Antagonistic Cooperation: Romare Bearden’s New Paris Blues [VIDEO]

On June 3, 2021, the Wildenstein Plattner Institute hosted Robert O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and founder of the Center for Jazz Studies for a one-time webinar. Professor O’Meally, the author of Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, explored Bearden’s New Paris Blues, an unfinished series of books that spans media, cities, and artistic circles.

The movie Paris Blues (1961) was originally conceived by producer/photographer Sam Shaw as a portrait of Romare Bearden: a recreation of his months in Paris, 1950. When that idea was nixed by Hollywood, and the movie was turned into a bland study of jazz musicians in Paris (played by Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier), Shaw and Bearden teamed up with the novelist Albert Murray to create a New Paris Blues project of their own. The idea was to work together on an oversized book of collages by Bearden built from photos by Shaw and captions by Murray.

This talk touched on the Paris of Bearden’s first visit, and then focused on this late 1970s big art book project’s pages. Though this New Paris Blues project was never finished or released (nor have most of these works ever been shown in public), twenty-something of the project’s magnificent pages were completed. Some of the unfinished pages—some just a few lines on paper and a scattering of the artist’s notes-to-self–are equally wondrous. We see that Bearden’s New Paris Blues (which of course also is Shaw’s and Murray’s) transformed Shaw’s original design into a tale of two towering giants of jazz music—Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—working not just in Paris, though Paris is strongly featured, but also in two other fertile places of artistic work: New Orleans and Harlem.

This New Paris Blues is a tale of three great cities! The title, Antagonistic Cooperation, refers to these artists’ pushing and pulling against the 1961 film, and then their pushing, pulling, and playing, jam-session style, with and against one another and modern artistic traditions in general.

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