his sensibility and how it operates. And it's going to be that which eventually is goin gto emerge from his oeuvre, right? So we say "a Bearden." And it's compounded of many many things: it's not original with him. It's in the unique, personal combination of elements that his individuality or originality consists. He's the only one in the world who makes that particular combination, that particular response. And that in itself will become a part of a special world that he has created. All artists do that: "If I don't invent the world, who's going to invent it?" The legend-maker comes along and sort of finds that. And if he is lucky enough to have the corroboration of the person involved, such as I've had with Romy, you've got a duet.
Given Romy's eyes, his fingers, and his background, he knows exactly what he's doing, and he doesn't have to explain it to himself before doing it. But now, if he's facing the problem of explaining it to somebody else, then he wants literary assistance to verbalize it, as it were, in retrospect-verbalize it in a way that will somehow or other make him feel the way he felt when he was doing it. When I make the right verbal response on one level or another, he'll say "That's it!"
"Artists reinvent the world," I offered.
BEARDEN: Yes, that's right.
MURRAY: And with Romy, there is always that level of self-consciousness. It's something that has made us communicate with each other over this long period of 37 years. He knew what these other literary and philosophical elements were, and he was always aware of the dialogue. If you wanted to talk about anything that happened in painting, even if he had reservations about it, he was still thoroughly checked out in it. The difference for me, is that Romy was always talking about something he knew about, not something he just took a glance at. And that puts him in touch with all these things at all times. You've got to deal with it on that level if you're going to really take on the challenge of dealing with painting at its best, which means reinventing painting for your own time.
BEARDEN: Um hum. Yes, it's just as someone said, with another meaning, "Great poets always write poems about the spring, because each year, people forget how beautiful the spring is." And so it's the same thing as Al said, you've got to reinvent the spring, really, every year.
* * *
Hemingway had said as much in A Moveable Feast, published posthumously: "Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
"In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed."
Spring came finally for Romy this year. He kept painting until a day before entering hospital for the last time. His body failed him, but his spirit went on creating and recreating the spring.
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