Basquiat and Jazz: A Guide
Jean-Michel Basquiat painted jazz music so well that he’s become an indelible part of its tradition.
Basquiat — whose pop-cultural staying power bests that of every postwar visual artist save for his mentor Andy Warhol — wasn’t without his precedents, though. From Archibald Motley’s street scenes and nightclubs, to the polyphonous geometry of Stuart Davis, to the many, many flawed portraits of jazz totems that litter craft fairs, painters have strived to capture jazz’s spirit since its inception. Still, only Basquiat managed to engage so deeply with jazz history and its implications while also committing to a creative process that mirrored the art form’s improvised figuration.
With 1983’s Horn Players, Basquiat rendered the bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie using his unmistakably expressive line; “Ornithology,” the title of Parker’s bop anthem based on the standard “How High the Moon,” is repeated, as are the artists’ names, alongside a mix of allegorical words and a Gillespie scat lyric.
In the Wings, dated 1986, is an arresting portrait of the tenorman Lester Young, whose graceful, contoured storytelling made him one of the swing era’s most influential stylists and a forebearer for beboppers. Set starkly against a bright ocean-blue background is a red-and-white sign that reads “Reno Club,” a signifier for the rough-and-tumble Kansas City venue where Young changed jazz’s timeline with Count Basie in the 1930s. (The desert-island cut below, featuring Young and Basie, was recorded in Chicago in ’36.)
King Zulu, also from ’86, highlights a quartet of trumpet greats, in the process allowing Louis Armstrong to honor his New Orleans heritage. Many other Basquiat works follow suit, touting an unparalleled blend of striking forms, a brazen use of color and knowing references that invite deconstruction. For the jazz faithful, such citations are evidence of the artist’s serious fandom. After all, Basquiat even made discography details into fine art.
This Brooklynite of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent got his obsession honest. His father, Gerard, was a jazz lover. Gerard worked as an accountant and steered his son’s estate after Jean-Michel died tragically in 1988 at 27. Basquiat also found a crucial mentor in Fab 5 Freddy, born Fred Brathwaite, the artist, filmmaker and hip-hop trailblazer. Brathwaite’s own jazz-connected father was a dear friend to the pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach, who became the younger Brathwaite’s godfather.
“I turned JMB on to jazz back in the early ’80s, specifically bebop, along with stories about my godfather, Max Roach, who I did introduce him to,” Brathwaite wrote to TIDAL in an email. “There’s a painting he did of a drum set he titled Max Roach [that] he planned to give to Max, but that never happened. After our jazz talks, Jean went out and purchased a huge collection of jazz records, then made a body of work inspired by them.”
Metaphorical bonds between jazz and other art-making disciplines can be trite or tenuous, but in Basquiat’s case they’re palpable. He understood the power of composition like a masterly soloist — where to fill a space with energy and where to let the onlooker rest or ponder. He also internalized the tenets of theme and variation; think of his recurring motifs and repeated words, with their strikethroughs and thoughtful imperfections, as tweaks and embellishments to a melody or phrase. Like a musician’s savvy, funny mid-chorus quotation, Basquiat’s pointed images and words created meaning through context.
At the time of his passing, Basquiat owned thousands of records, the majority of them jazz, and music was a constant presence in his studio. He worked best ensconced in stimuli — the TV, the turntable, many open books. “If he wasn’t painting, he wasn’t doing much else other than eating, sleeping and going out,” the multi-hyphenate creative Michael Holman, a friend and musical collaborator to Basquiat, told TIDAL. “So a lot of his time listening to jazz would be in concert with working. … [The music] was very conducive to his hand, to his temperament when he would attack his canvases.”
Basquiat might’ve seen a similar duality in his own work in jazz’s meld of archaic high culture and the African-descended blues. “[His art was] a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint scribbles,” gallerist Jeffrey Deitch said early on. And like many standouts of the midcentury jazz generation he revered, Basquiat was largely an autodidact in his various endeavors, which included music, and he preferred creating to explaining what he’d already done. “It’s like asking somebody, asking Miles, ‘How does your horn sound?’” he told his friend Becky Johnson.
He, like Brathwaite and Holman, was an enthusiastic member of a post-Warhol generation for which artistic versatility was an ethic. The idea that one couldn’t do something by honored principles was often all the more reason to tackle it.
