Free jazz, the genre, owes its name to Free Jazz, the Ornette Coleman record, recorded in December 1960, whose original cover featured a 1954 work by Jackson Pollock, White Light. Coleman’s music was entirely too far-out to be included in the State Department’s jazz itinerary, but Pollock (who died in 1956) and the Abstract Expressionists were one of the antidotes to Soviet Realism, as the CIA and its secret ally the Congress of Cultural Freedom (classic Orwellian Newspeak!) saw it.
Indeed, the CIA was so deeply involved in the promotion of American culture during the Cold War, it would take a book to sort it out—a book that was even reviewed, not unfavorably, by the CIA itself. Shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe to great acclaim in 1958, were covertly funded by the CIA, which clearly shared cultural apparatchik Nelson Rockefeller’s view that AbEx was “free-enterprise painting.”
On a related vanguard-art note, more than a decade earlier the State Department had organized the notorious debacle called “Advancing American Art,” intended for an extended global tour, featuring the work of, among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden (Lawrence and Bearden were among the few African American artists to enjoy serious recognition in the 20th century). The left-wing tendencies of some of the work and many of the artists—around half of the artists in the show turned up in HUAC records—along with Congressional and media aversion to contemporary art and particularly to its public support, resulted in the retreating of American art, the show being recalled in 1947 as if it were a faulty product. Among the choice philistine remarks of Harry Truman that are associated with the failure of “Advancing American Art” is the immortal, ”I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked, lazy people.”
But back to Coleman and Pollock. Here’s Coleman, fully baked and acutely energized, from a New York Observer piece in 2006, at a Pollock show at the Guggenheim:
Ornette Coleman stands before Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1949), one of the more poetic splatter paintings, ferociously dense yet airily light. He ponders it for several minutes, tracing his index finger over its subtler patterns. “These don’t look like strokes,” he finally says in his hushed, gentle tone. “They look like signals or messages, like a letter he’s writing in the form of art, like some advanced Braille.” He laughs and looks some more. “It’s not something that you’ve seen before that you can name. It’s something that he created as he did it. The act of creation is the creation.”
The piece goes on to point out that in the liner notes of Coleman’s Change of the Century in 1959, “he described his music as ‘something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.’ ” Then:
Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”
“I paint sometimes myself,” Mr. Coleman said. “I know what’s behind wanting to paint. You want to touch something you can’t see. This term ‘abstract art’—what it means is something that causes you to see more than what you’re looking at.”
A quote drippingly good enough to eat. However, had Pollock lived, it’s quite possible he never would’ve returned the favor to Coleman. Pollock the jazz fan was a curious case of arrested development: he had no stomach whatsoever for bebop. Among the merchandising associated with the 1999 Pollock retrospective at MoMA was the compilation CD Jackson Pollock Jazz, featuring 17 of Pollock’s favorite cuts from his personal collection of 78s, which makes for a playlist about as fifties-hip as Dwight Eisenhower. As Nat Hentoff noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time of the Pollock show,
“He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records … day and night for three days running until you would climb the roof!” recalls Lee Krasner about her husband Jackson Pollock’s immersion in jazz in their Springs, Long Island, home. “The house would shake. He thought jazz was the only other creative thing happening in this country.”
Although Pollock was hardly a traditionalist in his own art, his taste in jazz was for the classic New Orleans pioneers, the quintessential swing bands, the blues bards and Billie Holiday. He had no use for such legendary modern-jazz figures as Charlie Parker, who were accused by traditionalist critics of burying the melody, splintering the rhythms and creating dissonance within dissonance.
Pollock, sadly, was apparently not interested in hearing more than what he was listening to.