'Visual Blues' explores relationship of Harlem artists with jazz, blues

Shhh.

Billie Holiday is singing “Fine and Mellow.” Or maybe “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

She’s backed only by a string bass, guitar and piano in Jay Robinson’s 1947 painting, “Billie Holiday Singing the Blues,” where she appears to be more of a young girl than a jazz singer carrying the world on her shoulders. It’s up to the viewer to imagine what song she’s singing in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit, “The Visual Blues.”

Robinson’s painting is one of more than 70 in this show, which runs through July 13. Former museum curator Natalie Mault organized it with support from the permanent collections of some of the most prominent museums in the country, including the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans; California African American Museum; Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

The museum received grants from the American Art Dealer’s Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities for this show, which will travel to the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Ga., in January.

“The Visual Blues” explores the interaction between the Harlem Renaissance artists and the blues and jazz music that made its way northward from the Deep South. Artistic boundaries blurred in the bonds of artists and musicians who both inspired and contributed to the other’s art form.

Museum Director Jordana Pomeroy learned Feb. 28 that local artists’ work will be added to this show. It’s because of Baton Rouge’s blues history that the museum put this show together.

“We have so many great local artists whose work lends to this theme,” she says. “You can see the musical influence on their work.”

The number of pieces in the show has increased from 67 to more than 70.

“Because of Baton Rouge’s deep connection with the blues and Louisiana’s recognition as the birthplace of jazz, we felt that focusing on the musical aspects of this movement as depicted by the visual artists would be a fitting approach to the visual art of the Harlem Renaissance,” Pomeroy says.

Still, emphasis is on those artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance who interacted with music and musicians during that time when the blues were moving from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, Detroit and New York. The Harlem Renaissance ran from 1919 to about 1940. The predominantly black New York neighborhood served as a creative haven for art, music, literature and poetry.

Southern musicians began moving north in the 1920s, bringing with them blues and jazz rhythms and poignant lyrics associated with southern black music. Many settled in Harlem, where they befriended and collaborated with artists and writers. The neighborhood became an entertainment mecca with the rise of the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre. It was where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined the Cotton Club, and where a young woman named Eleanora Fagan would overcome a life of abuse through singing the blues. She was nicknamed Lady Day.

Viewers will see her through Robinson’s eyes in “Billie Holiday Sings the Blues.” She also appears in his 1947 painting “Count Basie and Billie Holiday at the Graystone Ballroom, Detroit” in this show.

Robinson was born in Kentucky and received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1937. His name won’t receive as many Google hits as, say, Harlem Renaissance icon Romare Bearden, but that’s OK.

“The Visual Blues” is as much a learning experience as it is an art exhibit.

“You expect to see the works by Romare Bearden,” Pomeroy says. “We were going to hang those paintings together in one section, but I’ve decided to intersperse them throughout the exhibit. People will know their work, but they may not know the work of the artists next to these pieces. This will be a chance for people to learn about these artists.”

The art is placed in the categories of the social, political and cultural reach of the Harlem Renaissance — club and cafe culture, musical representation, the Great Migration and artists influenced by the movement.

The energy is continuous as the dancers in William Herny Johnson’s painting jitterbug to the sounds of Bearden’s swing band in his painting “Jazz Rhapsody.” And scattered throughout are Carl Van Vechten and Prentice Herman photographs of Calloway, poet Langston Hughes, trumpeter W.C. Handy, writer Alain Leroy Locke and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, among others.

All of the photos are portraits, but the photographers were much like jazz photographer Herman Leonard — they knew this time in artistic history was special, as were its people. If they hadn’t taken these portraits, something about the era would be lost. The exhibit will play out on the backdrop of the music from that time.

“We’ll have iPads programmed to play the music,” Pomeroy says. “Visitors will be able to put on headphones at certain stops and listen.”

But headphones aren’t needed for Robinson’s painting. Just listen; Billie Holiday is singing the blues.