Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
The first time I became aware of the name Al Jarreau was when receiving a letter (of the old-school variety penned by hand) from a former college roommate exclaiming how thrilled he and his girlfriend had been to attend one of his concerts. Despite my former roommate's enthusiasm, which rarely bubbled over so heatedly for anything other than football and slightly-older women, I did not really understand all the fuss over Jarreau.
Then a couple of years later, in the early 1980s, I got to see the rhythm-bending phenomenon myself in Berkeley, California, on a bill that also featured Carlos Santana and Frankie Beverly and Maze. The world by then had come to know him as the Grammy Award-winning talent behind the albums Look to the Rainbow (1977) and All Fly Home (1978). For my part, I finally got to experience the truth of a statement Jarreau would make many years later:
“I have missed the boat over my career by not doing every second or third CD live, because things happen on stage that don't happen in the studio.” (Al Jarreau Biography.com)
By its accommodating democratic nature, live jazz is often a music of improvisation. And by his brilliant fluid aesthetics, Al Jarreau was able to adapt his vocal vibrations to whatever genre he chose. But he was also, in essence a flesh, blood, and soul embodiment of jazz. It would not be absolutely wrong to describe him as a male Ella Fitzgerald or as a contemporary Cab Calloway, both of Harlem Renaissance fame, rolled into one. It might be more accurate, however, to say he was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.
Among the things to which he alluded that could "happen on stage" was for him to suddenly turn his chest and rib cage into a drum set, transform his clapping hands into tambourines, or absorb an inspiration from the improvisational moment and blast it out of his lungs like a laser cannon lighting up multiple Sonny Rollins solos.
What happened on the stage was the kind of inexplicable enchantment that made music journalists rush to describe the "quintessential jazz musician" who could duplicate the superlative performance of a brilliant quartet, or even an entire orchestra, with just his singular voice and body carved from music. Think of him this way--Al Jarreau did not just perform his music: right before your astonished eyes and heart he brought it to kicking, shouting, dancing, holy cosmic life that left you breathless with wonder.
Forced to Make a Difficult Decision
The horrible dilemma with which I had to deal the night I saw Jarreau at the Berkeley Coliseum was that he had already been onstage for an hour, took a very short break, then came back for an additional set that lasted even longer. Dependent as I was on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system to get me back to San Francisco, I could not ignore the fact that it was close to midnight and, according to my schedule, the last train to the city would leave at that time.
Thoroughly immersed in the essential work of channeling raw creative energy into musical genius, the singer himself clearly had no use for clocks or schedules and the band seemed happy to match him song for song. Knowing no one from whom I could beg for a ride if I chose to stay, I forced myself to leave and head for the subway.
Just as I was about to enter the station some blocks away, something incredible caught my attention. It was his voice. Whether due to the unique acoustics of the coliseum or the undiminished intensity of his performance, I could still hear him. It was if the night itself with the surrounding buildings, street lamps, trees, and sweet cool air had become his microphone and speakers. I smiled, then laughed out loud, and then laughed some more while simultaneously trying to sing along with him and hurry down the subway steps.
NEXT: Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion: Essay with Poem (part 2)
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.