Wang Dang Doodlin
An Interview with Frederick J. Brown
Once the spirit inhabits it, then we have a painting. — Frederick J. Brown
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Fred Brown (1945-2012) interacted with all kinds of avant garde artists in New York City and particularly jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Charlie Haden and Alice Coltrane. Because of a grounding in the blues during his Chicago childhood, Brown also sought out blues musicians in the U.S. and Europe. The experience led to a prodigious creation of more than 300 paintings on jazz and blues subjects. With a similar cyclonic energy and speed, he executed a 110 panel series on the history of world art and produced enough good painting to buy a Jaguar while he was still in college. He attributed this prolific outpouring to entering a transcendent dimension: “You’re not involved with the body or the present, you are in the presence—you get to that point, that’s when the spirits hook up and the selection of colors, the shapes, all this stuff comes together and you get the perfect statement.”
UK writer Graham Lock's speciality is examining connections between jazz and blues and visual art, literature and film. This is the second of a series of articles that he is contributing to the IRAAA.
Frederick J. Brown was born in Greensboro, Georgia on February 6, 1945. He grew up in Chicago and graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1968 with a degree in painting and psychology. In the early ’70s he studied with Willem de Kooning. References to African art, German Expressionism and medieval religious painting inform his work, although he is probably best known for his interest in musical subjects, which ranged from portraits of iconic performers such as Billie Holiday [Figure 1] to depictions of semi-mythical figures like John Henry and Stagger Lee, who were famously celebrated in song. [Figure 2] “My grandfather used to listen to Stagger Lee,” Brown told me. “He liked that tune. So when I did my series, "The Blues," I thought, well, let’s paint Stagger Lee. And it’s between abstract and figurative painting, because the story of America, the mythological story of America, is a very abstract story, and all that story is in there.”
While he initially showed mostly abstract canvases, an expressive figuration later featured prominently in his art, and became a distinctive stylistic feature in his epic series of jazz- and blues-inspired paintings. Even so, he also continued to proclaim his love of music in playful abstraction. [Figure 3] Brown named several individual musicians as major influences, notably Anthony Braxton, with whom he went to school in Chicago, and Ornette Coleman, who helped him move to New York in 1970. He included Braxton in his painting The Last Supper, a tribute to his friends and patrons, which might also be called a cover version of Leonardo’s famous work as well as a riff on the tradition it represents. [Figure 4] “I went to see every major Last Supper ever painted in the Western world,” Brown recalled. “The Da Vinci was the last one I saw, and I did mine to the same proportions as his. I realized the images of the disciples in all these paintings varied from town to town, country to country. I thought, wait a minute, these guys must’ve used local sitters, and they probably painted their friends and supporters. So I did the same thing.”
Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s Brown’s loft-cum-studio at 120 Wooster Street in SoHo acted as a meeting place for all kinds of artists, as well as a rehearsal space for musicians, including the Revolutionary Ensemble, whose violinist, Leroy Jenkins, Brown had known in Chicago. (A PBS documentary film, 120 Wooster Street, directed by Mary Barton Kemper, focusing on Brown’s work and role during that period, was released in 2002.)
In the mid-80s Brown taught at the Central College of Fine Arts and Crafts in Beijing and in 1988 he became the first Western artist to mount a solo exhibition at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. The show brought him huge publicity but also resulted in temporary bankruptcy because of the costs involved, which included the hiring of two Boeing 747s to transport 100 canvases to Beijing.
Soon after his return to the USA, Brown relocated to Carefree, Arizona with his family. (In 1979 he had married the contemporary dancer Megan Bowman; their daughter, Sebastienne, was born in 1985, and a son, Bentley, followed in 1995.) He continued to paint prolifically, working in particular on his portraits of jazz musicians, although the series he planned was never completed. Brown died of cancer in his home at Scottsdale, Arizona, on May 5, 2012. His work can be found in the public collections at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the White House, among many other places, including locations in China, Italy and Liberia.
I first encountered Fred’s work on the sleeves of Anthony Braxton’s Duets 1976 and Creative Music Orchestra 1976 LP sleeves, the latter in particular being one of my favorite albums of the last 40 years. Yet it was only a quarter of a century later, when I began to research a book on jazz and blues influences in African American art, that I fully realised the scope of Fred’s painting and his close ties to the music. My initial research trip to New York, in the summer of 2003, happily coincided with Fred’s exhibition, Portraits in Jazz, Blues, and Other Icons, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Seeing his work ‘live’ (so to speak), the bright colors leaping from the canvas, confirmed my desire to talk to him, although since I lived in the UK and he was based in Arizona, a meeting seemed unlikely. However, it transpired that we were both planning to be in New York that autumn, and he kindly agreed to tweak his schedule in order to meet me.
Our interview took place in my hotel room near Central Park on October 27, 2003. Fred proved a very congenial interviewee, happy to answer my questions in detail and generous in his praise for all the people who had influenced him. Later, when the interview had finished, I remember he took me around some nearby galleries, enthusing over the new art that was on show.
