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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
They emerged from memory and experience of the South—of gospels
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.
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
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,
Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, Museum Purchase: National
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
"stomping." Dancers filled the 200-foot dance floor. Two bandstands
kept the music playing continuously, till the wee hours. Bearden
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, 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,
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, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Fund
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