Jazz Choreographer Pat Taylor discusses her performance company experiences and their relation to shadow, light, and representing marginalized people.
Not long ago I was reminiscing with members of my dance company, JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble, about a piece we premiered ten or so years ago titled “Celestial Blues.” The original music and lyrics of the same name were written and recorded by Gary Bartz in 1971, followed some years later by a popular version arranged by Andy Bey. We danced to a less funkily futuristic arrangement by our frequent collaborator, jazz vocalist Dwight Trible.
We must get closer to the essence of life
But be aware that it takes courage and strife
Expand your mind, don’t let it wither and die
You’ll find that it lifts your spirits high to the sky
C’mon let’s contemplate
Talk to the heavenly bodies
Of the universe, of the universe….
…I’ve got to be free, my spirit’s telling me
– Gary Bartz
The dancers and I laughed about all the behind the scenes mishaps and the road to the finished work, and they shared with me for the first time that for most of the performances they could not see much of anything on stage due to the lighting design being so dark. They could feel each other’s energy, hear the breath, but didn’t concretely know where another dancer was until they stepped from the near darkness into the light. Most of the time they danced through a shadowy landscape, confidently, but with an edge of uncertainty.
What they described to me sounded like a void. And admittedly my intention was for the dancers to become the ‘heavenly bodies’ inhabiting this space as described in the lyrics. They confirmed that they had indeed felt suspended in that moment.
As I later thought about this particular exchange and our further conversations about other works of mine that move in and out of darkness: Sankofa (2008), Transitions (2012), Ooh Child (2013), By the Rivers of Babylon (2014), Slippin’ Into Darkness (2016), and others… I began to realize that I have been drawn for some time to a particular use of darkness, the interplay between shadow and light and the invisibility it provides as both a dramatic effect and in support of the stories I feel compelled to tell through my jazz dance expression. At first glance this presented as something that was happening innately, without me being fully aware of what might lie behind the artistic choices I was making. Over time I have come to understand that I am intrigued by something more than just a lighting design effect. This feeling of slipping in and out of the darkness has always felt like natural storytelling choices to me as I explored the nature of jazz. Creating a sense of being there – yet not there, appearing and disappearing, gone – but not really, present and absent at the same time – maybe even differing levels of presence, being fully seen or not, and feeling suspended in time and place, is something that stirs my imagination. This shadowy metaphor for the experiences of African Americans, indeed the experiences of any marginalized group, is powerful.
The unnamed protagonist in novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man states as a matter of course, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). A black man in a white world, he navigates through life as a shadow, trying on and discarding personas while blues and jazz music shadow his journey. He listens to a recording of Louis Armstrong singing “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” He sees his invisibility not only as a curse and an insult, but often as an advantage as well. He recognizes his invisibility as “a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact” (3). Others see him as they desire to, and he is not allowed to define himself within that gaze. W.E.B. DuBois calls this inability of blacks to see ourselves directly a double-consciousness wherein “one ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body…” (2) – a constant awareness of the juxtaposition of how we view ourselves and how the world sees us.
I am recognizing a sense of displacement as well within my use of shadow and light in my choreographic work. Exploring displacement feeds into my growing conversation around “home” (external and internal) and jazz music as a response to a feeling of dislocation. I experience the music as a means of rooting – and a defining of place through a distinct language and self determined means of communicating a distinct existence and experience. In turn, I approach my choreography as the “movement in the music,” the physical embodiment of the sound and the social, cultural, historical and political implications embedded therein.
Interestingly enough, there was a time that I felt my strongest sense of home within myself while being physically outside of the United States. I lived, taught, choreographed and performed in Scandinavia –Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland specifically –but also worked and traveled across Europe for seven years. I grew up in a household where jazz, in particular, and blues served as the musical backdrop to daily life, yet it was while I was away that I truly felt the tremendous respect afforded these music traditions around the world. Viewing home from a great distance, I reconnected to the sound and the stories that I had known as a child, and embraced the lineage, language and legacy of jazz.
During that time I found myself moving more freely in who I was and what I was doing artistically. These years were my most liberating and some of my most meaningful times of self-discovery. I journeyed during this period in a very gutsy, risk taking way. My self-censoring was at a minimum. The burden of double-consciousness was at least eased. I felt out of the shadows and fully revealed, most of all to myself. I was free to improvise. I began to shape my philosophical approach to teaching and choreographing jazz dance that was intrinsically tied to the music and a paralleling of the times.
The collage art of Romare Bearden was a major inspiration for my first choreographies when I returned to Los Angeles and founded JazzAntiqua in 1993. I have always loved Bearden’s work, and as I found myself drawn more deeply to it, I particularly connected with the colors, rhythm and layering within his collage pieces. My eye and imagination traveled through his art, guided by the ways in which he used space. I equated what I felt with the conversational nature of jazz improvisation and the storytelling of the blues. It connected with how I was newly envisioning my choreography as unearthing the stories within the music as I was hearing, seeing and feeling them. Bearden listened to and was passionate about jazz throughout his life. At times he would express his artistic approach in musical sentiments, “You put down one color and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody” (Schwartzman 196).