What follows is a transcript of that interview, slightly edited and updated as of May 2015, but chiefly focused on that large and impressive part of the Brown oeuvre that was inspired by his love of jazz and blues.
I would like to thank Megan Brown and Marcy Flynn for their help in preparing this article, and the Frederick J. Brown Trust for permission to reproduce the images shown here.
GL How did you first get into painting?
FB I majored in architecture at high school and we had to take commercial art for the architecture course. In those days they didn’t have camcorders, all the renderings had to be done by hand and water color, so we had to take life drawing too. After high school I went to the University of Illinois’s School of Architecture but I didn’t get along, so I transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. When I went there my grandmother said, I don’t care what you get a degree in, just graduate in three years. So I asked them, what can I do in three years? They said, you can graduate with a degree in fine art and painting, but you don’t look like a guy who likes to suffer so you probably won’t want to be an artist! [Laughs] I said, what! I figured I could do anything. I didn’t realize it was going to be 40 years of pain! [Laughs] But painting came very easy to me. Architecture was more involved with precision, you know, but painting was free.
GL Were you already into music then?
FB My foundation, in terms of introducing me to jazz, was Anthony Braxton. Anthony and I went to high school together; he majored in electronics. Another guy who was at school with us, who always said he was going to have a great group, was Robert Lamm and he started Chicago, you know, Chicago Transit Authority? But Anthony and I were great friends, very close. He’d save all his lunch money to buy Paul Desmond and Warne Marsh records. I mean, I’ve seen him write his tracts; I’ve seen him notate the score for four orchestras.
Anthony has been so supportive of me. I owe him so much because one of the things that happened, in 1969 I went to Europe and Anthony, Leroy [Jenkins], Leo [Smith] and all of the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] were living in Paris. I was in London first, then Copenhagen, then I came down to Paris and I went to see them. They lived out in the suburbs. Anthony said, “Where’s your work?” I hadn’t painted for maybe a year or more because when I was painting in college, I had sold enough paintings to buy a Jaguar. And I was lazy: I liked the three-piece suits, good cars, living well: the bohemian life— but with money!
Anthony says to me, “Where’s your art, man?” And I said, oh I’m not really, you know, blah blah blah. He says, “This is bullshit. You walk around picking up girls with your camera and your trenchcoat, you’re not really an artist!” I thought, what! But that challenge . . . I mean, I did have a camera and a trenchcoat and my first night in Paris I’d been lucky enough to meet this really nice girl, her name was Judy, and we were living together. I told her, they don’t respect me as an artist. She said, “Well, they’re right, you don’t have any paintings. If you paint, I’ll model for you every day.” The next morning when I woke up she had gone out and bought all these art supplies, so I thought, OK, I’m gonna teach Braxton . . . [Laughs] I did 20 watercolors that day.
GL In one day?
FB I can do 20 watercolors every day, I can work at that speed. By the time I saw Anthony again, about a week later, I had over 100 watercolors. I said to him, don’t ever disrespect me again. He said, “Well, I got you back to working. Hmm, some of these are nice!” [Laughs] So that challenge got me painting again.
But Anthony . . . the sort of energy he has is infectious. His scale—he’s talking about interplanetary music, intergalactic music, you know. I’m thinking, OK! So I’ve done one of the largest religious paintings ever painted on a single canvas: The Assumption of Mary— it’s 33 feet tall and 28 feet wide and it weighs 6,500 lbs. [Figure 5] It’s hanging in New Orleans. 1 I did it on the cherrypicker, the crane. I’ve done thousands of paintings now, many of them have gone around the world. I had the first show in 5000 years by a Western artist in China’s main museum. It’s like—top that! Then Braxton’d come up with something else. He really embodies the essence of everything that is creative in human beings. 2
When I got back from Europe I had a show in Chicago, with all the paintings I’d done in Paris. One of those paintings ended up in the White House: it’s called Window in Paris, it has the whole feeling of Judy and the room we lived in and the rooftops of Paris. Anthony and the others were back from Paris too, so they came to the show. Anthony told me that Ornette Coleman had invited him to go and stay in New York. I said, yeah? Hmm! In high school I was like the class poet and I wrote plays too. I thought, wait a minute, maybe Ornette could do the music for this play I’d written.
So a little later I went to New York to hire Ornette. Anthony and Leroy had just moved to New York and were staying with Ornette. I didn’t know what a loft was, you know; I thought a loft was a hayloft! [Laughs] I walked into Ornette’s place in Prince Street and there was Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, Alice Coltrane, Charles Moffett, Don Cherry—all of them were there rehearsing. 3 [Figure 6] And Dollar Brand— Abdullah Ibrahim—had come over. They were all talking and I only knew college talk, so I was saying, like, “Man, what college did you go to?” [Laughs] I asked Ed Blackwell; he said, hmm, let me see, my education began in New Orleans, then I went to Egypt, then . . . [Laughs] Later Charlie Haden came over; he said, hey man, you ought to come to New York and contribute something to the scene. I thought, wow, these cats are actually inviting me into their world! I can’t believe it! So Ornette arranged for me to get a place and I went back to Chicago, picked up my things and moved to New York. I was going to try it for the summer; then 33 years passed!
