cover image JAZZ MODERNISM: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce

JAZZ MODERNISM: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce

Alfred Appel. Knopf, $35 (296pp) ISBN 978-0-394-53393-3

What do Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington have to do with James Joyce and Pablo Picasso? A lot, if you buy Appel's argument in this erudite but misguided analysis of the classical jazz era (1920–1950). Appel's goal, he states up front, is to locate jazz "in the great modernist tradition in the arts." He traces jazz influences through dozens of famous masterpieces, from the colorful rhythms of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie to the "rat-a-tat-tat" dialogue of Hemingway's short story "The Killers." Appel's most intriguing analysis comes when he breaks down the "syncopated prose" of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in Ulysses to find that it clocks in at a jazz-like 86 beats per minute (doubling in tempo at the end, in true bebop fashion). These are interesting if familiar examples of white artists borrowing from their black jazz counterparts. But Appel (Signs of Life) is less successful in showing that these influences ran the other way—in some cases, he resorts to somewhat dubious connections. How helpful is it, for example, to say that Armstrong's scat vocalizations evoke "grotesquely sprung eyeballs in Picasso's preliminary drawings for Guernica"? Or that Fats Waller and his band embodied the "black flame" in an obscure Matisse painting? Appel is generally more persuasive when his evidence is specific, as in one extended passage where he meticulously documents how Waller undermined the black minstrel songs white audiences expected him to perform. Despite Appel's tendency to stretch material to fit his thesis, his book is an illuminating tour through some of the 20th century's great artistic achievements. Illus. (Sept. 19)