Basquiat as a player fell short of any standard notion of chops, although that reportedly didn’t prevent him from trying his hand in a variety of situations. In New York during the epochal late 1970s and early ’80s — when the young artist was raising his profile through a combination of charisma, ambition, looks and aloofness — a hardcore, left-of-center jazz scene was thriving in the city’s forgotten storefronts and cold-water lofts. One of this community’s rising heroes was the saxophonist David Murray, who told JazzTimes, “I remember Jean-Michel Basquiat coming around and trying to play the clarinet. … I don’t remember him as a painter; I remember him as a bad clarinet player.”
It was also during this time that the artist’s friend John Lurie was helming a group called the Lounge Lizards, whose designation as “fake jazz” was memorable but misleading; the band didn’t headline Newport, but it did over its existence nurture many fantastic musicians whose abilities could be appreciated sans irony. As the downtown lore goes, Basquiat tried to join up but didn’t make the cut.
Still, his legacy harbors lasting musical contributions. For one, he produced a miraculous early hip-hop single, 1983’s “Beat Bop,” featuring Rammellzee and K-Rob. And the sting he felt following the failed Lounge Lizards audition lit a fire that resulted in the band Gray. Named for Basquiat’s beloved Gray’s Anatomy, Gray gigged at storied venues like the Mudd Club and CBGB during a very special post-punk moment at the dawn of the ’80s, generating atmospheric work that faced down description. Cofounders Holman and Basquiat agreed to form a group on the night they met in April of 1979 at the landmark Canal Zone party organized by Holman, Brathwaite and the artist Stan Peskett. Other original members of Gray included the actor-director Vincent Gallo, Nick Taylor and Justin Thyme (a.k.a. Wayne Clifford).
You’d be wrong to associate Gray’s language, with its intimations of Stockhausen and Cage, too closely with jazz — treating conventional technique with suspicion is what made their conceit possible. But the group did trade in a spirit of egalitarian communication and open experimentation that aligned with what’s known as free improvisation. In Gray, Basquiat’s mediums — “instruments” somehow doesn’t seem accurate — included but weren’t limited to Burroughs-esque spoken word, percussion, clarinet and a Wasp model synthesizer, made by the British brand Electronic Dream Plant, from which he was able to coax otherworldly sonics. He also played guitar, loosening its strings and running a metal file along them. “We wanted to approach sound through more of a painterly, sculptural perspective,” Holman said.
“We would listen to each other,” recalled Holman, who’d worked with the theatrical proto-punk band the Tubes prior to moving to New York. “That was how we wrote our parts, by being patient and waiting and listening. … All of us, including Jean, would practice that idea of listening, waiting, allowing silence to have just as much of a place in the music as sound or music or noise.”
A track like “Drum Mode,” recorded in 1981 and included on the soundtrack to the essential film Downtown 81, bears these strategies out. Basquiat strikes a triangle on the track, its bell-like timbre manipulated into an eerie industrial clink. The remainder of the personnel is equally slippery; Holman, for example, described his role as “drums/percussion,” but within those duties was the act of pulling adhesive tape off a drumhead. Listen, and listen again: You’ll hear components that are often undefinable, as well as a sense of interplay and democracy that a lot of experimental industrial music loses in its willful attempt to shock.
“Nine times out of 10, through that openness, through that generosity, through that altruism and listening to each other, we would find a place that was magical,” said Holman, who continues to work as Gray with Taylor. “It wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t rock, it wasn’t anything; it was our own individual sound.”
In the years since Basquiat’s passing, his cultural impact has snowballed in ways that have redefined the expectations of a fine artist’s legacy, especially an artist of color. His work has become a compulsory acquisition for blue-chip collectors and institutions, but his footprint in everyday life is even more omnipresent. To traverse a street in Queens or Kenosha or Kyoto is to encounter his spirit sooner than later — a print, a T-shirt, a stylish young man whose hair and demeanor can be traced to Basquiat’s New York Times Magazine cover.