To walk into the greatness of Ornette, who is without a doubt the leader of the avant-garde of the world . . . I mean, Rauschenberg and all those other guys just fell back into line! I know Anthony credited John Cage and Stockhausen and others with inspiring him; my influence was really Ornette, and then I came under the tutelage of Willem de Kooning—and also Romare Bearden, Joe Overstreet,4 Bill Hutson, Gerald Jackson, Al Loving, so many guys. The main one was Daniel Johnson; I met him at Ornette’s, he was like an older brother to me. And James Jordan, who was Ornette’s cousin . . ..
You want to know the effect of jazz on art, right? My first year in New York I got sick, I had this thing called quinsy where your tonsils actually touch and you can’t swallow. I went to the New York Ear, Eye, Nose and Throat Infirmary and they said, you don’t have any insurance, you can’t have the operation—but we’ll give you 24 hours to get those tonsils out or you’re gonna die! I thought, what! I went home, and there was a friend with me, another artist and musician, called Malcolm Mooney: he was the singer with the German rock group Can, he’s another great guy. Anyway, I was so sick I fainted. When I woke up, the phone rang. The hospital called and said, report in the morning. I said, huh? I don’t have any insurance, I don’t have any money for this. They said, report in the morning. When I got there, they told me, the bill’s been taken care of. So I had the operation. I didn’t know for 15 years that it was Ornette, his cousin James Jordan and Daniel Johnson who had paid for the operation. So I literally owe my life to music. It couldn’t get any more literal that that!
GL This was the early ’70s, yes? What were you painting then? I mean, all those watercolors you did in Paris—were they figurative or abstract or what?
FB I’ve always been able to paint in all styles, abstract and figurative. I have a work in Kansas City called The History of Art: in one room there are 110 paintings in the style of every master, from cave painting to the 20th century. I filled every wall, from ceiling to floor: when you walk into that space you’re not looking at 110 paintings, you’re looking at one called The History of Art in 110 parts. You’re walking into a painting! 5
Like I told you, I never thought of painting as difficult. It’s like Ornette will come into my studio and say, man, I can hear it! He has the mechanism to translate painting into sound: ’cause it’s color and vibrations, right? I have the opposite mechanism, to translate sound into paint. So the movement, the color, the vibration, from blues and jazz to Stockhausen, Webern and Berg—once again, I owe Anthony for my introduction to their music—I translate into paint. The clarification of that process came through doing thousands of paintings: every day, every day, the work ethic. But the courage to say, I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna live by doing this, that came from Ornette and Anthony.
GL If you can paint in any style, how do you choose which one to use?
FB I don’t have to. It’s sort of like automatic writing, where you have a subject matter, or you have a sound or a music, or you have a feeling. Or you have a model or a situation, whatever. These stimuli, as well as the physical structure that you’re facing—you have a canvas of a certain size—dictate that which is going to be. If I decide to do your portrait, maybe I’ll get your likeness, but until your spirit agrees to inhabit that painting, it’s just, you know, a form, a shape and colors. Once the spirit inhabits it, then we have a painting.
GL But a lot of the people you’ve painted have been dead. How do you get their spirit?
FB Most of the people I paint are dead! [Laughs] But I have their music and I have in my studio four Klipschorn corner speakers and a Macintosh 2300 amplifier turned up to a certain level, as if they were alive and in a concert, and their spirit is there. And I have a photograph of them.6 So between the two I’ve recreated . . . well, not recreated, but I’m in the presence of those people. My job is . . . I’m not necessarily configuring or inventing, I’m a vehicle, a painterly body for that spirit to inhabit. That’s my job on the planet. I pray to God every night, let me be your humble servant and I’ll try to be the sharpest tool in the shed; so when you want something done, pull me out. [Laughs]
Right now I’m working on 450 portraits of the major jazz musicians in history.7 I’ve got a new studio down in Arizona that is 14,000 square feet, so I can put up all the paintings. Jazz musicians in this country, and blues musicians, the source of it, have never been recognized, so I took it upon myself to design a place for these paintings to go.8 I’ve finished 100 of the portraits so far. What I’m looking for is the input of other scholars as to who should be included and why. The core of it I know, many of the people I know personally. Like I’m working on a portrait of Jay McShann now; I just saw him in Kansas City.9 He’s one of the real masters: I painted him back in 1999 too. [Figure 7] For some reason I’m always provided with a real mentor and special person to work with.
There are a lot of sources: I did all the major blues artists before, when I did the "Blues" series, and I want to include the blues people in the jazz series because you really have to start with gospel, blues and other early influences. Ragtime . . . I’ve already done a portrait of Scott Joplin; that’s in the United Missouri Bank in St Louis. He’s in a good place—where he should have been financed to start with! [Laughs] I did Koko Taylor back in 1989. [Figure 8] Her portrait is now owned by the State Department and they’ve loaned it to the US ambassador to the United Nations, so Koko is in his house. Like you, I went around and found all these people and talked to them before I painted them, and thank God they were still alive: Junior Wells, Buddy Guy. B.B. King. [Figure 9] Junior Wells is in the Smithsonian; Junior’s not with us any more but he’s documented.
