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  • Writer's pictureJOHN OSLER'S UPBEAT Admin



The confluence of jazz and art has been around for a long time. Henri Matisse collected jazz recordings while in Paris and the South of France. His art inspired jazz artists. This was the same music that Piet Mondrian heard when he moved to New York City. Ultimately the new modern city and the new modern music of jazz went hand-in-hand in their influence upon modern art and architecture


Last week I was sitting with a good friend, Suan Skarsgard, talking about her interest in mid twentieth century modern architecture. Susan gives lectures internationally on design. She is a great designer herself and she is really good at lecturing, believe me. Susan just published a book on Eero Saarinen’s groundbreaking design for the GM Tech Center in Warren, Mi.

GM took a flier using Eero’s plans which asked them to spend a few bucks to make it a little jazzier than the staid auto company had planned. It is still a destination for design buffs. Somewhere in the back of the minds of GM’s executives was a memory of a night in a jazz club hearing some strange new music that they couldn’t quite shake. Maybe the jazz  was full of straight lines with blurts and blats of color, just like Saarinen’s plan. Who knows? We do know how much jazz influenced some of our greatest visual artists like Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse, and we do know how much they influenced the direction taken by architects like Eero Saarinen. The look of the great GM Tech Center  in turn influenced the designs of GM’s cars.

There are some common threads that tie jazz, Piet, Henri and Eero together. To achieve greatness one must be adventurous, must be comfortable with risk and must be willing to strive to be the best. It takes hard work, not just inspiration. Jazz has challenged many a creative soul to take more risks and stretch horizons. Jazz sets a high bar.

Music comforts us with its steady familiarity. Music is also a force for change. It always has been. If music can change, so can we. Jazz by its very nature sometimes explodes with change, commanding us to do the same.

The rich sounds, rhythms, and colors of jazz inspired visual artists of the 20th century. I think immediately of Romare Bearden who painted jazz scenes and incorporated titles of favorite performances in his collages. He created specific works for albums by Charlie Parker, Donald Byrd, and other greats. Stuart Davis said jazz was one of the things that made him want to paint. Jackson Pollock’s action painting technique reflected the improvisation, freedom, and rhythm of the jazz music he loved.

 Romare Bearden

Following World War II art and music were released from traditional constraints. It seemed that no one wanted to go back to what they had been doing. Artists who lived in  beautiful landscaped villages opted to move to cities with straight streets and boxy buildings. Those who who lived in boxy buildings wanted to move to beautiful curvy landscapes in the countryside.

I had a  chance to stay in a artist’s house on a  beautiful hilltop village in Provence. Jacque’s home  was only accessible by walking an ancient stone path that wound beautifully up into the village among trees, walls  and  flowers planted by the villagers. The whole village was composed of perfect curves merging with perfectly placed stone houses and plants.  I would find Jacque carefully placing stones in walls just as they always had  been. He smiled when he put a new flower in the right place.

Piled inside his studio was his art. It was all straight lines in grays and black, every canvas. I don’t believe that he ever saw a straight line in his surroundings. It was probably the most perfect thing he could imagine.

Piet Mondrian: 1872-1944,


Piet Mondrian – loved jazz (but couldn’t dance!)

Piet Mondrian invented and expanded the new visual language of geometric abstraction.

It would have been difficult to see that coming if you only looked at his younger years and his early works. He grew up in Holland where his paintings were landscapes and still lifes that looked backwards. Then he packed up his brushes and went to Paris where he was exposed to jazz, two step dancing, Josephine Baker and cubism. 

Piet Mondrian – Broadway Boogie Woogie 1942

Straight lines were becoming exciting, and color stayed within those lines. What was it that  influenced Piet Mondrian to abandon traditional painting and and help lead an art movement? It turns out that one of the reasons was that he came to New York and started listening to jazz. Mondrian set out to depict the rhythm and the energy of Manhattan.

Jazz and painting turned out to be a two way inspiration. In the later stages of his life, Mondrian became a friend of Thelonius Monk. When Monk spoke about his music he often referred to the precision with which Mondrian placed a line or applied a color in his paintings.

