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Hear With Your Eyes: Jazz and Art

How to hear Bessie Smith “sing” in Romare Bearden’s art

Empress Bessie

Jazz Royalty

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith wasn’t the only “royal” member of the jazz family. Think of other jazz royalty like “Duke” Ellington and “Count” Basie.

Hear With Your Eyes and See With Your Ears

Can you hear that red-hot trumpet in the middle of the artwork shown above? How about the full, rich tones in the vocals of Bessie Smith?

At the height of her fame, blues singer Bessie Smith was really known as “the Empress.” So it was no joke when Romare Bearden titled his painting, Empress of the Blues. Smith was one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s and early 1930s with hits such as “Downhearted Blues” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” In this 1974 work, the six-foot-tall Smith commands the picture like she did audiences during her lifetime. Her printed blouse and bright yellow skirt clearly take center stage.

Romare Bearden grew up in New York City, and for many years, he had a studio above the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. There, the artist often heard live music—especially jazz and blues—and he met many musicians. No surprise, then, that Bearden created dozens of artworks about jazz music, clubs, and performers. He also designed album covers and wrote song lyrics.

Bearden expressed his love of jazz in his art-making process. Arranging form and color, he took cues from musical concepts such as rhythm, repetition, and improvisation. Let’s “hear” with our eyes as we explore Bearden’s Empress of the Blues.

Improvisation

“Trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days. It seems that trouble’s going to follow me to my grave.”
—Bessie Smith, from the song “Downhearted Blues”

“Even though you go through these terrible experiences, you come out feeling good. That’s what the blues say and that’s what I believe—life will prevail.”
—Romare Bearden

Riffing on Collage

Romare Bearden worked in all kinds of media, but his collages won wide acclaim. Have you made collages? Yes? Then you already know the first step in making collages: cutting out shapes from colored paper or cutting pictures from printed pages. You then arrange the cut-outs and glue them down. There are no beginning sketches. Artists just move the pieces around until the picture feels balanced and pleasing. Because the process is unplanned, collage is a form of improvisation, which musicians—especially jazz and blues artists—practice, too.

In jazz, solo musicians improvise as a form of artistry. They don’t use sheet music. Instead, they repeat a series of chords or notes with their own variations. Improvisation is sometimes called “riffing” on a theme. Jazz musicians must practice for years and develop great musical skill to improvise successfully during performances.

Likewise, improvisation in art takes practice and skill. In Empress, Bearden masterfully fused several art techniques. After forming the collage, he added acrylic paint and drew in details. Bold slabs of bright colors evoke Smith’s vibrant performances. Centering the scene on Smith and the trumpeter, Bearden suggests a key element of jazz—and one of Smith’s strengths—the call-and-response duet. Check out the sample of Bessie Smith’s calling and responding with trumpet player Louis Armstrong in "St. Louis Blues" from 1925 below:

Call-and-response began with African American work songs and spirituals—soulful music that helped them endure and overcome the trials of slavery. Blues performers draw on deep traditions when they use “call and re-call,” which is what Bearden termed it. He wanted to refer to those same African American traditions in his artworks.

Repetition

A Chorus of Shapes

Visual repetition, similar to a musical refrain, highlights important elements in an artwork. Finding those refrains helps us to “hear” Empress of the Blues.

What is repeated here? The legs and feet of the front-row musicians form a striking pattern in black. The three saxophones and the clarinet in the back row are held at the same angle. The spaces under the piano bench, the piano legs, and chair legs all form similar blocks of rectangular color. Although they represent space, not objects, the blocks remain vibrant elements of the scene—just like intervals, or pauses, in music. Arms, hands, and faces all form multiples. Even the black suits repeat across the canvas, making Smith’s yellow skirt and shoes the “stars” of the painting.

Just like the recurring chorus of a song, or the repeated tune in each verse, repetition anchors artworks with structure. These patterns create a sense of order and beauty.

Rhythm

Color the Beat

Repeated lines, angles, and shapes form a kind of rhythm in Empress of the Blues. Color does the same thing. Bearden paired blocks of red and green on each side for a sense of balance. Our eyes move from the left field of green to the green slab on the right, then to the central red field, down Bessie Smith’s figure to the red floor on the left. Then we see the blue section of floor.

What does that field of blue do? It sets the painting “off kilter” a bit—somewhat like flattened “blues notes” do in typical blues chords. Listen to this blues chord:

How does that chord make you feel? Does it make you feel sad? Most people listen to blues chords and hear both beauty and sadness.

After seeing the blue floor, where does your eye go next? It probably scans up to the brass section and follows that raised trumpet toward Bessie’s uplifted hand and arm, and then over to the bass, the drums, and the piano. Bearden composed, or arranged, the picture to lead our eyes across the scene in a particular pattern.

The movement of our eyes, the pulsing of bright colors, and the repeated shapes, all combine to create a rhythm. You can imagine hearing it if you pay close attention. Do you imagine a slow or fast tempo? Romare Bearden would be pleased you took the time to look—whatever you hear!

Credits

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Producer

Sources

Romare Bearden (1912–1988), Empress of the Blues, 1974, acrylic and pencil on paper and printed paper, 36 x 48 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase in part through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

"St. Louis Blues" (1925, Columbia) by W.C. Handy, produced by Frank Walker. Bessie Smith (vocals), Louis Armstrong (cornet), Fred Longshaw (harmonium)

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