A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

What’s in your record collection, and what does it say about who you are and what you do? Of course, what with live performances, radio, television, and innumerable internet sources, the opportunity to hear music of any style, time period, or specific artist today is inexhaustible and all but effortless, so maintaining a collection could be considered Old School, at least – and even the word “record” is ambiguous if not obsolete: are we talking about LPs, or CDs and tapes too? How about Edison cylinders, for that matter? It’s all sound preserved, officially, for the record. Nevertheless, the desire to possess what we most appreciate is a sign of not just availability but need, of a stronger association, a deeper, more fulfilling relationship. New, digital, substance-less storage systems notwithstanding, the reality of having the music in the form of an object, to have and to hold, still retains its appeal for some of us Luddites, despite the limitations of shelf space and the uncomplaining-only-to-a-point tolerance of whomever shares our abode. What we keep closest to us reveals something about our image of ourselves, representing our interests, desires, obsessions, and secrets – especially something as personal and inspirational as the music that is most meaningful to us.

So what could be more revealing than looking at someone’s record collection? Would you like a peek at President Obama’s? Bill Gates’? Kim Kardashian’s? Stephen King’s? How about Jackson Pollock’s record collection? Who even knew that Pollock, the modern artist equally respected and reviled, depending on your point of view, for his mid-century game-changing re-invention and expansion of painterly techniques and the subsequent reconsideration of abstract painting’s imagery, sensibility, and form, had any interest in music? But he did – as I discovered when, looking online for something otherwise completely unrelated, I stumbled upon the list of Pollock’s 78 rpm collection found in the attic and donated to the University of Stony Brook Foundation along with their property in The Springs, East Hampton, Long Island, after the death of his wife, Lee Krasner, in 1984. Pollock, who flipped his car and was thrown into a tree during a drunken ride in 1956 (he was 44), as it turns out, was a jazz hound – but maybe not the kind of jazz you might expect.

Though his career as a painter began in 1942 when his first, neo-Surrealist canvases – scenes haunted by mythic archetypes, distorted figures, and especially disembodied eyes, a recurring obsession probably the result of his Jungian therapy for alcoholism – were exhibited by a New York gallery, Pollock spent the next few years trying various methods of scribbling lines, congesting textures, and even pouring paint to obscure or obliterate the images that bedeviled him. It wasn’t until 1946 when he made a breakthrough – conceptual, technical, and apparently psychological – that allowed him to create his most recognizable and notorious work over the next ten years, though not without serious emotional and artistic conflicts. There’s a small (19 x 14 inches), modest canvas consisting of black and white paint dripped, poured, and smudged in swirling lines across and around the empty space, dated 1946, called, appropriately enough, Free Form, which suggests that he was experimenting with a new conceptual approach, rejecting the freely associative dream themes adopted from Surrealism (which Pollock, a thoughtful, knowledgeable, likely bipolar, often starkly articulate man, seemed to identify with symbolically and psychologically) and freeing his technique towards a pure, non-imagistic style of improvisation. By 1947 he was developing these drip, pour, and spatter techniques, but on a much larger scale, and the fluid, intricately detailed, all-over lines that filled the empty canvas were now the primary visual content. Spontaneous action became the record of the event which supplied the abstract imagery which identified the experience. To many people these paintings looked frightening, confusing, shocking, chaotic, violent, and ugly – all words which had been used to describe jazz in its early years as well, starting with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s records in 1917.

Is it a coincidence that the jazz that Jackson Pollock preferred, the kind that made up the bulk of his record collection, was trad jazz? Of course, when he started listening to it and collecting the discs, it was hot off the presses. Rather surprisingly, he owned more records featuring Art Hodes than any other single musician – Hodes on Blue Note, playing a modified New Orleans/Chicago hybrid, the pianist himself heavily indebted to Jelly Roll Morton and the blues, with sidemen like trumpeter Max Kaminsky, clarinetist Rod Cless, and stalwart bassist Pops Foster. Roughhouse, rollicking Chicago-style from the ‘30s seemed to be Pollock’s favorite; there are also records of groups led by Eddie Condon, brassmen Jimmy McPartland and Wild Bill Davison, Jack Teagarden, drummer George Wettling, pianist Joe Sullivan (with Sidney Bechet on hand), and clarinetists Joe Marsala and even Frank Teschemacher, Pee Wee Russell’s mentor and pal. But he knew the originators too – Morton is there, as are a few Armstrongs, Kid Ory, and Fats Waller. He didn’t ignore the more popular big bands of the day; Ellington, Basie, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw are all represented, and he found room for Earl Hines, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Will Bradley, and Charlie Barnet, possibly for living room dancing. For small group swing he had Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, and Nat Cole. Billie Holiday apparently was his favorite vocalist, but he also collected Maxine Sullivan, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Lee Wiley, and Mahalia Jackson. And there were odds and ends like show tunes, society bandleader Eddie Duchin, and blues singers Josh White and T-Bone Walker. Conspicuously absent: any trace of bebop.