In his influential work on blues and jazz music, Blues People, The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed From It, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) sees “the beginning of blues as one beginning of American Negroes” (xii). A beginning that originates in America’s Deep South, with roots in West African musical traditions, and a lineage of work songs, field hollers, ring shouts, sorrow songs and spirituals borne out of slavery. It’s a birth that political and social activist, educator and author Angela Y. Davis sees as “the legacy of emancipation” (qtd in Hay 443), drawing upon, I believe, the accepted notion of blues music becoming more formally known during the late 1800s in the decades following the Emancipation Proclamation. Maybe even more importantly, it is the experience of freedom arrived at through a continuing claiming of self by speaking one’s own truth via a distinct language of expression. In African American culture that uniquely arrived at self-defining and raised consciousness is often through music, dance and other art forms. It is where we most often feel a true sense of freedom.
I am drawn to the cyclical feel of the blues, the way that its repeated AAB, 12-bar theme creates an echo-like, call and response that harkens back to work songs and African roots.
My man don’t love me
Treats me oh so mean
My man he don’t love me
Treats me oh so mean
He’s the lowest man
That I’ve ever seen
– Billie Holiday, “Fine and Mellow”
There is the strong groove that the steady bass line provides, and this in itself creates a rooted feeling. The blue notes (or “worried” or “bent” notes) within the melody give a greater expressiveness and that slightly off-kilter, bittersweet blues sound and feeling. I find these characteristics, even more so over form/structure, to be what blues music is truly about – powerful, evocative storytelling at its simplest and most poignant. Often melancholic and harsh reality, at times playful, sexual and irreverent, equally love story and lament, the blues can also offer a glimmer of hope. It is a visceral and cathartic “let your hair down” form of communication – a discernible voice amidst the shadows.
Ellison writes: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive 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. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically” (Living With Music 103).
The blues is ‘The Great Hole of History’ in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play; the flattened, single dimensioned silhouettes of Kara Walker’s large scale tableaux; the motifs of imprisonment and salvation in James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues”; the “hymns to the secular regions of the soul” as choreographer Alvin Ailey describes his Blues Suite (Dunning 115); what Du Bois calls “a faith in the ultimate justice of things” (162).
In my interdisciplinary approach to exploring how jazz/blues aesthetics manifest across artistic disciplines, I am profoundly compelled by the work of visual artist Kerry James Marshall. I have greatly admired Marshall for many years, and seeing his work up close at the 2017 retrospective exhibit Mastry (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) was life changing. I felt absolutely engulfed in a singular and pure articulation and point of view. What strikes me so to my core is the sheer blackness of his work, literally and figuratively, and the way in which he honors his subjects. The depth and richness of the black skin of those who populate the moments that Marshall captures emit a level of intensity that creates a heightened awareness for me as I experience his work. The work is unforgiving and unashamedly black. Uncompromising in its presentation, the paintings are counter-narratives, stories that defy the invisibility of blacks in America.
Marshall draws “…upon the rich layering of language, music and art characteristic of black expression. Like a jazz composer superimposing multiple rhythms and harmonies…” (Mertes). In a 2016 New York Times interview, Marshall shares, “I was searching for something that seemed to me like an authentic black aesthetic, one that had an equivalency with postwar blues” (Kennedy). His emphatic intent to “make the invisible visible” (Roelstraete 48) is palpable. As have many others, he too references the influence of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man on his work, speaking the blues with reverence, insight, and yes, joy.
The blues is form, tradition, personal expression and cultural reflection. As Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith is quoted as saying, “It’s a long old road, but I know I’m gonna find the end.”
In my passion and vision for jazz expression through movement, the concluding words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the opening address at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival resound so deeply. These words I often incorporate into JazzAntiqua performances.
Jazz speaks for life.
The blues tell the stories of life’s difficulties.
And if you think for a moment, you will realize
that they take the hardest realities of life and
put them into music,
only to come out with some new hope or sense
This is triumphant music!
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folks, Dover Publications, 1994.
Dunning, Jessica. Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc, 1996.
Ellison, Ralph. “Richard Wright’s Blues.” Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. Edited by Robert O’Meally, Modern Library, 2001, pp.101-119
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Hay, Fred J. “Reviewed Work: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis.” Appalachian Journal, vol. 25, no. 4, 1998, pp. 442–45.
Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. W. Morrow, 1963.
Kennedy, Randy. “Kerry James Marshall, Boldly Repainting Art History.” New York Times, 9 Sept. 2016.
Mertes, Lorie. “Kerry James Marshall One True Thing Meditations on Black Aesthetics February 6 – April 25, 2004.” Miami Art Museum.
Roelstraete, Dieter. “Visible Man: Kerry James Marshall, Realist.” Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2016.
Schwartzman, Myron, Bearden, Romare. Romare Bearden, His Life & Art. H.N. Abrams, 1990.