Up the Book Staircase (‘Paris Blues Revisited’)

Albert Murray,

By K

Albert Murray, acclaimed essayist and author of several novels including Train. Whistle. Guitar has those floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that loom over you, hinting at timelessness. My acquaintance with his famed Harlem apartment is secondhand, but I’ve seen those shelves. The ones that, leaving no wall space for your glance to rest upon, make certain demands on your thoughts. How long would it take me to read these? Which ones have I read? What factors informed this arrangement? Their aesthetic draw notwithstanding, there is a clear-cut functionality to a bookcase not to be found in say, a painting of comparable size or the books that line its shelves. Like sample-heavy wine racks or record collections boasting those ‘Try Me’ headphones they’d have at The Wiz, bookshelves of this ilk transcend the notion of ‘conversation piece’—speaking for themselves as to help field your inevitable questions.

bookstairsThe days of raising such monuments to amassed reading material in one’s residence may well be numbered.  Subway car hand counts have e-books edging out their pulpware counterparts and speculation as to how the future bibliophile’s household might reflect this change of format is underway.  Perhaps it was with some of this in mind that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s curatorial group arranged their ‘book-on-the-wall’ project Paris Blues: Revisited.  An ode to mixed media collaboration, this jazz-infused exhibition presented the pages—at various degrees of completion—of Albert Murray, Romare Bearden and Sam Shaw’s unfinished book Paris Blues’ (or ‘Jazz Suite’), centered around Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong’s experiences in Paris.

polypic it1Featuring Shaw’s black and white photographs in Bearden’s distinctive collage style, these pages were mounted on panels and splayed in pairs like twenty-seven individual books.  Murray’s written accounts of the project’s inspirations divided the exhibit’s main wall into three sections, lending context to the striking images and disjointed words (one fragment of a periodical clipping which appeared in multiple panels read: ‘type-high slugs, eliminates hairlines and poor align’) of this illustrative work, clarifying the narrative.  Never to be completed in the form originally envisioned by this intimidating team, Paris Blues is probably most widely recognized as the title of a 1961 film.  On panning the space of Revisited it soon becomes clear that this doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

polypic it2Apparently the movie in which bandmates (Sidney Portier and Paul Newman) attempt to maintain their jazz club-centered lives as ‘night people’ despite the potentially domesticating influences of their respective love interests (Diahann Carroll, Joanne Woodward) was the result of begrudged compromises on the part of Sam Shaw, the film’s producer.  Shaw thought to produce a film about a black artist in Paris based on the experiences of his studio-mate Romare Bearden, who had been stationed there on the GI Bill in 1950.  Discouraged by the Hollywood treatment that his brainchild underwent, he set out in the 80’s to ‘stomp out the blues’ of its mishandling by working with Bearden himself on a book. Bearden’s long-time friend and collaborator Albert Murray (‘The Block’ was sketched from Murray’s Harlem apartment, depicting the view of Lenox Avenue through one of its windows)—also in Paris during this time—was the clear choice to provide text for their attempt at re-presenting this singular moment in their shared history, some twenty years after the release of the film he referred to offhandedly as ‘pulpfare’.

The wall opposite this ill-fated works’ pages of reappropriated ‘Paris Blues’ contact sheets and color-steeped jazz photos bore such paratextual gems as the 1957 Harold Flender novel on which the film (on which the almost-book) was based,  as well as the dust jacket—designed by Bearden and Stan Sardinski—of a first edition copy of Train Whistle Guitar. With classic works like 110th Street Harlem Blues and images of iconic locales like the Apollo, The Cotton Club and Small’s posted alongside photographs of Parisian streets frequented by some of America’s most celebrated musicians, it was as if the book theorised by Sam Shaw over 50 years ago had been demolished in the middle of Frederick P. Rose hall, its scattered bits speaking to the discrete aspects of a coherent narrative. Born out of three artists’ disappointment with Hollywood’s treatment of their vision, forever incomplete with its sparsely illustrated ‘scrapbook pages’ still marked up in pencil, glimpses of Jazz Suite in the works conjures up the dimly-lit, folklorish tinge of a classic recording session unearthed.

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