A Jazzy City Life
A jazzy energy tinges the atmosphere as people rustle around New York City. It is the 1920s, and there are places to go and people to meet! Everyone is busy creating— services, food, fashion, music, art! New York is a “mixing-pot” in which people from all sorts of different backgrounds are densely co-habiting in an urban jungle. Their goal is to survive in a brutally expensive and competitive scene. The competition is unforgiving, cruel and merciless. Kind of like love wouldn’t you say?
The pairing of City Life by Joseph Delaney with “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” by Edith Wilson, and the Johnny Dunns Jazz Hounds, aims to capture the essence and style of the 1920s in New York City as well as to expose a 1920s style of flirtatious dating. The song depicts rivalry in love as a charismatic and graceful gesture. Life in the 1920s was wilder than ever before, as is apparent in the fashion attire of the characters in the painting. Top hats, jackets, skirts, short bobs and high heel shoes all speak of the 1920s innovative fashion. The music of Edith Wilson is equally classy with a comfortably trotting tempo, trendy instrumentation and casually expressed lyrics about a subject matter that alludes to broken hearts.
Is it a coincidence that both works so organically possess contemporary expressions of city living for that time? It happens that both Edith Wilson and Joseph Delaney lived in New York during the same time period. According to the Owsley Museum of Art, City Life portrays Times Square in the 1920s. The first recording of “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” was released around the same time in 1922 in New York City. (This recording can be accessed today as a historical recording in the public domain.) Both pieces evoke the flavor of the time, which included flapper girls, an appreciation for jazz and the freedom to dance and have fun. These ideals are present in Delaney’s work: notice the short bobs of the women, the presence of the car and the dashing body language of the forefront lady in red. The music invokes the standard jazz band configuration of the 1920s featuring trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano and vocals.
Composition and the Band
City Life has a foreground, middle ground and a background. Likewise, the band that performs Wilson’s song also has three layers consisting of the main vocals, the back-up instruments (the trombone and trumpet), and the rhythm section, which is provided by the piano and guitar. Imagine the woman wearing red in the forefront of the painting as the main vocalist of “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now”. Compositionally it can be argued that she is a part of the focal point of the canvas because she is very close to the viewer. Furthermore she is dressed in striking solid red attire and she is one of the most defined figures on the canvas. She is between two different men and they are both looking in her direction. As per the lyrics of the song, the lady in red might be thought of as the type of character who succeeds at stealing another woman’s man. This can be argued by the artist’s placement of the red figure between two men.
Trumpet players became a very significant sound in the world of jazz; the instrument was noted for its soloist capabilities and attractive appeal. It became an icon and symbol of jazz; an essential member of a jazz band. Trumpet players in jazz bands from the 1920s, and especially in the 1930s, acted as the band leaders and would often dictate the tempo as a conductor would. The pitch range of a trumpet is brilliant and high and cuts through the other sounds like a razor blade. Given most trumpet players were male, one can easily connect the trumpet voice in “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” to the center male figure on the canvas. This male figure is confident, his posture is flawless and bold; he is just as sharp as the trumpet in the ensemble.
If you listen closely there is a trombone player, who balances the trumpet player with supporting melodies, this is especially apparent in the introduction of the piece. The trombone is also a brass instrument just like the trumpet however it has much more mellow qualities because its range is lower. The trombone’s luxuriously sized mouthpiece creates a much more relaxed timbre (sound color) than the trumpet. The lower baritone sound often plays while the trumpeter has silences. Furthermore the trombone line highlights the chord progressions between the phrases by accentuating the bass line.
The man in navy blue to the left of the center-stage man is like the trombone player of the band. He is significant, but not center. He is just as tall and therefore just as powerful as the trumpeter, though he is also depicted in a less attention-grabbing color compared to the center man, who is wearing a brown suit which appears shiny with Delaney’s splashes of white. This similarity in figure size and imbalance between color hues creates perfect interpretational grounds for labeling the man in blue in the foreground as the counter melodic trombone player.
The guitar and piano form the backbone and rhythm sections of the band; they act as the metronome that keeps everyone playing together. They can be represented by the two African American men standing behind the trio of figures signifying the vocals, trombone and trumpet. The five figures or characters in the painting make a pentagon-like shape in the left area of the canvas. This quintet is no accident, these figures are the only ones painted in full body; in contrast most of the other characters are not fully visible. The only other fully depicted figure is another woman, who is beside the center man. Looking closely one can see she is excluded from the quintet made up of the vocals, trumpet, trombone, piano and guitar players. This excluded woman brings to mind the lyrics of the song—perhaps the lady in red stole her man.
Texture and sound
The texture of the painting is rough with perceptible paintbrush strokes and thick paint application. This avant-garde style parallels beautifully with the ideals of cosmopolitan life in the 1920s. During the 1920s, more people began living in urban settings, as opposed to rural locations. Jazz in the 1920s was very experimental and vivacious. This appreciation for the new justifies the pairing of “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” with City Life because both works exhibit new styles of expression for that time period. On a sonic level the rough texture of the painting is mirrored in the rough acoustic scratchiness of the recording. The soundscape of the recording evokes the feel of 1920s life in a dark dingy bar. One can smell the thick tobacco smoke and the sweat of the dancing flapper girls.
Color and Roaring Twenties Essence
Delaney uses the color red sparingly in City Life; it is a noticeable solid object only twice in the canvas. Red is used for the lady in the foreground, for an illuminated sign in the right as well as in the top left area of the canvas as an atmospheric effect. These three spots of red create a pleasing-to-the-eye triangular shape within the painting. Red is powerful and Delaney’s placement of the color creates a framing effect that contains the entire population of people on the canvas. This use of color to enforce a triangular composition is simple and effective. “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” contains three sections, which might be interpreted as implying a similar triangular form to the one found in Delaney’s City Life. The first section contains a verse, bridge and chorus and is followed by a second verse, bridge and chorus. The song wraps up with an instrumental interlude and a final statement of the chorus as the third section. Both works thus exhibit the type of rounded and satisfying aesthetic often associated with tripartite forms.
If you squint your eyes the combinations of the colors blend into a dark and dirty color palette. The combination of the colors is perfect at capturing the entire essence and experience of urban life in the 1920s. Smoking was fashionable and considered sexy. Congestion in the city as well as taller buildings created darker times; moreover, in contrast to rural settings, urban cities have more shadows and cement landscapes. The sound of “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” is equally dirty with the scratchy recording quality and Wilson’s smoky voice.
Listening to “He Used to Be Your Man But He’s My Man Now” while looking at City Life takes you back to a time when rebellion was in the air and being cool was a new and exciting concept. Enjoy and appreciate values from a time when urbanization was a new ideal.
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