Basquiat and Modern Art 

I've always liked good art, especially modern art.  I don't know anybody else that had a Picasso poster up in their college apartment, along with an M.C. Escher print.  They were next to my posters of the Clash and the Beatles. 

Some of Picasso's portraits are really cool because every day they look different.  Some days the subject looks sad, some days they appear to be angry, or happy.  I don't like everything he did, but some of his paintings are just amazing.  So colorful and complex.  It's almost like there is an optical illusion built into some of them.

To me, he really is THE guy for modern art.  He had so many different periods where he changed his style.  And there's so much of it, too; the guy was prolific.  His bold but simple lines are deceptive.  I always thought he put a lot more effort into them that it appeared, because it just looks so perfect to me.  Almost child-like, but almost like an alien at times, too.  A very unique artist, and among the first to become a superstar in his field while still around. 

Most importantly, there is a real humanity that cuts through it all, and over the time that has passed since he made them.  More than once I've just stared at some of his work in a gallery and felt a strange, emotional feeling come over me.  A very moving experience, that "hair on your neck standing up" feeling when something really connects.

To have something hanging on a wall silently creating this effect so many years and years later is really unique.  A lot of people, maybe most of the ones that ever see these paintings, will never experience that.  But some of us do.  It speaks to us, and that's a remarkable thing.  And to know it might continue to do that for a long time to come is good to know.  It makes one feel better about the world, and the people in it.  It gives me hope.

It's always cool to go to MOMA, for so many reasons.  Not the least of which is there is an entire room full of Picasso's.  it's completely mind-blowing, like a three-ring circus overwhelming the senses.  The fact that there are millions and millions of dollars in that room just adds to it.

The other figure that has loomed large for me in modern art is of course Andy Warhol.  His use of screen printing techniques & repetition was a huge education to me, and while his early '60's stuff is probably what he is best known for (the Marilyn's, the Double Elvis, the Campbell's Soup Cans, the Flowers series, the Brillo boxes) I'm amazed at what he did later in his career in the '70's & '80's. 

Checking out his career retrospective at the Whitney last year was a real trip, with the gigantic Mao that seemed be a couple stories tall (love the huge works), all of the commercial posters that he did, and it was really something to see the room full of all of the private portraits.  It just went on and on.  The color combinations as well as all of the different styles that he used when he painted over the screen prints just seemed endless and really spoke to his creativity. 

But the real eye-opener was the abstract work he did towards the end, especially the Shadows series that originally went around an entire room.  Abstract isn't what you think of with him, but he really gave a unique, thought-provoking take on it.  And the use of skulls at times really got my attention.  Seeing his signature silk-screened colors like that was unexpected.

They even had some of the collaborations that he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat there.  I had seen a couple at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, but these were different.  A lot of the bigger pieces that they did were here.  I knew that it wasn't well-received at the time, and I started recently looking more into Basquiat.

Being the times that we're in, I checked out some YouTube documentaries on him, and learned about his evolution from street graffiti guy to a full-blown modern artist, selling paintings for a lot of money and going from homeless to superstardom almost overnight.  His style threw me at first, because it seemed really basic and haphazard.  But it eventually became obvious how amazing his work was.  And thanks to his graffiti days, he could crank this stuff out FAST. 

While watching the excellent Radiant Child documentary & interviews, there was a mention of the Downtown 81 movie that he starred in.  Turns out he was filmed going around NYC just as he was starting to do real paintings, playing a rising artist in a small production.  I was able to track down a copy from archive.org and checked it out.

After a while, his voice-overs in the movie as he walks around town at all hours takes one almost to a Taxi Driver sort-of mood.  It's a NYC that doesn't exist any more, with all of the sleaze and trash as well as crime that aren't as visible downtown any longer.  One feels what a lost and exciting time it was as the early rap scene was planting the seeds of what would become hip-hop later, alongside the punk and pop bands of the time, like Blondie.  

Speaking of which, Debbie Harry shows up in this movie towards the end.  I also couldn't help but notice the great soundtrack, including the excellent 15 Minutes instrumental snippet by Chris Stein that ended up being used in a background loop for Andy Warhol's short-lived MTV shows called 15 Minutes.  There's a few episodes online of that, too, and it also gives you that feel of '80's New York.  The best parts to me are where they just wander the streets at night.  Quite a party at times, but you never know what you're going to come across.

It's a real shame that the collaboration with Warhol & Basquiat didn't go down well with a lot of folks.  It seems to me that Warhol was used to bad reviews but honestly didn't care.  He had been established for decades, and had developed a pretty tough skin.  Basquiat, on the other hand, was young and had only been on the art scene a few years.  Shooting into the stratosphere so fast, he was thrust into a bizarre world where he didn't know who he could trust.  He was devastated, and was never the same after that.  He quickly descended into a very sad time and died at 27.  

Now his art, along with Warhol's, are some of the most expensive works sold.  There's real edginess to Basquiat's work.  The street vibe really comes though.

It was very interesting to see Basquiat working in the studio.  He literally bopped among a bunch of things he was working on, with music (usually jazz) playing.  Sometimes he'd stop and just dance for a while.  His love of life was contagious, no doubt.