GL When you paint someone who’s still alive, do they sit for you?
FB Sometimes. But I’m a night person, I like to paint at night. My signature would be that the person in the picture is sleeping. [Laughs] The art historians would have no problem identifying my work: “Ah yes, it’s a Brown, the guy’s asleep!” [Laughs]
GL So how do you work?
FB From photographs, some sittings. Talking: if I’m lucky enough to know the person, that’s one path to their spirit. It’s all about spirits; so if you listen to or look at or feel any of the energy of a person, the essence of the human being, that’s it. And if they’ve passed, well, my job is to bring them back. When you walk into this space with 450 portraits, the thing I want you to realize is the energy, the scale and the magnitude of American music.
I really do believe that it’s an assignment in life rather than some scheme I cooked up. You get these kinds of assignments. A while ago I was going through a very stressful financial period and a literary agent said, “Fred, do you think God would choose you to do this work, painting blues and jazz musicians, without making you suffer? How else would you empathize with their situation?” I thought, hmm, in that case I should start painting Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan and maybe I’d be given the kind of budget where I could empathize with them. [Laughs]
GL [Laughs] Oh, I’d like that too: a chance to feel the pressures of being enormously rich!
FB Right, ’cause I already know poverty. I guess it goes under paying your dues. It’s funny because in my business I have to get a lot of money from one person: 90 per cent of what I do is by commission, so I’m not usually dealing with the average individual. You know, I grew up in South Chicago, Jimmy Reed lived up the street and my father ran a shoeshine parlour and poolhall, so Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and all those people were friends of his. They’d come over to my father’s shoeshine parlor, go in the back room and come out happy, eat up all the candy in the place. Why I don’t know, I’ve never figured it out; but something changed them in the back room. [Laughs] They were really quite something: their style, the way they dressed and moved and talked. It was fascinating. And my uncles were like that. Whereas another part of my family, they were blue-collar workers, working in the steel mills. A lot of the people who had moved from Mississippi worked in the steel mills.
My father was street tough and my uncles, one was a bartender, they lead the life they had to live because of the limitations they had to deal with. But they were princely and kingly people. They dressed . . . well, look at the clothes that Muddy Waters wore. The early jazz musicians, they created a style. Duke Ellington is a prime example. I mean, look at those threads! No one ever said this guy is a bum. This guy is royal—it’s Duke Ellington!
When we had the opening for the "Blues" series, Willie Dixon came and he was looking at Muddy Waters’ portrait and he said, “You got ol’ Muddy, boy.” But the greatest compliment for me, the reward of it, was when he looked at his own portrait and said, “You got me, boy.”10 That’s all you can really ask for, for someone to acknowledge that. It’s not the financial thing, it’s not the ego thing; it’s the fact that you accomplished a mission you were put on the planet to do.
GL When you’re painting a portrait, do you have to find a balance between getting a likeness and freedom of expression, your own self-expression?
FB It’s not a balance, it’s not a balance at all. It all boils down to one word: essence. To find the essence of that individual. Once you have the essence, you can do anything with the picture. And it’s one stroke, two strokes, a million strokes, whatever, but it’s immediately recognizable, no matter how much you’ve abstracted. If your goal is to recreate the likeness of an individual, that’s a specific group of parameters to deal with. If your goal is to find the essence of the individual, that’s another thing.
GL If you’re not painting a portrait but a more abstract work, is there an equivalent essence or spirit that you have to capture?
FB Yes. There are two spirits to deal with: the spirit of the individual and a kind of zeitgeist, the spirit of the time. These two things have to come together. I have an abstract painting that I did in 1971 called In Search of Jimi’s Space, so we’re dealing with the spirit of the time and with my interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s music. [Figure 10] And—bingo!—they come together and the canvas kind of explodes: colors, shapes . . . You know Jackson Pollock’s work? He’s doing it more with line, in terms of his interpretation of jazz, whereas I’m dealing with a field of color, masses and globs of color. But it still has to dance and flow, it has to appear smooth.
One of my uncles had a body and fender shop and he painted Cadillacs and Rolls Royces: talk about smooth, they were like glass! Same thing with my mother, she worked in a pastry shop and she did all these spun-sugar roses: they looked so good, you would smell ’em rather than eat ’em. So I grew up in a situation where things had to be beautiful and functional and I applied that to art. It had to be that effective and that smooth. Like, another of my great mentors is Johnny Hartman. Oh man, Johnny Hartman was one of the most romantic people in the whole world. Truly, that which he sang, he believed. The same in painting: if you don’t believe . . . So my realm of painting has to be as smooth as Johnny Hartman or Smokey Robinson or Little Anthony. And when I listen to Ornette or Sarah Vaughan or Memphis Slim, those people are zero tolerant for mistakes. Same with painting: you have to know when to walk away, when things are perfect. I try to deal in a world of perfection. When you come back into the real world, then the problems start because it’s out of your control.
GL Do you play music even when you’re painting a non-musical subject?
