Last Of The Beboppers
New York City was mecca for me as I arrived there in 1963 to find my first job after graduating from college. I was eager to respond to the rush, the excitement, the music and the art, first hand. My first job was working for the Police Athletic League as a playstreet director in Harlem. My regimen was very simple: working in the community during the day and listening to the “new music” nightly at the Jazz Gallery, Minton’s, Count Basie’s, Village Vanguard, Five Spot, Village Gate and Half Note and in Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet and the Continental.
I began to collect art — works on paper by Tom Feelings, Ernest Crichlow and Vincent Smith. In 1966 I curated my first exhibitions at several sites including the Brooklyn Public Library/New Lots District and the Countee Cullen Branch and in Detroit, at the Arts Extended Gallery. The artists included Jai Shirley, Ida McCray, Charlotte Amevor, William Bosley, Hugh Harrell, Barbara J. Brown, Charles Hudson, Leo Carty, Charles Johnson, James McCoy, George Preston, Tom Feelings, Walter Davis, Annvel McBurrows, Nat Pinkney and Ernest Crichlow.
It was this dual involvement in art and music that intensified my focus on parallels and common processes in African American creative expression. In expanding resources for their artistry, painters and sculptors, as well as musicians, drew from the uncanny inventiveness of the bebop movement. Jazz was a powerful influence on the artists as they devised ways of visually translating the revolutionary events of the 1960s. The music was also a pulse linking the arts with the social and political action of the period.
Some of the artists I met during this time fully acknowledged the music as the key to the black aesthetic and articulated its qualities in their work. New York painter Walter Davis was one of those artists. His work exemplified the artists’ understanding and interpretation of the Bebop movement and its legacy within the framework of the “new” music. Davis placed Charlie “Yardbird” Parker as the source and constructed an iconography that expressed the dynamics of the music through a bird form. This bird image was central in both his paintings and collages. The bird form rendered in an abstracted, hard edged format and in brilliant colors conveyed the force of the music.
I was introduced to Walter by artist Shirley Woodson in 1966 as she was curating his first Detroit exhibition at the Arts Extended Gallery. Walter grew up on Detroit’s east side, studying art at Cass Technical High School with fellow art students Al Loving, John Glenn and Vera Young. In the ’50s he moved to New York City where he currently lives. At the time of our meeting he resided on Ludlow Street in Manhattan.
The “black visionary music” of Davis’ youth became an integral part of his artistic vision. He was fortunate to have seen the legendary Charlie “Yardbird” Parker in performance.
“The music of the great Charlie Parker has been a source of creative energy in my work for the past 20 years,” Davis reflected in a phone interview in 1982. (The interview was one of a series I conducted with artists on the relation of their art to music.) “As I make art I pay homage to the jazz musicians who are sound masters of the black experience in America.”
When Walter and I hung out, we never discussed “mainstream” American art. We were engrossed in the interpretations and translations of the bebop sounds into images with paint and collage. It was totally refreshing. By this time Euro-American-dominated aesthetics had become a bore to many African American artists. We had seriously begun to examine traditional African sources. The 1960s was the most important decade in the century in the evolution of African American visual art: the trailblazing efforts of the visual artists were reinforced by strong community support.
In the Yardbird Suite collage, Davis incorporates sheet music of the same name, appropriately using red paint to symbolize the fire, speed and intensity of the music. The black slashes and white background solidify this interpretation of Parker’s composition.
My introduction to the magic of Sam Middleton came through Walter Davis. Sam Middleton, considered an artist in exile, was living in Amsterdam. The idea of an African American artist living in exile was a fascinating concept to me. But soon folks “in exile” became “jet setters” as air travel increased between the United States and Europe. Through rapid and frequent trans-Atlantic travel, artists and musicians experienced the best of both worlds: one provided rich artistic resources and the other offered appreciative and supportive audiences.
Sam, a native of Harlem, moved to Holland in the 1950s where he continues to live. His collage, West Indian Pancake was inspired by the Duke Ellington composition of the same name which was recorded on Verve’s “Soul Call” album. The recording showcased the exquisite sound of tenor saxophonist Paul Gonzalez. In the collage, Middleton surrounds pieces of a promotional flyer for the Archie Shepp album “Mama Too Tight” with layers of paper and brushstrokes to create a landscape with a handprint that seems to represent the sun. The same Impulse album featured, “A Portrait of Robert Thompson (As A Young Man).” This work is a dedication to the artist Bob Thompson.
