Sabat’s Jazz

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“Jazz,” Duke Ellington once told a newspaper reporter, “is freedom.” Until relatively recently, defending freedom was not an easy task in Argentina, where a dreary succession of demagogues and generals held sway. The caricaturist Hermenegildo Sábat—known as “Menchi” to his many friends—did it anyway. Year after year in the pages of the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarin (“Clarion”) he wordlessly lampooned the preening and the powerful—and somehow managed to get away with it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that jazz—and the freedom it exemplifies—has been a consuming private passion for S‚bat since boyhood. It plays constantly in his big ground-floor studio in Buenos Aires—along with tango music, his other great musical enthusiasm —and his love for it shines through the astonishing series of paintings which he hopes will one day become a book and from which we offer a rich sampling on this and the following pages.

Sábat first heard jazz on vintage 78s as a teenager in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he was born in 1933. He soon began collecting on his own and, in 1961, already a rising journalistic star, was able to make a jazz pilgrimage to the United States to see and hear his heroes. Thirty-four years later he can still remember it all—Count Basic at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Wilbur and Sidney De Paris at Jimmy Ryan’s, and Max Kaminsky at Eddie Condon’s on Fifty-second Street; he was invited into the homes of Red Alien and Pee Wee Russell and 69 spent a glorious day in New Orleans marching in the funeral procession of a venerable trombone player. All of it informed his art.

How did so determinedly independent-minded an artist as S‚bat survive the generals? He just laughs. Clarin is the largest Spanish-language newspaper on earth he says; even the generals feared it. His cartoons are without words, so that they could never be entirely sure what he was trying to convey. And they were spectacularly vain, so pleased to see themselves in the paper that they failed to see “how they were being beaten up.” But at least one of them did get it; one day, S‚bat remembers, his editor in chief played for him a clandestine recording in which an angry officer warned that if the artist didn’t curtail his criticism he would see to it that he was taken up in a helicopter and dropped into the River Plate, the traditional way the regime rid itself of critics. Sabat did “have a couple of whiskeys” that night when he got home, he admits, and “I said nothing to my wife!” but he went right on lampooning the generals until they were driven from power.

The alto saxophonist Benny Carter is S‚bat’s first subject. Carter’s career encompasses most of jazz history: Born in 1907, he was one of the architects of the swing era and at the time of this writing is still composing, arranging, and performing beautifully at the age of eighty-eight.