How to look at music and hear art

This piquant, playful book scrambles and quickens the senses by showing the parallels between key jazz influences such as Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, their literary contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, and their fine-arts compatriots Matisse, Picasso, and Alexander Calder.

By explaining how their social context led such masters to flex their artistic muscle and so broaden the scope of popular culture, Alfred Appel teaches us how to "look at" jazz and "hear" art. Linking Matisse's "Jazz" series to the sculpture of Alexander Calder and the evolving artistry of Armstrong illuminates all three.

But, if Appel can be impish, he also can be pedantic. And by restricting his discussion to artistic developments in the first half of the 20th century, he fails to address more recent, more self-consciously modern movements such as Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and Jackson Pollock's Action Painting. Perhaps this Nabokov expert and professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University either has not assimilated such material or doesn't like it.

In any case, Appel certainly has attitude: "The millennial blather of 1999," he writes, "included the selection and publication of lists of the 100 Best in most everything, from athletes to novels. As a longtime university teacher, I was frequently asked, 'What will last?' Forced to the wall, I gradually formed a short list of the modern masters who were still definitely holding their own with the educated public."

Appel argues effectively that the racially subversive, ultimately integrative jazz of Armstrong, Ellington, and Waller (and, tangentially, Benny Goodman) is "the touchstone of accessibility," largely because when these men made music, jazz was popular. It no longer is, however; long marginalized by rock and pop, jazz is more than ever the equivalent of fine art and, as such, as likely to be heard in museums as in nightclubs.

Meanwhile, Appel puts it all together. He is an engaging critic who parses everything from Calder mobiles to Monk tunes, drawing on his own rich experience to illustrate how culture crosses and interweaves.

One of his strongest anecdotes involves a night in 1951 when Igor Stravinsky (and Appel) caught a gig by bop saxophone master Charlie Parker at Birdland: "Parker immediately called the first number for his band, and ... was off like a shot," he writes. "They were playing 'Koko,' which, because of its epochal breakneck tempo – over 300 beats per minute on the metronome – Parker never assayed before his second set, when he was sufficiently warmed up.... At the beginning of his second chorus, he interpolated the opening of Stravinsky's 'Firebird Suite' as though it had always been there, a perfect fit, and then sailed on with the rest of the number."

One can only speculate about a Parker-Stravinsky collaboration. Whatever opportunities might have been missed, Appel joyously notes how the highfalutin and the highflying twined that night – and from the 1920s to the 1950s, when the different forms of popular art were at times mainstream, at times modern, at times both.

While jazz is the book's platform, art – both fine and literary – is its illustration and, more profoundly, its doppelgänger. Not only is the book packed with imagery spanning Walker Evans photographs, baseball shots, pictures of classic record labels, and fine art, it's loaded with connective critical tissue.

Appel conveys how jazzily Hemingway writes in "The Killers": "His repetition of the physical verbs 'come' and 'go' make everything seem to move or jump, even though the two killers are usually seated or standing still."

And he beautifully communicates the tense kinetics of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie": "Mondrian's basic geometry is boogie-woogie for the nonce, the left hand's 'vertical' bass line ostinato (propulsive repeated figures) playing against the right hand's 'horizontal' dotted eighth or sixteenth notes, heavy chords, simple riffs, tremolos, and choruses of percussive single notes, spaced variously, positing a stop-and-go-traffic neon-light time overview of Broadway and Times Square."

"Jazz Modernism" is far more than an investigation of the relationship between modern jazz and modern art. In his analysis of Armstrong's career, Matisse's deceptively simple, emotionally complex paintings, Evans's photographs, and the evolving depictions of the provocative Josephine Baker, Appel also delves into the links between artistic representation and racial attitude. And even if he isn't straightforward – the puns are often stretched and Appel occasionally strains for the bon mot – that's not necessarily a fault.

What he attempts is not linear, after all. Appel aims to conflate disciplines usually considered in parallel. In so doing, he stimulates far more than he confounds.

• Carlo Wolff writes about music from his home in Cleveland.

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