Jazz exhibit answers the question `why?'

Studio artists inspired by American rhythms

July 15, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Jazz came to America 300 years ago in chains," said Paul Whiteman, the great bandleader of the 1920s.

But its rhythmic and harmonic genius would not stay fettered for long, and when its irresistible syncopations and improvisational flair were loosed upon the world, music -- indeed, all of the arts -- would never be the same again.

The studio artists' inspiration from jazz is the premise behind "Why Jazz?" a free exhibition of oils, watercolors and other genres on show at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

The 65 works on display -- crafted by such renowned African-American artists as Sam Gilliamand Leroy Campbell -- do more than tip their caps to such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Eubie Blake and John Coltrane. At their best, they enter the inventive rhythms and melodies these musicians spun off with their uniquely American brand of artistry.

The music's vibrant colors are captured vividly in Kelvin Henderson's "Jammin' Jazz," which juxtaposes the black silhouettes of the musicians with the deep purples, reds and blues of their garments. Evoking a similar response is Leroy Campbell's wonderfully bright "Big Band," in which the faceless forms hold their horns aloft to convey the sheer joy of collegial music-making.

Miki Jones' "Cool as a Breeze" expresses the quieter joy felt by a sax man pictured with his head cocked back and an ecstatic half-smile illuminating his face.

As you survey characterful portraits of jazz greats such as Marilyn Gates Davis' "B. B. King" and Jerry Prettyman's staunch, uncompromising image of Coltrane ("Soul Trane"), you'll be provided with commentary expressing the artists' love of the music. But Eugene Vango goes further in the notes for his "Abstract XI" by relating the impromptu themes and variations of the jazz idiom to the music of French Impressionists such as Claude Debussy. I was especially pleased to read this, because the awareness that composers such as Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Aaron Copland were steeped in jazz and influenced by it is a powerful reminder of its universal eloquence.

Alas, artistic expression can exact a heavy price, as we learn from Ludner Confident's "Inspiration," which depicts a melancholy figure slumped over a keyboard.

But the downs of "Why Jazz?" are few, and the ups are many. This exhibition affirms for us that jazz, as saxophonist Archie Shepp once put it, "is a lily in spite of the swamp."

"Why Jazz?" will be on display at Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin St., Annapolis, through Oct. 31. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Information: 410-974-2893.

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