Sunday, February 22, 2015

Celebrating Black History

"Jazz Legends: Cab Calloway", 16x20" Acrylic on Canvas. If you'd like to see working photos,
they are over on Global Vernissage
February is Black History Month. According to Wikipedia, it has been celebrated in the USA and Canada since the 60s. The goal was to create an accurate and balanced understanding of black history in the school curriculum. Today, the contributions of black people to such areas as education, medicine, art, culture, politics and human rights are celebrated throughout the month of February, all across the continent.

When I first started working on my initial series of music themed paintings, I had no intention of ever painting portraits. The music I found so inspiring was created by musicians of all stripes, and what I was so intrigued with was how the musician and the instrument seemed to be part of each other... becoming the music. As I looked into the history of Jazz, however, I discovered this amazing cast of characters that I had known only vaguely from their music. This time I looked more closely at their lives, the times in which they lived, and how that culture influenced what they created.

Jazz Legends Series so far... Louis, Ella, Duke and Count Basie. 
The early days of Jazz are fascinating. Benny Goodman may have been the "King of Swing", but it certainly wasn't his creation. A good number of his scores were actually written by Fletcher Henderson, a black man. In a time where blatant racism was the norm, black musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington developed a language of their own. They broke colour barriers, gaining popularity with both white and black audiences. Harlem became a hotbed of musical innovation. The Cotton Club, where many of them performed at one time or another,  was divided strictly along colour lines... the black people were on stage, the white people in the audience. 

This portrait series is my tribute to the musicians that started it all. There will be 12 iby the time I'm finished. I could continue (there are so many, I could go on for years), but I have to put a limit on it somewhere. I'm also limiting myself to the early days, to that time in Harlem during the heyday of the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, the time of swing dancing and big bands and historic change in the musical landscape of the USA.

"A Great Day In Harlem", by Art Kane, 1958
Lots of history in this photo. If you are a jazz fan you'll
recognize many of the people here.Some of the best
musicians ever. 
As much to limit any inadvertent copyright infringement as anything else, I'm working from really, really old photos. Finding photographer's names attached to shots any time before the digital era can be a bit of a challenge. So far I've worked out a few techniques... merging many photos to make a composite, going through hours of old video footage pausing to take screen shots, and using photos of the musicians in their senior years, with studio portraits as reference to age them backwards. I hope I'm capturing a likeness of their spirit, as well as their physical form.

Next up are Billie Holliday and Coleman Hawkins. Have a suggestion? Maybe leave it in the comments.....