A very interesting fellow, who lived in a very interesting time.  

I think a lot of musicians are into art, more than a lot of music fans would imagine.  After all, museums are a great thing to visit when visiting a town and there's a lot of thought-provoking inspiration that a good collection can create.  It's a helpful tool for a musical artist, providing ideas in one medium that inevitably spills over to another.  After being filtered and manipulated into something unique, hopefully.

I'm always on the lookout for cool new modern art.  Have you found anything that really speaks to you?  Who do you like to check out?  Let me know in the comments below!


I thought it would be fun to post occasionally here, so please let me know if you have anything in particular you are interested in!  Also feel free to ask any questions.

I've been on another Miles Davis marathon, being that it was his birthday over the weekend.  He's been a huge influence on me, in so many ways. 

I first got turned on to him when I was discovering bebop & Charlie Parker, around middle school.  At the time I was more into Dizzy Gillespie (since I had just seen my first concert, and it was Dizzy at Juniata College).  But then the hormones hit, and it was all rock music for a while after that for me. 

Many years later, when I moved back from Philly, I discovered Kind Of Blue, and man what a masterpiece!  It was a real turning point for me, in discovering that a great musical statement could be made using (mostly) one chord. 

And I'm still amazed at how well that album in particular was recorded, especially for 1959.  A good copy on a great stereo almost feels like they are right THERE in front of you, playing.  It's one of the top albums ever for me.  The vibe is just so NYC for that time.

Then of course I got into Bitches Brew, a murky, spacey vibe.  John McLaughlin really caught my attention, and that lead to the Jack Johnson album, which has some of Miles' most powerful, athletic playing ever.  In A Silent Way is another one with McLaughlin that sets a nice, mellow mood.  Great background music on a date, I might add...

It took a long time for me to get into the '70's funk stuff, but I eventually saw the light while blasting the second half of Dark Magus at a friend's house one day.  It was just relentless, heavy, and angry.  I could feel all of the pain that Miles was in at the time, through the music. 

Pete Cosey would do these things with a guitar that sounded like a synthesizer, Michael Henderson was just laying down the baddest grooves on the bass, and then Miles would barely break in but it sure had an effect when he did.  It was just so tortured and emotional; I wasn't surprised to read later that he stopped playing for a while after that.

Miles was always at whatever was truly new in jazz for decades: bebop, modal, fusion, funk.  Always experimenting, always pushing forward what jazz could be.   And he had a knack for getting the best players in his band. 

Reading his autobiography was quite a trip, too.  He had a wild life, and he truly was like the Keith Richards of jazz.  He was a bad boy that was a true artist and didn't care what folks thought. 

I never saw him, but I was fortunate to know somebody that worked a show that he played in, and she confirmed that he was every bit the difficult personality everybody made him out to be.  When you are the most successful jazz musician of all time, I guess you can do that.  He really lived like a rock star.

One of the things I got from him was that if you put the right folks together, you don't have to really tell them too much about what to play.  Just let them do their thing.  It can throw lesser musicians off, because they aren't sure if it's working or not, but I give only the bare minimum as far as direction goes when dealing with my band.  They are all good enough that they can improvise, always have lots of ideas they can throw out there, and most importantly they can listen constantly and adapt. 

Since so much of what I do uses improvisation, it seems only natural.  It's not how most bands work, but then again, I don't want to be in most bands.  It's important to do something new & unique at this stage for me.  It limits where I can play a lot, but really cool stuff isn't for the masses.

Back when I first got into jazz, it wasn't really popular but there were a lot of folks that REALLY liked it and sought it out.  My friends in central PA made fun of me whenever I'd play it then, and I was really surprised.  I still get that "it's like a Charlie Brown special" which reminds me that most folks think of it as just background music.  It can be, but it can also be quite a journey.  It can be driving and energetic, mellow and sentimental, funky, spacey or whatever. 

I'm not really into the big band jazz thing; Sing Sing Sing stands out, mostly because of Gene Krupa.  Duke Ellington did some cool things too.  And some of the early stuff with the young Louis Armstrong & The Hot Five is interesting once in a while. 

But I'm more into the jazz of the late '50's to mid '70's.  It wasn't until the Dead and the jam band scene came along that I finally found some modern instrumental music that wasn't jazz.  Of course, one of my favorite bands is Medeski, Martin and Wood, but they are a jazz band that got big in the jam band world.  And they've talked about Miles, too.

One of the real revelations to me in my trips to NYC over the past few years is where jazz is currently.  There are some very dissonant, modern folks all over the city doing cool things, but on a very small scale.  Instruments you wouldn't expect sometimes are put together.  Bizarre things happen, usually at the right time.  And there a lot of folks who really get into it. 

I'm forever grateful that I got to go to so many shows at the old Stone in the Lower East Side, before it got moved.  It was a real education, and I'm probably still trying to bring some of that vibe back whenever I play out with my band.

A lot of folks can argue about whether or not jazz would have gone in the directions that it did without Miles, but to me he was absolutely crucial.  He was there at every turn for so long that it's hard to separate him from most of the what happened in the 20th century.  And he still looms large.