Paris' Quai Branly Museum celebrates 'Jazz Century'
By By Sebastian Rotella
Apr 06, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The Quai Branly Museum, a steel-and-glass palace on the Seine River, has news for the culture world: "Three Little Bops" is art.
The Looney Tunes cartoon from 1957 retells the Three Little Pigs as a jazz fable with music by trumpeter Shorty Rogers, a luminary of the West Coast school. The Big Bad Wolf is a lousy trumpeter trying to sit in with a swinging trio of pigs. He gets the bum's rush, blows down two clubs and ends up in hell after a mishap with TNT.
But the wolf's ghost returns wailing as sweetly as Rogers himself. The pianist porker proclaims the moral: "You gotta get hot to play real cool."
FOR THE RECORD: Jazz greats: A photo caption and an article in Monday's Section A about "The Jazz Century" exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris misspelled the name of trumpet player Roy Eldridge as Elridge. —
That animated nugget is part of a jazz-themed film montage in "The Jazz Century," a new exhibition here. The montage also features a stylized 1944 short, "Jammin' the Blues," with all-stars led by Lester Young on sax and cigarette. And -- bien sur -- Jerry Lewis cavorts with the Harry James Orchestra in "The Ladies' Man."
The exhibition, which opened three weeks ago, explores a 20th century musical revolution that had a profound influence on other art forms. The African American roots of jazz explain the setting: The 3-year-old Quai Branly is dedicated to ethnic and indigenous arts of the Americas, Asia and Africa.
"It's more poetic than scientific," said Daniel Soutif, the curator, as workers put final touches on display cases last month. "Jazz infected other arts, leaving traces everywhere: painting, film, comic books, literature, even classical music. This isn't musicological. You won't find Louis Armstrong's trumpet."
Until June 28, though, you'll find sounds and images of Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and other giants in many incarnations, almost 1,000 works in a time-travel promenade through 10 chronological rooms: pre-1917 New Orleans, the swing era, postwar bebop and so on. Forty listening posts, starting with a scratchy "Maple Leaf Rag" from 1898, create a pleasant cacophony.
As Soutif admits, the approach is eclectic. Connoisseurs will enjoy obscure treasures such as magazine articles tracking Duke Ellington through the years. A French piece from 1928 begins with Ellington's mother answering the door of his apartment one afternoon and waking up the night-owl genius for the interview. Twenty-four years later, the mature bandleader poses suavely for an Ebony cover with a curious juxtaposition of headlines: "The Most Exciting Women I Have Known" and "White by Day, Negro by Night."
Other displays celebrate faded art forms: illustrated sheet music covers, posters for concerts and films. The work of graphic artist Marvin Israel adorns four album covers from the early 1960s, psychedelic melting images of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt and Milt Jackson.
Generations of photographers capture poetry in faces. Ben Webster, an aging lion, broods in a Paris dressing room in a photo by Guy Le Querrec in 1968. Billie Holiday comes off as rowdy yet dignified in a 1949 shot by Carl Van Vechten.
Bands, dancers, clubs and street scapes served as subjects for painters such as Aaron Douglas, an African American of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, and Thomas Hart Benton, a white, left-wing realist.
But the offerings also encompass abstract artists indirectly inspired by jazz, such as Jackson Pollock. Although his riotous canvases might suggest free jazz at its wildest, it turns out Pollock was a traditionalist who preferred old-school Dixieland and swing.
As the exhibition strays further from music, it gets increasingly adventurous. There are intriguing choices: a comic book with musicians as protagonists. The poetry of Langston Hughes. An excerpt from the French translation of a novel by Chester Himes, the Harlem crime writer: "Linda was singing Broken-Hearted Blues when Walker came in. She stood in a pale blue spotlight near a grand piano played by a big slim black, whose bald head gleamed in the light."
But as things get a little weird and undisciplined in the 1960s and 1970s, dissonant notes pop up. An uninspired collage by the Italian artist Mimmo Rotella is called "Crazy for Jazz," but consists mainly of images of Elvis Presley.
In addition, a few early 20th century caricatures of African Americans are questionable or offensive. The curator asserts that such images have historical significance and should not be erased by political correctness.
Overall, though, "The Jazz Century" exudes a contagious French passion that began when jazz was still struggling to enter the pantheon of fine arts.
That enthusiasm saves giants from becoming ghosts. Among the most wistful images on display: Art Kane's classic photo from Esquire magazine, known as Harlem, 1958, and a follow-up.
In 1958, Kane assembled 57 artists on a stoop on 126th Street. Dizzy Gillespie sticks out his tongue at fellow trumpet man Roy Elridge. Pianists Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams look like grande dames. Count Basie sits grinning on the curb next to a row of neighborhood boys.
In 1996, Life magazine returned to the stoop to re-create the image with 10 artists from the original. The building was abandoned, roofless, smeared with graffiti.