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Deep Water

 

  • Exhibition

  • On view through Summer 2023
  • B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building

“He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. . . . And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation.”

— James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” 1957 [1]

Deep Water is the third of a series of rotating exhibitions drawn from a single private collection of music photography. The photographs here bear witness to a wellspring period in modern jazz and blues, and celebrate Black musicians from the 1950s-‘60s including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and Nina Simone.

In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” (1957), the narrator (brother to the titular piano player) describes a bandleader’s performance as a way of retelling (hi)stories, of making them feel immediate and alive. The narrator ponders the bandleader’s interaction with Sonny during the performance: “He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, and he knew.”[2] In her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, cultural historian Christina Sharpe posits connections between the wake left behind by a ship’s passage (“from the forced movements of the enslaved to the forced movements of the migrant and the refugee”); a wake held in mourning of the dead (“Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory.”); and wake as in “being awake and, also, consciousness.”[3] Baldwin’s short story draws a related set of connections between deep water, remembrance, and the performance of blues music. In great jazz and blues, songs shift and grow as performers draw on their experience of and connection to lived and musical histories: each performance is a risk, as the musicians immerse themselves in those depths anew.

Beginning in the early 20th century, thousands of Black folks migrated to New York, seeking economic opportunity and escaping the violence and oppression of the Jim Crow South. Throughout this period, New York—including Harlem, where Baldwin’s story takes place—was central to both the jazz scene and to the growing civil rights movement. The Harlem riots of 1943 and 1964, triggered by police violence against Black people, inspired protests across the nation. Luminaries including Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Amiri Baraka frequented performance venues like the Apollo Theater, Savoy Ballroom, Minton’s Playhouse, Studio Rivbea, and Lenox Lounge, and drew inspiration from the improvisation and freedom of live performances by artists including those depicted in the photographs in Deep Water. Although America’s virulent racism ultimately led some of these artists, thinkers, and activists to emigrate across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, jazz and blues remained foundational for the era’s activist music.

A coda at the end of the exhibition includes photographs of the next generation of musicians, artists, and activists—including Labelle, Sun Ra, Gil Scott-Heron, and Huey Newton—whose practices were shaped by 1950s and ‘60s jazz and blues as they ventured out for deep waters.

Text by Alexandra Foradas, Curator, and Manolis Sueuga, Williams College Art History Graduate Program Curatorial Fellow

Photo: Art Kane, Harlem, 1958. Courtesy Art Kane Archive. Learn more about this photograph here.