That’s jazz

August 1, 2009

Have you ever seen the 1920’s poster of jazz singer, Josephine Baker, performing at the Folies Bergères? She is wearing nothing but orange pompoms and has both arms and one leg flung high, her head at a quirky angle and her wide mouth set in a deep grin, making it abundantly clear that she is having the time of her life. Passion and soul emanate from every pore of her skin. The poster is so alive you can almost see it vibrate.
I write this column on the train from Barcelona to Montpellier. Yesterday we spent a marvellous couple of hours at the Century of Jazz exhibition at the CCCB contemporary art museum just off La Rambla. Glad of the airconditioning, we moved slowly, dipping in and out of alcoves that flanked the winding snake timeline displayed in a glass-topped showcase. It was packed with music scores, album covers and extracts from the press that told the story of jazz from its roots to the present day. Speakers played music of each period right from way back in the 19th century. Serendipitously, the first piece of music played was Gershwin’s Summertime. It did not escape me that this is the name I picked for my publishing company and chosen for its feelgood factor, for I am the kind of person who believes ‘fish are jumping and the cotton is high’. Seeing my business name up there in lights I realised that there would be something for me to learn there. A couple of display cases later I fell upon a small, faded facsimile of an article by Ernest Hopkins from the 1913 San Francisco Bulletin, its title: That’s Jazz. He wrote:

‘This remarkable and satisfactory sounding word, however, means something like life, vigour, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility, ebulliency, courage, happiness – oh what’s the use – JAZZ. Nothing else can express it [ . . . ] Anything that takes manliness or effort or strength of soul is “jazz”‘

As I read the words above I began to grin. The very ingredient that I urge my students and clients to add to their writing is what I have been calling ‘the wow factor’. But now I realise that my wow has its roots in jazz. Only jazz is much more than wow. Jazz makes you tap your feet. Jazz makes you glad to be alive. Jazz has an organic form that starts and ends in an interesting place and moves in loops, never straying far from its theme. Life and art and words and music take on an extra dimension when jazz is around.

The exhibition’s premise was to show the connection between art and music. We saw a crude sketch Picasso gave to Gertrude Stein of lumpen clowns dancing the Cake Walk. We learned how Mondrian’s gridlike primary colour paintings are in fact his interpretation of jazz; how Matisse, Jack Kerouac, F Scott-Fitzgerald and Jean-Paul Sartre all made jazz their own. How it influences prose and poetry and paintings but most of all how it influences people just like you and me.

Next time you are working on a piece of writing or a project I urge you to consider how you could add a little jazz to the mix. Sprinkle in some soul, passion, pep, life or verve. Add some pompoms, a flourish of genius. The Josephine Baker poster epitomises jazz. Could you inject the same vigour into your writing? Do you have the ‘manliness’, the strength, the courage to write in such a way that your reader begins to nod rhythmically as your words resonate and speak to his or her soul? If you can do that, then, as Hopkins wrote almost a century ago – ‘that’s jazz’.

If you would like to read more about Hopkins’ article and jazz then please click here.