In hip-hop, from the underground to the upper strata of the mainstream, his name has entered lyricists’ lingua franca. Jazz has been no exception, with homages cropping up regularly in recent decades. But why has he persisted so profoundly? One answer, Holman explained, lies in the tremendous audience that Basquiat has found after expansions in media technology and communication allowed successive generations of art movements to reach a wider and wider swath of the population.
Another explanation has to do with reciprocity. Rappers, jazz musicians and other artists can find in Basquiat the same things he sought in his jazz lodestars — flair, innovation within tradition, the courage to create art as protest and the ability to publicly navigate a disorienting, damaging culture. “[Basquiat] identified with the struggles [his jazz heroes] went through, being famous and popular and yet still being … marginalized black men,” Holman said. “That was a big thing to Jean — that sense of being marginalized on one hand and lionized on another.
“In a big way those guys made Jean feel that there was some sense to all this madness, that there was a way to make sense of being a super-talented black man in Jim Crow America, which I think just continues on and on,” Holman added. “He identified with that struggle and he felt it intensely and experienced it on a daily basis, as they did. And they channeled that anger and that disappointment and that sadness and that fear into something that made them more than just men, but made them superheroes.”
Of course, there is also the matter of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sheer radiance. “His influence remains and grows exponentially because there was no one close to him in any and all aspects,” Brathwaite wrote, “and he clearly was smart, cool and very unique as a young black man who figured a way in on his own terms.”
What follows is a selection of Basquiat-indebted jazz highlights.
Jason Moran, “JAMO Meets SAMO” (1999)
The pianist, composer and visual artist Jason Moran, a denizen of jazz clubs, major cultural institutions and commercial galleries alike, knows plenty about matching street-level activity and a canny sense of jazz’s past with fine-art prestige. His appreciation for Basquiat runs deep, and includes a series of reinventions tagged “Gangsterism,” after a word that appears in the painter’s Hollywood Africans. This cut, off his game-changing 1999 debut, references SAMO, the cryptically poetic graffiti guise Basquiat created with his friend Al Diaz, and the project that first brought him public attention.
Don Byron, “Basquiat” (2000)
This elegiac dedication comes from the clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron, a masterful player of jazz, klezmer and other styles — and a high-minded conceptualist with a passion for the intersections of history, race and politics. “[Basquiat] was a person of color who wielded a more self-conscious sense of artistic privilege usually granted exclusively to white artists of the time,” Byron wrote to TIDAL. “I relate to him a lot just on that, but he also played clarinet.”
The Vandermark Five, “Knock Yourself Out (for Jean-Michel Basquiat)” (2004)
Ken Vandermark, a hard-working avant-jazz saxophonist and a point of pride for Chicago’s bustling experimental-music scene, is a generous student of culture, frequently and directly acknowledging his muses. “Basquiat remains a source of inspiration for me as an artist,” he wrote. “His combinations of image and text, references to African-American history and the politicization of those accomplishments, use of symbols, and the rhythmic musicality in how he structures these elements, with clarity while allowing for many types of ‘reading,’ are extraordinary and singular.”
Jon Batiste, “Kenner Boogie” (2018)
Jon Batiste, now best known as the musical director on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, kicks off his most recent album with this pounding homage to his New Orleanian piano ancestry. (Kenner, Louisiana, Batiste’s hometown, is located just outside NOLA.) The LP’s title, Hollywood Africans, is taken from a 1983 Basquiat piece whose theme — the racism that has guided African-Americans’ images in showbiz — the painter delved into again and again, in divergent ways. Batiste has drawn lines from those ideas to jazz musicians’ enduring plight, and to their ability to achieve greatness despite unyielding prejudice. Expect much similar insight soon: Batiste is currently at work on a Broadway musical about Basquiat’s life and work.
Various Artists, Untitled (2019)
This wide-ranging survey of U.K. experimentalism features 18 artists in Basquiat tribute mode, among them two of the most buzzed-about jazz saxophonists in recent memory, Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia.
“No Gangster,” featuring Hutchings on bass clarinet and sax alongside the MC Kojey Radical, should sate fans of Sons of Kemet’s danceable riffing. Garcia’s offering, “Scratch & Erase,” with the producer Mala and keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, balances mood and momentum, evoking Gray’s ominous stillness and drawing on the band’s “Drum Mode.”
(Photo credit: Rose Hartman/Getty Images)
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