FB I have music playing all the time, 24 hours a day, so there’s a rhythm. If I was painting flowers, I’d have music playing because the music provides a rhythm and a flow—stimuli! So I don’t have to think up a rhythm, I can react to it. It’s a debt that I owe to musicians because they provide me with the stimuli, the sound, the joy of life—all of those things. They put me in the right frame of mind to do the work.
GL Are there times when, for instance, if you’re stuck, you’ll change the music to help that situation?
FB I don’t get stuck. [Laughs] When I first went to Ornette’s, this is something I understood right away. Ornette was rehearsing and I’d sit there listening and instead of saying “1-2, 1-2-3-4”, Ornette would just say “1”—and it was like there, instantly! And everyone would perform at that level. When they stopped, I asked Charles Moffett, who was sitting next to me, how can they just start when all Ornette said was “1”. He said, “If you can’t hit on “1”, you can’t play with Ornette.” It’s like, once you get in the flow, you don’t get stuck.
Sometimes in painting, you get to a certain point and then you have to leave it alone and come back to it tomorrow because the flow is just not happening. I like a portrait to look at me like this [stares into GL’s eyes], that’s when I know it’s ready. Sometimes it goes like this [looks off to side], so it’s not ready. But when it’s focused, it looks right at me.
GL Why would the flow not be happening?
FB Oh, you can be painting and all of a sudden you’ll get a phone call, somebody’ll tell you something and your whole chemistry changes. So you try to eliminate all external influences and just concentrate. It’s like being in the zone. You really have to be protected, almost like being divinely protected.
My family, in fact, a large part is Native American, which is another influence in my work.11 That goes into the spiritual world again. You have people who were seers and seekers and they would go and fast for x number of days; they had visions, a vision quest. I’m involved in the business of search, and my friends say, yeah, Fred, that’s the problem: you go out so far then you have to wait for the fuel ships to catch up with you—the fuel ships representing money, those kind of things.
The trick is not to be afraid to go that far and that fast. How far and how fast can you go? It can’t be determined by consensual, validated reality. In terms of putting yourself in a certain space, you try to get to where the atmosphere is thinnest, where you have the least amount of resistance. But the higher you go, the fewer the people. And like Ornette says, yeah, you get way out there, but artists only get paid when they come back! [Laughs]
The music I’m listening to when I’m painting, some of that is on the level of the truly great, the inspirational, and that takes you into another dimension. You’re not involved with the body or the present, you are in the presence—you get to that point, that’s when the spirits hook up and the selection of colors, the shapes, all this stuff comes together and you get the perfect statement. It’s rare, but thank God I’ve had a lot of rare moments!
GL OK, but when you’re painting a musical subject, do you choose the music to fit the subject? If you’re painting, say, a portrait of Howlin’ Wolf, do you play only Howlin’ Wolf’s music?
FB Absolutely. I’d have the photograph and I’d have the music of Howlin’ Wolf. If he’s singing “If you see my little red rooster, ple-e-e-e-ase send him home”, that’s a certain feeling: “We’re gonna wang dang doodle all night long”, that’s another feeling. If I say, wait a minute, hold it, ‘Red Rooster’ is the one that’s putting me in that space and keeping me in that space, then all I have to do is hit ‘Repeat’. If I want to stay in that moment, in that presence, that sound, that feeling, then I’ll hit ‘Repeat’ on the CD player. I might play a single track all day, if that’s the one that puts me in the space.
When I’m not doing a portrait, I might play anything. I paint to Gregorian chants, to the music of the pygmies in the rain forest, to penitentiary work songs, to Aida: whatever I feel will create that moment.
GL In the "Blues" series you use a lot of close-ups on the face. Can I ask why you chose to do that?
FB Because I wanted people to pay direct attention to those individuals. If you have a picture frame and you want to make something bigger, you bring it forward. It’s like turning up the volume.
GL In some of the "Blues" series, you also use very bright colors on the face, like in the portraits of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy? [Figures 11 and 12] Was that for the same reason?
FB It was because they were so animated. Junior Wells and Buddy Guy . . . . I went to find them, they were playing on a riverboat cruising on the Hudson River. I went backstage and there was a young guy cleaning a guitar, tuning it. I said, excuse me, I’m looking for Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. He said, why’re you looking for them? I told him, my name’s Fred Brown, I’m an artist and I want to do a painting of them. He said, what’s it for? I said, it’s for a museum, do you know where they are? He said, yeah, Junior Wells is over there and I’m Buddy Guy. I said, what! You’re Buddy Guy! I thought, he has to be much older. Buddy Guy has this incredible eternal youth look about him—but powerful! So he calls out, Junior, there’s a guy here says he’s gonna paint your portrait. Junior Wells comes over and he has a razor in his hand. He looks at me, he says, you’re gonna paint my portrait? You better get this shit right! I said, yessir, Mr Wells! [Laughs] Buddy Guy was laughing, he said, yeah—and we wanna see it too!
I mean, they were so animated! That’s why I used those bright colors.
GL I read that when you were in Denmark you met a couple of blues musicians and promised you would document them. Is that right?
