One giant leap for a Man

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The Independent Online
It's a great name, Man Ray. Vaguely mysterious, vaguely exotic. Ray has overtones of science fiction, and giant rays floating in the Pacific, and giant rays flashing through space and Sugar Ray Robinson.

Man has overtones of ... well, of Man United, I suppose, but not a lot else really, except of Man, and I suppose the way the human species is evolving at the moment. That's not a thing that any of us wants to be reminded of.

Still, as a name it has a certain cachet, because it is different from all other names and in combination with Ray it has a double hammer blow effect. How many other painters or photographers can you think of with two monosyllabic names? Or writers? Or anyone at all? Jim Dine - isn't he an artist? Paul Klee? That's about it. I really can't think of any more. I can think of lots of people with monosyllabic last names who have long first names, almost as if they were compensating. Maugham is one syllable, so call yourself Somerset. Bosch is pretty blunt, so add Hieronymus. Hearn is colourless, so add Lafcadio. (Great name, Lafcadio!) Don't like Holmes? Add Oliver and Wendell ...

But Man Ray is pretty uncompromising as names go, and you would have to be pretty tough to stick to it. That may be why we haven't heard much of Man Ray from that day to this. Wrong sort of name. Not a real sort of name. Stubborn sort of name. And yet here we are, suddenly celebrating his pictures and even having to read through long articles about whether he was a better painter or photographer. A year ago we didn't give a used 2p stamp for Man Ray and now we are being asked to decide in what art form he was more significant. This time next year we won't remember him again, but just for the moment he is the buzz name to savour ...

Well, I am not one to shirk my duty and I have been trying to decide whether he was more important as a photographer or a painter. And I have come to my conclusion.

Neither. I think he was more important in the history of jazz.

My reasons for this are based on my memories of coming to jazz in the 1950s, and finding out that jazz people talked a different kind of talk. At least, black jazz people in America did. They talked about money as bread and people as cats, and girls as chicks. An instrument was an axe and you didn't play it - you blew it. People said: "He blows a mean piano," and nobody laughed. Marijuana was tea, and liking something was digging it and leaving a place was splitting ...

And everyone called each other man. Hey, man. Look here, man. Let's go, man.

My betting is that Man Ray started it. After all, what else could you call Man Ray except Man? "Hey, Man, how's that painting coming on?" ... "Man, you coming down the cafe to see Pablo?" ... "Man, I hear the Germans are invading - any idea what to do, Man?"

Man Ray was in Paris and not America, it's true, but so were lots of expatriate Americans. Not just writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but jazz musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter and Bill Coleman and many others. I think we can visualise these early jazz greats hearing everyone calling Man Ray "Man" and thinking, Hey, what a cool appellation! And then it would slowly catch on in the jazz community, and pretty soon everyone would call each other Man, and then it would spread across the Atlantic ...

Of course, there would be complications to begin with. Especially if Man Ray were hanging around. You can imagine a Paris jazz club of the 1930s with an American band on the stand, and the leader telling someone to solo by shouting out: "Take it, man!" and poor old Man Ray in the audience standing up and not knowing what to take ...

In those days "Solid" was a word of praise in the jazz fraternity, and instead of saying "That's really remarkably fine," you would hear jazz people saying: "Solid, man". I wonder what Man Ray made of that.

In fact, when Duke Ellington visited Paris in 1937 his cornetist Rex Stewart recorded five wonderful performances with Django Reinhardt, and one of the tunes was called Solid Old Man.

I wonder if it was intended as a tribute to Man Ray?

Just asking.

Still, the main thing is to spread the theory that Man Ray was responsible for the origin of the now universal greeting, "Man!" and to express the greatest relief that it was he who gave rise to it, and not Gertrude Stein or someone similar.

Can you imagine jazz musicians saying to each other, "Take it, Gertrude!"

Or "How're you doing, Alice B?"

It doesn't bear thinking about.

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