Live & Let Die… “A Mecca for Voodoo, Jazz & Jive”

To round off the year that was 2020, Gerald Wadsworth brings some colour to our lives in his latest homage to James Bond!

Live & Let Die… “A Mecca for Voodoo, Jazz & Jive”… in which we find Bond in New York City with CIA chum, Felix Leiter, scoping out the Jazz clubs and bars in Harlem for a clue to the whereabouts of Mr. Big – Smersh operative and smuggler of gold coins from Captain Morgan’s lost treasure. Mr. Big reigns supreme in Harlem using voodoo to threaten his operatives into complete obedience and loyalty. Bond and Leiter are under constant surveillance, their every move reported back to Mr. Big. Leiter, a Jazz buff, takes Bond to Harlem’s hotspots, where, in his own words, “most of the real hep-cats smoke reefers” and gives Bond a first-hand look at a world he had never dealt with before. A world dominated by suspicion, fear, the casting of maleficent spells…the destruction of enemies. But also a world where some of the best music ever written – and played – exists side-by-side with the dark lord of the Underworld – the Baron Samedi – Mr. Big himself…

A writer is always looking for some literary device to give their characters their own “voice” as well as an identity that will differentiate them from the other characters in the book. Ian Fleming, I believe, used regional and ethnic ‘patois’ to achieve that literary goal. His own linguistic abilities in French and German allowed him to write scenes or describe elements in the books in those languages with a degree of authenticity and accuracy, perhaps unparalleled at the time.

No one questioned his motive in that regard. Foreign villians spoke English with scrambled syntax, punctuated with phrases in their own language. Bond could respond in their own tongue, and frequently used that ability to overcome suspicion, as well as to impress, especially if his “opposite number” was a woman. Regional dialects and patois were used to great effect in Fleming’s books – they were an entertaining element, and supplied local colour to a scene. Italian mobsters and hitmen, Russian assassins, Nazi sympathizers, Japanese criminals and cops – everyone was distinguished by the way they spoke.

Live & Let Die is no different – dialects and patois are applied liberally throughout the book. Bond’s Jamaican assistant, Quarrel, spoke with his local Island patois. Mr. Big’s henchmen at Ourobouros Worm & Bait Shippers spoke like one imagined a henchman would: brief, slangy, punctuated with abuse and filled with curse words. The cabbies spoke like a visitor to New York would imagine a NY City cabby spoke: terse, critical and rude. The NY cops spoke in Brooklynese: dropping endings on words and tossing curse words around liberally. Mr. Big, alone, spoke in an intellectually superior manner – to distinguish him from his fear-filled workers and to show him to be a formidable opponent to Bond. Bond and Leiter’s excursion into the depths of Harlem and the night club and jazz scene is an example where discretion is thrown to the wind and an attempt at humour is paramount – and where Fleming is giving his creative exercise full reign – to capture the literary voice of the denizens of this dark chapter. To say this would be considered politically incorrect these days is an understatement, yet many writers today employ the same verbal tactics, and literary notables of the past, almost too many to mention, have done the same.

As an artist, I am always looking for some visual device to create a distinctive and alternate universe to the cliché-ridden films adapted from the books. Live & Let Die was a tough cookie. But the element in the book that stood out to me – and one that most likely would never make it to the film world, was when Leiter was describing to Bond the music born and bred in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom – “Every big American band you’ve ever heard of is proud that it once played here – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Noble, Sissle, Fletcher Henderson. It’s the Mecca of Jazz and Jive.” Leiter mentions Smalls Paradise: “Much the same as this, but not quite in the same class.”

That did it. I now had the working title of the painting – “A Mecca of Jazz and Jive.” As a kid starting to play the trumpet in the third grade and continuing all the way through College, I knew what I had to paint. I found promotional posters from the late 40s and 50s of the Duke, Louis Armstrong and Small’s Paradise, and using opaque gouache, tried to capture them as closely as possible. I have always loved big band music and Louis is one of my favorite trumpet players of all time, so my own (much unplayed these days) trumpet would take a premier place in the layout.

The counterpoint to the beauty of the music would be the horrifying cult of Voodoo, used by Mr. Big to achieve his evil aims. M tells Bond to read Patrick Fermor’s book on Voodoo, “The Traveller’s Tree” – so I added that to my list of items to paint. Solitaire gives Bond numerous insights into the cult and the description of Mr. Big offers more to the reader (and artist). I chose the pair of lemon yellow gloves that lay at the base of Lord Samedi’s iconic throne of cross and top hat, and added two white chicken feathers for visual counterpoint. To the end of the white ivory whip used by Mr. Big to chastize Solitaire, I added the single Russian letter that stands for SCH, the first letter of Spion – a spy – that was carved into Bond’s hand in Diamonds are Forever. The addition of these elements inspired me to add Voodoo to the title of the painting – which now became “A Mecca of Voodoo, Jazz and Jive.”

The world of boxing was discussed while Bond and Leiter were at Sugar Ray’s – the eponymously named bar on Seventh Avenue and 123rd Street – where the walls were covered with photos of Sugar Ray Robinson, at the time one of the world’s great boxers. That demanded an autographed photo of Sugar Ray, as a souvenir for Leiter. When Bond and Leiter finally made it to Mr. Big’s bar – aptly named The Boneyard – there the “sour-sweet smell” of marijuana “rocked them as they pushed through the heavy curtains inside the swing door.” Leiter tells Bond, “Most of the real hep-cats smoke reefers.” So a leaf cluster of the ‘green leafy substance’ made it’s way to the layout…

The M.O. of Mr. Big’s operation was smuggling gold coins from Captain’s Morgan’s treasure trove in Jamaica, slipping them into Harlem, and selling them to help fund SMERSH’s spying campaign in the US – so I tossed a few of them into the picture. Perfume – especially expensive ‘French Perfum’ – is de rigeur for the Bond ladies, and Solitaire’s favorite was Balmain’s Vent Vert. While she was dabbing that luxe perfum on herself, Bond was smoking “three packs a day” of his favorite brand of US cigarettes – Chesterfield’s.

I short-changed Jamaica in this painting, despite all of the final action taking place there, so two images from Jamaica were fitted into the scene…the emerald-colored hummingbird and the Hibiscus…both mentioned in the last chapter, “Passionate Leave.”

Wrapping up the elements of the painting is the addition of the Chopping Fly – my nod of artistic respect to one of Fleming’s great book cover illustrators, Richard Chopping.

Incidental Intelligence

Visit jamesbondart.com

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5 thoughts on “Live & Let Die… “A Mecca for Voodoo, Jazz & Jive”

  1. Another masterpiece.
    This guy’s work keeps getting better and better.
    I think he has captured the Harlem ambiance and the mystique of the story beautifully.
    This is just so good – a huge bravo to Gerry !

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