Amelia Diehl

For decades, Chicago has been known as a jazz hub. When the Great Migration brought musicians from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta, the booming city developed its own distinct style. Between nightclubs and festivals, the city continues to support a live jazz scene that churns out world-class musicians. 

The Jazz Institute of Chicago has been a key player in the mix, cultivating talent and weaving jazz into the city’s public life with events like the annual Chicago Jazz Festival. When the Institute celebrated its fiftieth anniversary earlier this year, its creative director, artist Raymond Thomas, saw an opportunity to highlight its history. This effort culminated in “dear jazz…a Visual Love Letter,” which opened on October 4 at the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville.

Across two halves—a group show of paintings, collage, sculpture, and more in Suite 1; and a solo showcase of local artist Arthur Wright’s paintings and sketches in Suite 2—“dear jazz” draws out the intimate connections between jazz and the visual arts. The location only strengthens this bond: the Center, founded in 1941, is the oldest Black-run arts center in the country, a fitting site for the exploration of a genre that emerged from African American life.

As curator of the show, Thomas handpicked twenty-five visual artists who “use jazz as a muse and a purpose” and exhibited their responses to the genre. For Thomas, the connection between jazz and art is a “symbiotic relationship,” noting the abundance of jazz artists who also make visual art. At the exhibition’s original closing reception on November 3 (it has been extended through December 13), the featured artists discussed the inspiration jazz provided for their work. 

Take it from painter Paul Branton, whose work honored the 1960s hard bop and soul jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan: “Sixty to seventy percent of the time, I’m listening to jazz while I’m working,” he said. 

As the name of the show suggests, several pieces were homages to specific jazz figures, from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Morgan, to Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. But many of these artworks nonetheless kept an abstract feel—as artists were more interested in capturing the energies that surround a particular figure.

“I try to interpret the musician and channel them, get the feelings that they might have had,” said painter Keith Conner, whose homage to Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers spanned an entire wall. 

Arthur Wright’s works, which filled the Center’s entire upstairs gallery, also blurred the lines between visual artist and musician; many of his pieces were created while he attended a live show, or listened deeply to an album. “Jazz is the energy behind my work. It gives me an opportunity to move on to my creative side. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I listen to jazz,” Wright said with a laugh. He doesn’t play an instrument, he added; instead he “[plays] with the brush.”

Wright often works at venues like the Fulton Street Art Collective, where he draws with ink pens—because these venues discourage wet mediums for fear of staining tablecloths, he’ll let the watercolor background dry first. Wright then adds the foregrounding layers; the quick, bustling strokes captures the fluid, focused energy of musicians playing an energetic live set.

These immediate pieces—like one which captured a performance by The Bridge, an international exchange that sends jazz musicians between Paris and Chicago—were complemented by slower creative works he made while listening to albums “all night long,” culminating in huge sprawling collages made from issues of National Geographic. In a way, Wright’s variety of approaches lets him tease out the myriad possibilities jazz inspires. 

Wright wasn’t the only artist to incorporate deep listening into their process: many pieces were created in a single session, as though the visual artists were improvising with the music they were listening to. Roger Carter, whose piece honored John Coltrane, said that he “can only work with organized chaos, so jazz was instrumental for that.” He painted his piece live in a span of two hours. Similarly, Alan Emerson Hicks’s saxophone-inspired sculpture was created over a period of just forty minutes. Hicks also worked while listening to interviews of President Donald Trump: a way to inundate himself with the cultural realities he was trying to respond to in the sculpture.

At moments like these, many artists spoke to the deep roots of the genre as resistance, seeing their work in a long line of resiliency. “[Jazz] is an art form that we as a people pioneered,” Paul Branton said, referring to Black musical traditions.

“All music began with us,” Conner said, referring to the continent of Africa and cultures that came out of the African diaspora. “There’s a rhythm to life, a rhythm to paintings. Africans have led the world as a people. We are not God, but that’s where we create things out of nothing. To be an artist is to truly an honor and a blessing to bring people along in your vision.”

Conner connected this tradition with the high stakes of art’s potential for social change, articulating the concern many other artists felt for the decline in arts funding. “The arts of any kind brings people together,” Conner said. “A lot of us lose touch with our own culture. If we learn to care for ourselves, we won’t hurt other people.” This need to make culture visible was part of why some of his work depicted Esperanza Spalding, a bass player and bandleader from a younger generation.

Thomas’s works also touched on this theme, through depictions of Miles Davis as a “spirit warrior.” In conversation, Thomas discussed his vision of Davis invoking spirits to create his music, and spoke about the role masks play for ritual and ceremony in many African cultures. Davis, who was born in downstate Illinois, toured extensively in Chicago throughout his career.

Candace Hunter also drew upon the complex layers embedded in the genre’s history. Her sculpture of a cello played a recording of Charles Mingus performing “Moanin’,” a bluesy track whose many horns creep messily around a minor scale. Mingus’s yells in the background of the track are barely audible over the building saxophone screeches, echoing the heavy suffering—and resistance—that jazz’s history is embedded within. The sculpture also incorporates cotton and rice, referring to the “labor that kept this country alive.” (“Rice is what numbed our fingers,” Hunter said)—and a black hat sits atop the cello, representing “the man who didn’t come home.” 

For Bryant Lamont, “Jazz really [is] the embodiment of Black culture. With this music I can take bits and pieces of trials and tribulations, and put it out into the world.”

Lamont’s painting, mounted in a thick gold frame, serves as a study of saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1960 album Giant Steps. Lamont was drawn to the album’s reputation as “one of the most feared [compositions] of jazz music, because of the complexity that Coltrane created.” Lamont sees parallels between the album’s complexity and the complex struggles African Americans face—as well as their fight to be seen as complex.

Here and elsewhere, the artworks weren’t just about the history of jazz, but the way it encourages artists and performers to think—and the show inspired many artists to think differently.

“[Jazz] is such an original art form,” said Wright. “Jazz to me is connected to invention, it’s connected to science, it’s connected to architecture, it’s connected to math.” 

“Each [jazz musician] had a way of breaking away from the norm,” Norman Teague added, drawing a parallel between the musical and visual avant-gardes.

When she was first asked to be part of the show, Makeba Kedem-DuBose says she thought, “I don’t do music art.” Still, she added it to her process, painting between midnight and 6am—which was “good for this piece because those are club hours.” 

“When I do portraits, it might not look like you, but it will feel like you,” Kedem-DuBose said. “Jazz is a feeling. It’s something that resonates deep in your soul.” 

“dear jazz…A Visual Love Letter” is on view through December 13 at the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave. Open Wednesday through Friday noon–5pm, Saturday 9am–5pm, Sunday 1pm–5pm. Closing ceremony December 13 from 6pm–9pm. Free admission.

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Amelia Diehl writes about climate, the environment, and the arts for the Weekly. She is also a staff writer for Audia Music News, a site covering women and nonbinary musicians. She last wrote for the Weekly about a performance on ecological restoration at Big Marsh Park.

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