FB Yeah, Magic Sam and Earl Hooker. I was in Copenhagen in 1969, before I went to Paris. I saw a flyer for a blues festival so I went that night and saw a great show: Clifton Chenier, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, a few others. I went backstage—I had my press pass, I used to work for the Chicago Tribune—and I met Magic Sam. He said, you’re from Chicago? Hey man, you ought to write a book about us. I said, I’m not a writer. He said, you went to college? I said, yeah, I just graduated. He said, well, I got to the 7th grade and I wrote 40, 50 songs; you oughta be able to write a book! He said, we’re dying like flies. We paid a lot of dues, people ripped us off—our music inspired the world but when we die, no one’s gonna remember us. He said, in fact the doctor just told me I got a bad heart and I’m not gonna live long. He was . . . I think Sam was 28. He said, I been out there singing the blues, I been drinking whiskey and I just married an 18-year-old girl so I know damn well I ain’t gonna live long! [Laughs] And Earl Hooker said, yeah, I ain’t gonna live long either, man, whiskey and booze’ve got me too.
I told Magic Sam that night, well, I’m not a writer but I’m gonna do something. He said, you promise me—promise me you ain’t gonna let us die and be forgotten. I said, OK, I promise. I didn’t know what I was going to do because, like I told you, I’d stopped painting then: but I made the promise. Then I went to Paris and ran into Anthony and then I went back to Chicago. One night I was listening to this radio show, Purvis Spann the blues man—it’s a famous show in Chicago—and he said, now we’re gonna have a tune by the late Magic Sam. I thought, what? This guy doesn’t understand English too well. I actually called up the station: I said, I was listening to your show and you said “the late Magic Sam”, well, I saw Sam and Earl Hooker in Denmark just a couple of months ago. He said, did you see ’em today? I said, no. He said, good, so you’re not seeing spirits. Sam died three months ago. And Earl Hooker died today.12 I thought, oh man! So I knew I had to make good my promise.
It took me 20 years, until 1989, to get the skills and everything together to do it. I thought, before I do this "Blues" series I’m gonna have to go down South; I haven’t done my research, I haven’t been to Mississippi. We went from Memphis all the way down to Baton Rouge, that’s the real Delta blues. And the blues is alive and well there, it’s not a dying art form: we met some incredible young players. We went to Oxford, Mississippi, we went to Clarksdale, to Muddy Waters’ house, and I did my research. 13
When I came back, I did Muddy Waters’ portrait: the lines in the face, the eyes, the hat. [Figure 13] His daughter said, man, you really caught my father. I thought, my father’d be proud of this. I hadn’t ever painted my father, you know, but here’s Muddy. Leiber and Stoller have that portrait. They have a big collection of blues and jazz portraits; right now, I’m painting Memphis Slim for them, Lightnin’ Hopkins too.
GL You said you had to do your research for the blues portraits. What about the jazz portraits you’ve done—did you do any research for those?
FB The jazz homework was easy because I had lived with many of those people. You know, Ornette, Charlie Haden …. Frank Foster was a good friend of mine, he took me to meet Sarah Vaughan. [Figure 14] We went to her dressing room, Tony Bennett was in there; she said, like, Frank, how you doing? Frank said, this boy wants to paint your picture. She said, OK little boy, come over here and sit on my lap. I was maybe 32 at the time! [Laughs] I knew Rashied Ali, Anthony, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Brian Smith, Henry Threadgill . . . all these people, we kind of grew up together. Leroy . . . when he had the Revolutionary Ensemble, they used to rehearse in my loft. I’d be painting every day and they’d be playing, Leroy, Sirone and Jerome Cooper. [Figure 15] These people I knew like I knew myself.
GL Did you work on specific projects for Anthony and Ornette? For instance, didn’t you do some visual representations of Anthony’s music? I also saw that early portrait of him in your Jazz, Blues, and Other Icons show at the Studio Museum in June. [Figure 16] That was from 1970?
FB Yeah, he and I were living together at the time and he was playing and I was painting, so there you have an image of Anthony, an abstract image of Anthony, and an interpretation of his music. Then if you look at his Creative Orchestra Music 1976 LP, it’s my painting on the cover. [Shown above, see Intro] If you look at his Duets 1976 LP, it’s my painting on the cover. [Figure 17] 14
GL Were you listening to the music that would be on those records when you did the paintings?
FB No, but I would listen to Anthony’s music in general: For Alto and those earlier records. Then Anthony saw the paintings and said he’d really like to use some of them on his record covers, so he picked them. But I was listening to his music when I painted them. The paintings were not done for his music, but they were done to his music.
GL Did you do any paintings to Ornette’s music?
FB I have paintings I did listening to Ornette’s music but most have never been shown. [Figure 18] Ornette’s been a constant influence. We’d sit and talk for hours about painting, about space, about imagery: he’s like a technology buff and he deals with computer images and film and all sorts. I used to do my laundry at Ornette’s in those early days; I’d go over there and he’d be shooting pool with Anthony and we’d be talking and laughing. I mean, everybody would be there. Ornette lost the loft, that’s what happened, and then everybody dispersed. If the city understood the damage they did by allowing developers to disturb those nests of creativity, I don’t think they would do it. Well, perhaps they would, because . . . money, you know! But people get displaced. Ornette has had to move something like 20 times in the last 30 years. That can’t be conducive to creativity.
