Romare Bearden was one of the most influential African American artists of the twentieth century. He grew up in New York and contributed largely to the progressive art of the Harlem Renaissance. He captured lively scenes of everyday life in his former home towns of North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Harlem. Some of his most highly regarded works take on the subject of music, jazz and blues in particular. He not only depicted musical scenes in his art, but he also composed and played in various jazz bands. It is clear that Romare Bearden's series Of the Blues and other works were highly influenced by the jazz and blues culture of Harlem.
In 1975, an exhibition was held at Cordier & Eckstrom Gallery in New York featuring Bearden’s charming musical progression: Of the Blues. This series was comprised of nineteen captivating collages featuring New York City clubs and other music scenes. This group of artwork explores jazz from every angle, says Schwartzman: “ the series traced jazz from its folk sources, sacred and secular, to the cities in which its major styles evolved (New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Kansas City), then to its performers, and finally to its abstract sounds". The collages from this exhibition showed the intensely personal relationship and interaction that Bearden had with music and its culture. He successfully illustrates the upbeat club atmosphere through a dynamic use of color and form that expresses the vibrant melodies that were performed. The notes of the instruments are nearly palpable when viewing this work.
A piece from 1974, entitled Of the Blues: Carolina Shout, was part of the series. It is a collage of what appears to be a baptism scene. One can assume that from the figures that stand above blue, watery forms that seems to be a body of water. The dark
figures are gathered "to celebrate and sing praise at a river baptism". The people are cut from black paper and provide a stark contrast against the lively red background. There are open mouths and hands flailing, and one can almost hear the shouts to the Lord in response to the preacher's words. Bearden has a lack of concern for realistic form and instead depicts figures through unusual, exaggerated shapes and highly gestural movements. This adds to the chaotic and emotional scene of spiritual songs being shouted up to the heavens.
The title Carolina Shout corresponds with a well-known piano work by James P. Johnson. Romare Bearden suggests that both his artwork, and Johnston's song
are linked to "the dance hall, the juke joint, the honkey tonk and the barrelhouse (and at the same time suggesting) an ecstatic high point in a down home church service".
One can see that this image links the sacred with the not-so-sacred, or profane rhythms of music. While the depiction is not an instrument filled scene in a smoky club, it still captures the energy of an enthusiastic delivery of song.
Of the Blues: At the Savoy...