I haven’t thought too deeply about why I’m doing it, but I’ve started playing jazz in the classroom before each of my U.S. history survey classes begins. I doubt that many of my students are keeping a running list, but so far they’ve heard Miles Davis, Kenny Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
As they come into the room, unpack their notebooks, look over previous notes and start to focus on what’s next, they’re hearing some of the most distinctive music ever recorded and one of the few truly American art forms. As of yet, I don’t know what effect if any that it’s having. Maybe I’m playing it too softly.
It’s primarily for the students, of course, in part to broaden their cultural and historic horizons, but I realize I’m also doing it for me, too, and for reasons that are harder to pinpoint. In part it’s because I love the stuff and want to introduce it to more people. But it’s also to inspire me — to get my mind thinking creatively before I come on and start talking.
At a deep level, creativity stimulates more creativity. This is hardly a revolutionary observation, as any art student who goes to a museum or musician who hears live music will testify. But at the same time it’s an interaction that’s easy to miss if the creativity happens across fields of artistic endeavor.
But in the same way that for me listening to jazz can fire up my brain to tell the story of industrialization and the beginnings of urbanization in the late 19th century, so too can music lend its energy to painters. Without implying any sort of causation in terms of what the painter is producing, music will, if not exactly guide a brush, put an artist into a particular mood from which she or he wants to work.
This was all on my mind as I read recently of a major exhibition of works by the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that opened last week at London’s Barbican Centre (fittingly enough, in addition to having gallery space, it’s also the home of the London Symphony and the BBC Symphony). It’s the first big exhibit of his works ever shown in Great Britain.
Along with over 100 pieces of art, curators also assembled a playlist to download, enabling you to listen to the tunes Basquiat himself listened to as he painted. There’s Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong — and you discover he liked Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. David Bowie once remarked that Basquiat’s work also “relates to rock in ways that very few other visual artists get near,” and the painter was exceedingly fond of the music of some mainstream rockers from the 1970s and ’80s like Blondie, Talking Heads and Bowie himself.
American painter Stuart Davis (born 1892) was similarly inspired by jazz. “I never realized that it was influencing my work,” he once admitted, “until one day I put on a favorite record and listened to it while I was looking at a painting I had just finished.” The painting and the music “seemed to amount to the same thing — like twins, a kinship.” After the realization, he played music almost every time he painted. Looking at his 1938 “Swing Landscape,” one can almost hear the music.
I don’t know if it’s learned or by nature that we respond to things that are truly creative. But as we do, it can deepen our appreciation both for the art we know, as well as for that which is unfamiliar.