Mondrian’s earlier, naturalistic pictures contain the seeds for his later inventions, the grids of his classic works derive from the geometry of the flat Dutch landscape, straight canals and tall windmills that were among the subjects of his youth.

No artist before him did so much with so little. It wasn’t as easy as it looks. Mondrian labored lovingly over his paintings, varying the density and luminosity of his colors, so that two whites side-by-side would not be the same. He built up patches of color into creamy pools and varnished his black lines until they shone.The surface is heavily worked. Mondrian clearly slaved over it.

ableau No 4, Lozenge Composition

Mondrian stipulated some of his paintings should be rotated to unusual angles, as in Tableau No 4, Lozenge Composition (Credit: Alamy)

To really appreciate the work he put into each piece it is necessary to really look at one of his  original paintings. He was a tinkerer, thickening one line a quarter-inch, moving another over, stopping yet another just on the brink of the picture’s edge. His canvases have a  quality that you don’t expect from seeing them in reproduction. 

Mondrian’s works do not wear their emotions on their sleeves. They are demanding.  But as much as any artist in history, he was an artist of extreme delicacy and a force for change.


”Art is the expression of a human soul.  It finds its means where it may: music, sculpture, painting.  It’s a personal matter of aptitude and natural gifts.” HenriMatisse

The Louisiana State Museum’s Old United States Mint in New Orleans

A powerful memory for me was the time I visited an  exhibition of  Henri Matisse’s work In New Orleans in 2002. Matisse was alway pushing his reset button  The experience of seeing Matisse’s work in New Orleans will stayed with me the rest of my life. It was a brilliant show of Matisse’s work.  I remember walking out of the building not knowing whether to hear some jazz or go back and stare at the colorless paintings that I was working on. I think I went and got a beer,

Henri Matisse influenced jazz as much as he was influenced by jazz.

Henri Matisse had beaucoup influences throughout  his life. I have liked every period of his work, but believe that he worked freer and bolder the older he got. Luminous colors were always the hallmark of Henri Matisse’s paintings, never more so than in the cutouts of his late period.  Many jazz players also seem to get better as the years go by.

‘It’s a fact that I’m afraid I shall lose my sight, and not be able to paint any more.  So I thought of something.  A blind man must give up painting, but not music’.

Henri Matisse was an old man and had been ill for sometime and was restricted to just doing paper cutouts.He would draw the shapes on the paper and his assistants would cut the paper. Picasso would come by while he was working and they would talk art. He died not too long after finishing this book that he called  Jazz.

Matisse describes his cutouts as “drawing with scissors,” a process “of cutting into color” that reminded him “of a sculptor’s carving into stone.”

Jazz was issued as a portfolio of 20 separate exhibitable plates and also as a bound book with Matisse’s written text. In both cases, the editions were small. Jazz is a work of great joie de vivre. The book is done like a jazz artist might improvise a project, with the precision that resulted from years of drawing. Matisse practiced drawing as a musician practices, constantly refining form and touch.

‘As soon as I can remember I was tapping and beating on things. My mother bought me a drum set and said, “Here honey, beat on these.”’ Gayelynn McKinney

It seems to me that there is a large family of artists who take turns carrying the ball a little farther down the field, up the hill and sometimes into a beautiful woods.

This week we will have the results of good things handed on at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café.

It seems appropriate that some of the family at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café will be on hand  for this special McKinney family gathering. Welcome to the family.

John Osler




Quartet Guitarist Ron English is a well-respected member of Detroit’s music community. He has helped shape contemporary Jazz styles since the 1960’s with a diverse repertoire covering Jazz, Blues, Avant-garde, Motown, Soul/Funk and Gospel.

March 11 – 14


Gayelynn will bring her family to the Dirty Dog. They all will have only a few miles to travel.  It has always seemed a little unfair to have so much talent in one family. In Detroit classy musicians tend to have classy musician kids. We can only enjoy it.

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