This kind of stuff has had a drastic effect on the art world and the world of music. Many people are very fragile and they used drugs because they couldn’t cope, not because they were demonic or whatever. Jay McShann told me he basically hired a guy just to protect Charlie Parker. He understood early on who Charlie Parker was, even before Charlie Parker understood who he was, and so he hired a guy who wasn’t that great a musician but his job was to watch out for Charlie Parker. If more people did that, if they could see the potential and importance of the individual, who knows what those artists and musicians could have done?
GL Do you know Richard Powell’s essay on the idea of a blues aesthetic?15 He suggests that there are certain formal techniques that originated in the blues that can be found across
all African American art forms.
FB I know Rick very well but I haven’t read his essay. My statement has always been—because people ask me, why are you painting the blues?—that the blues is the litmus test for all creative endeavors.
GL Can you explain that?
FB The blues . . . it’s like the essence of human feeling. It expresses the essence of human feeling. So anything you can do creatively that is on the level of the blues, then you have it, it’s indisputable. The blues tells a story, it comes down to that, and it’s definitive—it’s she actually left me, this is how I feel, this is what I know. It’s not hypothetical, you know what I mean? People don’t deal in hypothetical situations.
Another thing . . . if you say you can sing the blues, you better be proficient at what you do. You mess up a Muddy Waters tune, well, Muddy carried a pistol, you might get shot right there. You don’t pretend you can do something. You don’t even say you can do this unless you actually can, ’cause the feedback will be instant and overwhelming. That’s the thing about the blues, it’s giving people the essence of what they need. Your degree of execution—like, he’s almost there—doesn’t count. Smokey Robinson doesn’t almost tell you what it’s like to be in love: it’s definitive. This is it.
GL Apart from the portrait of Anthony in 1970, it seems that most of your jazz portraits were done after you did the "Blues" series. Is that right?
FB They came after, because I did it in a logical progression and the blues preceded jazz, so the jazz portraits were like the next step. Two things were happening. One is the fact that jazz was a different form of music from the blues: some people would say it was more sophisticated; some would say it grew out of the blues and then, as it came up the river, it changed: from Kansas City to Chicago to New York. Certainly, in terms of the publicity and the imagery of it, Duke Ellington was dressed very differently from, say, Robert Johnson. So in terms of that focus, I wanted to execute the jazz musicians in a certain fashion. My goal was to paint all of them at the top of their game, not broken down, not beaten up. I wanted to make this series beautiful, whereas I would say my goal was to make the "Blues" portraits expressive.
GL How would that difference operate in terms of you putting paint on the canvas?
FB The Junior Wells portrait, say, there are certain colors and shapes, it’s not intended to be a photographic likeness of the individual, it was intended to express that which he was expressing. So painterly-wise, I can use very thick paint . . . you know, those are thick emotions. In terms of Ornette’s music, say, it has more to do with thought processes in terms of a theory he was dealing with, and it was done under different conditions and at a different time. That word zeitgeist again, the spirit of the time. The blues was developed in a mud house with a dirt floor, whereas . . . I mean, you could not paint Cecil Taylor playing in a jook joint, it just wouldn’t work. Oscar Peterson was definitely playing in a supper club; Ornette was playing in concert halls. So in terms of my ability to execute certain imagery and certain styles, I’m closer to Rembrandt, to more formal portraits, to more individual likenesses, in the jazz portraits. Some people . . . like I’ve done maybe six portraits of Louis Armstrong, ’cause he played in different environments at different times. [Figures 19 and 20]
GL OK, but going beyond genre and context, is it possible to capture sound in paint? How do you approach that?
FB Sound is a vibration of air and paint represents color and form and shape, the thickness of it, the thinness of it, it’s three-dimensional. To express, say, ‘My Funny Valentine’ being sung by Sarah Vaughan, that vibrates the air in a certain way; a version of ‘Mannish Boy’ by Muddy Waters vibrates the air in a different way. So you really have to take all of these things into account. Sarah Vaughan was expressing herself in the manner that she did and she might be in a supper club or a concert hall, whatever is apropos for the moment, so when I paint from the photograph, it’s like . . . what is the moment of the photograph? What is the moment of that sound? How does the spirit choose to be portrayed? Then from there I decide if I want to express it in a mode closer to abstract expressionism, let’s say, or a mode that’s closer to Titian. These represent different uses of paint, different kinds of pigment, different types of brush strokes. I did a painting of Robert Johnson, it’s only in sepia and the white of the canvas is showing through because it’s just one consistent brushstroke and it’s done with the paint I had left over from another painting. [Figure 21] But that was how Robert Johnson wanted to come out. So watercolor or heavy paint, it just depends on the individual and the moment.
The moment is what controls it. It’s not like, oh I think I’ll paint thick today. If thick is in the air, then thick is what it is. I really believe all I am is a conduit or a vehicle and the information comes through me, not from me. These matters are not the result of my thought processes, I’m just responding to whatever is in the air. I dedicate myself to work every day I possibly can and as many hours a day as I can and I just do it—I’m not editing. Like I said, I’m in the business of search; I just get it out and I learned a long time ago not to fool around.
