Jazz and Art: The “Blues For Smoke” Jazz Exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary Museum

By Norton Wright

Blues For Smoke, a giant and MIND-EXPANDING visual art-and-recorded jazz exhibit is currently at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary Museum at MOCA. Featuring listening posts, video viewing stations, and over one hundred contemporary paintings/photographs/ installations/& sculptures by visual artists from the 1950’s to the present, the show posits that “the blues” is more than just a jazz form birthed at the beginning of the 20th century by blacks in America but now a cross-cultural attitude, a way by which all of us may interpret or encounter life.

The brief texts posted on the exhibition’s walls serve to introduce the visual and musical art presented, and the explanations are extraordinarily succinct and telling:

“The blues are a synthesis… Combining work songs, group seculars, field hollers, sacred harmonies, proverbial wisdom, folk philosophy, political commentary, ribald humor, elegiac lament, and much, much more, they constitute an amalgam that seems always to have been in motion in America – always becoming, shaping transforming, displacing the peculiar experiences of Africans in the new world.” — Houston Baker, Distinguished Professor, African-American Studies, Vanderbilt University.

African-American art critic and writer Ralph Ellison’s take on “the blues” aesthetic is quoted as:

“An impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive and in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near tragic, near comic lyricism.”

Such  “near tragic, near comic lyricism” is exemplified in the exhibition’s eleven-painting installation by painter Glenn Ligon in which the artist repeatedly prints on his glowing, golden-faced canvases the lines from one of comedian Richard Pryor’s stand-up routines:

“I was a nigger for twenty-three years.
I gave that shit up. No room for
No room for advancement.”

To fully experience all the content that’s in this unique MOCA exhibit can easily take a day of looking and listening, but here are three highlights to at least start with:

Event 1… the 30-minute motion picture, Anything For Jazz, with pianist Jaki Byard, shown on a TV monitor with two headsets attached (located in a narrow corridor on the left side of the museum’s main floor).  The MOCA exhibition’s title,  Blues for Smoke, references the title of Byard’s first record album as a leader on solo piano in 1960.  The reference to “smoke” in the explanatory text speaks of “the lament of dispersed heat and vision — to the immaterial and residual qualities of smoke.”  And perhaps to the fleeting nature of our lives.

Bassist Ron Carter and pianist Bill Evans briefly speak to camera about musical genius — career fame — and anonymity — the latter basically preferred by Byard whose superb keyboard work earned him the title of “the Uncrowned King of piano” among his peers  but whose self-effacing personality kept him from the popularity he clearly deserved.  But you’ve got to love Byard when he declares in the film that he has no desire for a Grammy, considers it more like a “Sham-y.”  And when he is about to play one of his compositions for a large auditorium audience, he quips to them, “Well, wish me luck” — and then dazzles them with an incredible mix of stride piano and free jazz!

“Garden of Music” by Bob Thompson with images of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ed Blackwell, Charlie Haden and the artist himself

Event 2… Move straight down the corridor as it opens into an airplane hanger-sized space where artist David Hammons’ gigantic installation, Chasing the Blue Train, features a mountain-like landscape of inverted but real piano tops acting as sound baffles for adjacent boom boxes playing jazz tracks by John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. Chugging its way around these musical mountains and through a mound of real coal is a little, blue electric train on a lengthy set of toy railroad tracks. The feeling of a jazz musician’s laborious travels is palpable, and moving along with the train from one musical mountain to another evokes this blues lyric from 1926:

No one here can love or understand me,
Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me,
Make my bed and light the light,
I’ll be home late tonight,
Blackbird bye bye.

Event 3… In a large room adjacent to Chasing The Blue Train is an installation by photographer/writer/actress Carrie Mae Weems titled Pictures and Stories.  Usually my taste is not for black-and-white photographic stills, but Weems has crafted a 30-minute “blues” experience in this room that plays like a picturized radio play. First you should look at the 34 framed photographs of Weem’s black, extended family. Some of the photos have attached to them texts written by Weems highlighting her family’s love, mayhem, pregnancies, jealousies, infidelities, bank robberies, shootings, and occasional attempted murders. The characters in this photoplay are mesmerizing. For one photograph of a portly, middle-aged black woman bulged into a tight white girdle and slip and brazenly wearing a Billie Holiday-like gardenia in her hair, Weems writes:

Edna is daddy’s only sister and one big-fine-black-ass woman, and according to Edna, all woman. I know for a fact she’s serious, ‘cause she’ll tell you in a minute, and won’t even crack a smile, “I’m the men’s pet and the women’s fret.”

After looking at the photos, go to the end of the room and stand by the wall’s audio speaker to listen to Carry Mae Weems dramatically relating the story of the family that you’ve just seen. It’s a half-hour of great theatre!

In that, for decades, artists from James Baldwin to Charles Mingus to Spike Lee have been trying to define “the black experience,” Weems adds a chapter filled with the “near tragic, near comic lyricism” that at the beginning of this review, Houston Baker mentioned as inherent to “the blues.”

There are lots more marvelous experiences in this exhibit, my favorites running to the abundance of musical videos of performances by jazz and blues talents — from a very young and beautiful Billie Holiday to singers and musicians heretofore unknown to me. Should I know of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1987, amazingly combining jazz, reggae, funk, free jazz, and Sun Ra-styled gongs, cymbals, bells, and clappers? How about a blues singer, Big Mama Thornton in 1984, power-housing through the song “Ball & Chain” – or a Jeanne Lee in 1994 singing a soulful “Every Time We Say Goodbye”?

The point is there’s much more to hear and see in this Blues For Smoke exhibition.


Blues For Smoke runs until January 9, 2013.  Thursday nights offer free admission from 5 to 8pm.  Regular admission is $12 and Student/ Senior admission $7 during the weekly schedule: Mon. & Fri. 11am – 5pm… Thurs. 11am – 8pm… Sat. & Sun. 11am – 6pm… Tues. & Wed. closed.  Geffen Contemporary Museum at MOCA, 152 North Central Avenue in Little Tokyo.   (213) 626-6222.

To read more posts by and about artist/writer Norton Wright, click HERE.


2 thoughts on “Jazz and Art: The “Blues For Smoke” Jazz Exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary Museum

  1. “the show posits that “the blues” is more than just a jazz form birthed at the beginning of the 20th century by blacks in America but now a cross-cultural attitude, a way by which all of us may interpret or encounter life.”

    Interesting notion, but there’s no way in hell any of the well off people who go to LACMA–and that is mostly who they are, rich people (just dig the prices at the cafe)–are honestly ever going to have anything deep down in common with what the blues is. They can pander and pretend they do, but you can pander and pretend anything if you have the money. This is just another attempt by the art world–which is pretty much about making lots of money, face it–to co-opt yet another working class means of expression. That act is getting old, man. You don’t experience the blues at an art museum, or Disneyland, or in a zillion dollar jazz palace. You experience blues where bluesmen play for people who actually know how rough a working class life can be.

    Otherwise it’s pretty, but it’s bogus. You can’t have roots music without the genuine roots.

    Has anyone noticed that the only way anything jazz gets noticed in this town anymore is when rich people throw a bunch of money at it? Otherwise no one seems to notice at all. Not the press, not anybody. What the hell happened?


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