One might think the linear impulsiveness of Bird and Diz, and bop’s edgy concatenation of rhythms, would emotionally correspond to the spontaneous, quick, nervous energy Pollock displayed in Hans Namuth’s famous film of him in action. But while rhythm – a sense of the gestural movement which produced what essayist Kirk Varnedoe called “an omnidirectional network of incident,” as well as the control (being “in rhythm,” like the musician’s ability to feel the implicit rhythm without being conscious of it) necessary to make the best possible creative decisions in the moment – was at the core of the painter’s method, he gave no indication that he was motivated by specific musical patterns or syncopated beats. Pollock was quoted often about the importance of having his creative impetus come from the subconscious, meaning devising techniques that enabled him to control the parameters of the improvisation without predetermining shapes or forms, and not allowing mere chance to determine the details for him. But there’s also the sense of visual rhythmic play that occurs, especially in abstract paintings where our eye is not distracted by recognizable images, but follows the illusion of movement and timing within the unpredictable, changing degrees of detail – thickness or thinness and the contours of line, the direction of the flow, the density and intensity of events, gradation of colors, positions of points of attack and withdrawal. It’s been said he didn’t listen to music when he painted, but did the rhythms in his subconscious inspire the freedom of his application of paint to canvas, his spontaneous physical movement around and inside the painting? In the spirit of this subconscious rendering of detail, although the effect was certainly not intended to be a literal or even symbolic representation, the colorful polyphony of lines in paintings like Autumn Rhythm (where the title is particularly apt) or Untitled (Mural) 1950, suggests the loose, interweaving counterpoint of a New Orleans or Chicago ensemble much more than the angular, razor-sharp audible shapes of bebop.

Pollock’s love of jazz was, like everything else in his life, passionate and potentially explosive. Lee Krasner was frequently quoted commenting on Pollock’s marathon listening sessions (“Day and night, day and night for three days running until you thought you would climb the roof!” – the worn-out grooves of the surviving 78s prove they were played endlessly) and his belief that jazz was “the only other creative thing happening in this country.” That statement, remember, was pre-1956. So it’s ironic that the best-known association of Pollock with jazz was the use of his White Light (1954) as part of the cover design of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz (released in 1961). Not only that, but in 1959, in the liner notes to Change Of The Century, Ornette had suggested there was a connection in the “continuity of expression” between his music and Pollock’s paintings (one suspects he’s implying something about the extended nature of lyrical improvisation, that is, an abstract expressionism, visual or musical, without a reliance on external structures). Today, the relationship between Pollock’s improvisational state-of-mind and free jazz (Ornette’s variety and that of subsequent others) is so unequivocal that it’s easy to forget that the influence flowed in only one direction – Pollock never heard a note of Ornette’s music, or anything more advanced than bebop, which he had no use for. In describing Pollock’s work as characteristically American, Kirk Varnedoe focuses on “certain traits – huge scale, headlong dynamism, untrammeled individualism, and (ironically, given European history after 1939) violence” ... which could, from the free jazz critic’s viewpoint, equally describe the music of Peter Brötzmann. (For what it’s worth, in his text for the book Jackson Pollock, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1999, Varnedoe never mentions jazz.)

In notes which he prepared for a 1951 radio interview, Pollock wrote down some fragmented ideas relating to his improvisational process. One statement (“Technic [sic] is the result of a need”) is reminiscent of the one-time critical controversy over Thelonious Monk’s piano playing, another (“New needs demand new technics” [sic]) echoes something John Cage once wrote (although Cage reportedly did not like Pollock, his art, or his stance on improvisation, and turned down the opportunity to compose the music for Hans Namuth’s film, which then fell to Morton Feldman). But in paintings like Full Fathom Five (1947), with its dark, Gothic mood (akin to the profound depth of a Jimmy Yancey blues); Number 2, 1949, which seems to dance across the canvas with the eccentric gait of Monk up from the keyboard; or the seductive yet dangerous web of Lucifer (1947); Pollock achieved his goal of “energy and motion made visible.” Paintings like these serve the same ultimate end as the jazz performances he admired and collected, they communicate a moving perspective on a broad range of “human needs and motives.” And, yes, they swing.

Art Lange©2015

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