Before Sam Middleton left New York for Europe he was a mentor to Walter Davis and through this association they articulated the importance of the energy they found in the music as a driving force in their work. Davis and Middleton continued their friendship over the years through correspondence and with Davis visiting Sam in Holland.
Middleton said that he was less interested in race and color than in being a good painter. Duke Ellington and other musicians and artists visited him abroad and he continued to use visionary music as an element in his works.
Ademola Olugebefola and I met around 1965 when he was a member of the Twentieth Century Creators, a Harlem-based artists group. Other members included Perry Cannon, Dindga McCannon and Gaylord Hassan. Perry Cannon and several other artists in the group went down to Greenwich Village to exhibit. A new group formed among those artists who wished to maintain their base in Harlem and incorporate their interest in “Africaness.” “We-us-I” (Weusi) members included Ademola, Kay Brown, James Phillips, Otto Neals and Abdul Rahman. Their goal was to “further the awareness of the black community of art, Black Art and Culture–Its’ yesterday, its’ today and then mold tomorrow.”
Printmaker Olugebefola’s work vibrantly explored traditional African imagery. The hand-colored woodcut, Musicians Making The Harvest Grow, is a brilliant interweaving of linear patterns and primary colors.
In 1966 the Clyde March Gallery on West 13th Street held an exhibit for Weusi. “Collage Jazz” presented the works of Theo, Perry Cannon, Abdul Rahman, Gaylord, Morris Dawson, Otto Neals, Dindga, Taiwo Duvall, Bill Howell, Walter Cade and Bedwick.
In 1964, I asked Ernest Crichlow, founder and producer of Brooklyn’s annual Fulton Art Fair, if he could give me the names of artists whose work I could purchase and exhibit. One of the first artists he suggested was Vincent Smith. Vincent’s work was figurative and filled with tension. The lean images seemed to have been arrived at by some reductive approach in the artist’s analysis of ideas. A textured surface was a part of his processing of highly emotional messages.
Music was a reccurring theme in his paintings as well as graphics. A Moment Supreme, an etching done in 1972, depicts the funeral service of John Coltrane at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City on July 21, 1967. This gripping study shows Albert Ayler on tenor saxophone and his brother, Donald Ayler, on trumpet playing in the church balcony at the funeral.
The etching was especially meaningful to me since I had seen Coltrane nightly at the Half Note (“Jazz on the Waterfront”) at 289 Hudson Street. The sets included McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. I came to understand that John Coltrane was the epitome of the soul of the vanguard in the arts of the 1960s. John was our guru, our inventor.
Artist Bob Thompson also had a real connection with musicians. His painting hung from the ceiling in the entrance way of Slugs, a jazz room in the East Village. Bob Thompson’s paintings and drawings alluded to musical intent with a brilliance of raw textured color. These improvisational landscapes hosted a zoology of bird forms, hatted men sometimes with musical instruments, and blue female figures. Bob Thompson’s work fused with the music, providing a provocative milieu for the “new music” being invented nightly by the avant garde musicians.
It was an interesting scene at Slugs, an inexpensive place for young artists and musicians to gather. Thompson frequently hung out there. Actor Carl Lee tended the bar. Carl played “Cowboy” in the off Broadway play musical, “The Connection.” Pianist Freddie Redd wrote the score and he and Jackie McLean performed in the production.
JOhn Dowell’s Break Away Miles, Yeah (page 21), a beautiful lithe watercolor, first drew my attention to this artist from Philadelphia. The scattering of abstract organic shapes reflected a similar phrasing in Miles Davis’ music.
“For me, music is the connection to my black heritage,” Dowell explains.(FN*) “I associated my responses to Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Coltrane or Shepp to my being black. Even in 1963, as an undergraduate, I was obsessed with music and tried to incorporate aspects of the discipline into my art. I began a series of realistic paintings of musicians I admired, such as Miles Davis and Coltrane, and I thought I was doing the blues. I soon realized that I wasn’t painting the blues. I was painting someone who performed the blues. I think of music as generating the guts or emotional matter in my work.”
Melvin Clark is among the African American artists who continue to embrace black visionary music as a guidepost. Radiating layers of color surround the musicians in Clark’s paintings and serigraphs. He combines implied resonance and intense, corresponding color to visually “build” sound. Originally from Detroit, Melvin Clark, now resides in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and exhibits both in the United States and Europe.
I am still in the process of fulfilling my initial mission begun in 1959 to document and share information on African American fine artists. I hope that talented black artists will no longer die in obscurity and that their work and philosophies be known and understood. Reviewing the art movements of the ’60s one realizes how the dynamics flow.
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