When I learned to draw, my teacher was a guy called Jeff Hoare; he was from England, and he was very good. He said, let’s do a 30-second drawing. I said, what! He said, alright, we’ll start with five minutes; and then he took us down to 30 seconds. Then we went back to five minutes and it was an eternity! [Laughs]
GL [Laughs] So you don’t have to worry whether the picture is finished. Time’s up!
FB Well, I told you about the portrait looking straight at me. The other thing about not painting … I learned this from de Kooning. He said, turn off the light and if you can still see the painting, then it’s ready. [Laughs] Rembrandt had that thing about a glow. Certainly, if you can see it in the dark, you can see it in the light.
Graham Lock is a writer and editor based in the U.K. His books include Forces in Motion, Blutopia, and the collection The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Visual Art (OUP), which he co-edited with David Murray. He is also a special lecturer in American music at the University of Nottingham.
The first article in Lock's IRAAA series is "Blues on the Brush: Rose Piper's Blues and Negro Folk Song Paintings of the 1940s" in the IRAAA print issue, vol. 22, no. 1, 2008.
1 Brown’s The Assumption of Mary (1992) is at the Library Resource Center, Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. For further information, see Katheryn Krotzer Laborde, The Story Behind the Painting: Frederick J. Brown’s The Assumption of Mary at Xavier University (New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 2012).
2 For more about Anthony Braxton’s music, see Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London: Quartet Books, 1988). For a discussion of the visual factors that have influenced Braxton’s music, see Graham Lock, ‘”What I Call a Sound”: Anthony Braxton’s Synaesthetic Ideal and Notations for Improvisers,’ Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 4, No 1 (2008), available at http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/462/992
3 Coleman lived at Prince Street in SoHo from the late 1960s till the mid-1970s. He recorded the LP Friends and Neighbors there in 1970 and also turned the ground floor of the building into a performance space.
4 Brown painted portraits of some of the artists he admired, including de Kooning and Romare Bearden. For interviews with Joe Overstreet about the music’s effect on his paintings, see Graham Lock, ‘Joe Overstreet: Light in Darkness,’ in The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in African American Visual Art, ed. Graham Lock and David Murray (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 219-52. See also Graham Lock, ‘”We Came from There to Get Here”: Joe Overstreet’s Art Across Frontiers,’ Journal of American Studies, Vol. 47, No 2 (May 2013), online issue. Go to http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?decade=2010&jid=AMS&volumeId=47&issueId=02&iid=8893408 and click on ‘Supplementary Material’ beside the red information icon.
5 Brown’s The History of Art (1994) is at Café Sebastienne, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City.
6 Brown doesn’t simply copy the photograph; he projects it onto the canvas and traces it, sometimes allowing this initial drawing to remain visible as an integral part of the finished painting. See Lowery Stokes Simms, ‘Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues, and Other Icons,’ in Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues, and Other Icons, exhibition catalogue (Kansas City: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002) 24 -25.
7 Subsequent interviews that Brown gave confirm 450 was the total number of paintings he had in mind. However, according to Marcy Flynn, archivist of the Frederick J. Brown Trust, only 350+ paintings are currently known, although others may exist.
8 The paintings were never all hung together in the same place. However, several smaller one-man exhibitions, featuring different selections of these works, have taken place in the last decade. These include Frederick J. Brown: Portraits of the Music I Love at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, NE (2005), Frederick J. Brown: Twenty Jazz Portraits at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, LA, (2006-2009), Frederick J. Brown Paints the Blues at the Pearson Lakes Art Center, Okoboji, IA (2007), Frederick J. Brown: New Portraits of Jazz Greats at the New Orleans Museum of Art, LA (2009), and Frederick J. Brown: Prospect 3 at the New Orleans Museum of Art, LA (2015).
9 It is not known whether Brown ever completed this portrait. If he did, its whereabouts are currently unknown.
10 The whereabouts of Brown’s portrait of Willie Dixon are currently unknown.
11 Brown painted portraits of several historical American Indian figures. Examples include Geronimo and His Spirit (1984), Black Elk with Himself (1992) and I Dream of Crazy Horse (1992).
12 Magic Sam died of a heart attack in December 1969 at the age of 32; Earl Hooker died from tuberculosis in April 1970 at the age of 41.
13 For more information on the genesis of the "Blues" series, see John Howell, ‘Brown’s Blues,’ The Blues by Frederick Brown, exhibition booklet (New York: Marlborough Gallery, 1989) 2-3.
14 Paintings by Brown have since appeared on recordings by other performers, including Ruth Cameron, Jerome Cooper, Mark Melnick and the Revolutionary Ensemble.
15 Richard J. Powell, ‘Art History and Black Memory: Toward a “Blues Aesthetic,”’ History and Memory in African American Culture, ed. Geneviève Fabre and Robert O’ Meally (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 228-43. See also his earlier ‘The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism,’ in the exhibition catalogue of the same name (Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989), 19-35.