The Art of Romare Bearden: A Resource for Teachers
Coda: Artist to Artist Method Artistic and Literary Sources Music A Leader in the Arts Community Memories Biography Bearden at a Glance

Music     1 of 6 

Music as Subject

Bearden looked to music—jazz and the blues—for many of his subjects. He painted entire series of works entitled Of the Blues and Of Jazz. They emerged from memory and experience of the South—of gospels and spirituals sung in church, of blue notes bending through warm nights. And they emerged from his life in New York—the sophistication of bands playing Harlem clubs, the excitement of crowded dance floors.

How could it be otherwise? When he was a boy, Bearden's family apartment was just across the street from the stage door of the Lafayette. Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald—they were all guests in the Bearden home. He lived only blocks from the Savoy Ballroom and for sixteen years worked in a studio above the fabled Apollo Theatre. Bearden saw jazz as a metaphor for the energy of life.

Let's look at three pairs of paintings and musical selections.

Of the Blues: Carolina Shout

Watery forms at the bottom and a leafy branch at the right suggest that these men and women are gathered to celebrate and sing praise at a river baptism. Their strong silhouettes, stark against a red background, open mouths, and emphatic gestures suggest the ecstatic responses of an amen corner, its shouts and moans rising in counterpoint to the phrasing of the preacher's words.

Listen to: James P. Johnson, "Carolina Shout"
Since Johnson's stride piano conjures a milieu of honky-tonks and dance halls, Bearden's image links sacred and profane.
Romare Bearden, Of the Blues: Carolina Shout, 1974
Romare Bearden, Of the Blues: Carolina Shout, 1974, Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, Museum Purchase: National Endowment of the Arts Matching Fund and the Charlotte Debutante Club Fund

Of the Blues: At the Savoy, 1974

For nearly a quarter-century after it first opened in 1926, the Savoy Ballroom was one of the most important venues in jazz, a place where innovation happened. Drummer Chick Webb opened there with his orchestra in 1931. Performing with singer Ella Fitzgerald, Webb's band had audiences "stomping." Dancers filled the 200-foot dance floor. Two bandstands kept the music playing continuously, till the wee hours. Bearden recalled the time: "everything you did was, you might say, geared to the groove."

Listen to: Chick Webb and his Orchestra, "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Slappin' Seventh Avenue (with the Sole of My Shoes)"
Romare Bearden, Of the Blues: At the Savoy, 1974
Romare Bearden, Of the Blues: At the Savoy, 1974, From the Collection of Raymond J. McGuire

Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1967

Bearden took the title for this collage from a blues song, "Good Chib Blues," first recorded in 1929.

Aah, tomorrow I may be far away
Oh, tomorrow I may be far away
Don't try to jive me, sweet talk can't make me stay

The shingled buildings and waiting black men come from Bearden's memories of North Carolina—blues singers and bottleneck guitars, farm hands, watermelon, and the ubiquitous sound of a train in the distance, taking African-American north.

Listen to: Edith Johnson, "Good Chib Blues" and "Autumn Lamp"
Romare Bearden, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1966/1967
Romare Bearden, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1966/1967, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Fund

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