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Painting the Jazz Scene, One Gig At A Time


Prostitutes inspired Picasso. Sunflowers did it for Van Gogh. For Robert Kendall, it was jazz.

Every night Kendall sits at the center table of a dank, West Village jazz club with his cadre of magic markers and canvas panels. The place is lively, full of regulars, students from nearby NYU and tourists who come for a game of backgammon, ping pong and pool, or for a sip of soju, the house specialty Korean rice liquor, but Kendall pays them no attention. Instead he fixes his eyes straight ahead, at the jazz band, while his hands work furiously to try to capture the scene on canvas, the essence of the musicians.

"Musicians are real life superheroes," says Kendall.  "There’s really something powerful about the way they use instruments to make music."

In an eight-by-ten canvas, Kendall sketches out the silhouette of the musicians, filling in the contours with various shades of blue, black and an assortment of earthy, jazz-inspired colors.  He does this all night long, canvas after canvas, allowing the music to seep in and guide his fingers in creation.  

"To me, this is also jazz," he says, pointing to the table covered with his completed work, canvases in assorted sizes. "The way I see it, jazz is a culture, not just a music form. It's a music form, an art form, a dance form. It's a whole revolution."

It's a funny thing coming from someone who describes jazz as "an acquired taste." Kendall, 42, wasn't always such a jazz aficionado. Born and raised in the Bushwick projects in Brooklyn, Kendall started off as a “street artist." He used to dance in Times Square, on the streets, to earn money and was part of the '80s underground graffiti scene with the tag name, “Robtwo.” He took a brief stab at hip hop, as a rapper, before teaming up with a friend to help run Caviar Studios, a  Brooklyn nightclub that played mostly reggae and house music.

For seven years, Kendall’s world revolved around Caviar Studios and house music. He worked, slept and partied at the club until one day a friend suggested they check out a Harlem jazz club for a change of scenery. “I didn’t understand what the hell I was listening to,” said Kendall, chuckling as he takes a sip from his bottle of Fiji water. “But I felt something click inside me.”

Sitting at the bar, he grabbed a postcard-sized promotional flyer. On the blank side he began to draw the musicians, allowing the music and his instincts to guide the movements of his hands. He hasn’t drawn anything since he was a teenager, when he played around with comic book inspired sketches, but that night at the bar he suddenly felt inspired to create.  

Artist Robert Kendall paints the Jazz scene at Fat Cat Jazz Club on Christopher Street in New York City. 

“I was filling up with all these emotions and I had to find a way to express it," he says. "I just went with it."

Impressed by his work, the club owner offered to pay him to sit there every night and draw the musicians.  He would get paid for his time and he could keep whatever he made selling his work. "I did it because I was getting older," he said. "It was time to grow the f*ck up and be mature."

Now nearly ten years later, Kendall is still drawing jazz musicians night after night. He's changed clubs, heading downtown to Fat Cat jazz club after the one in Harlem closed down, but he continues to be inspired by jazz and hopes to one day see his art hanging in the walls of a gallery.

"It'd be nice to get a paycheck so big I could walk into a Lexus dealership and come out with new car," he says. "But bigger than that, it's all about the art. And of course, it’s about jazz."



Jazz music is still an American treasure, though it may be harder to find

Photo by Ayano Hisa

Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon was named  Downbeat's Critics Choice for "Best Trombone" in 2012.


Wycliffe Gordon has a one track mind. And that’s the way it needs to be for a solid musician.

The award winning trombonist said once he set his mind to music, nothing stood in his way. He dropped out of college to pursue his dream. And it manifested.

"If you say, 'I want to play music but I feel like I should have something to fall back on, then you will fall back on that. If this is something you really want to do, you have to take a chance...The biggest danger a musician can come across is having self doubt."

The Georgia native grew up in the church with his father playing the organ and was influenced at an early age to play music. Once he got hold of his aunt’s music collection, his world opened to jazz. And has only become richer since then.

Gordon, 45, had tough times finding musicians to swing with as he was coming up because jazz isn't as popular as it once was when giants such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk walked the earth.

Gordon was attending Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and was set on getting out of college and finding a job when his opportunity came.

He met jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis when he came to give a lecture during black history month at Gordon’s school. During an impromptu workshop, Marsalis heard Gordon’s chops and it wasn’t long before he invited the hungry young musician on tour.

It was Gordon’s 22nd birthday. More than 20 years later and he's still blowing his horn.

Jazz music is still as beautiful as ever, though it may be harder to find for young eager musicians with a song in their heart.

"[Musicians] are complaining that there’s not enough work," Gordon said. "Jazz is what people make it."

Musicians have to make it happen for themselves, he said. Go to a bar and see if you can start a music night. Make opportunities for yourself to play.

As far as jazz music goes, Gordon says there’s something for everybody.

"Play something to students, just let them hear it...Jazz is an American treasure," Gordon said. But "it seems appreciated everywhere except in the US."

In Ken Burns' film, Jazz, writer Gerald Early said:

"When they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: The Constitution, baseball and jazz music."

"They're the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created."

Though you can still walk into jazz clubs in big cities across the nation and swing all night, the once widely popular genre has been overshadowed by another American treasure, hip hop music.

The two genres have met at certain intersections along the musical highway.

Photo by Fran Kaufman, and the Jazz Journalists Association.

Wycliffe Gordon accepting the award for "Trombonist of the Year" at the Jazz Journalists Association dinner on June 20, 2012 with Angelika Beener and Josh Jackson. 

Jazz vocalist Nancy Harms said some of the hip hop/jazz fusion is interesting, though jazz purists won't accept it.

"It's an uphill battle but it’s a worthwhile one," she said. Jazz music is so intertwined with our country."

Harms met Gordon in New York's storied Smalls Jazz Club and said he's a powerhouse of music.

"It was great to see how he handled the audience and the band," she said. "He was a very kind person. He was very professional and respectful...The man is so in love with this music he barely sleeps. He is just is so fueled by this music."

Gordon's great enthusiasm comes despite some of the smaller audiences. Harms said jazz's waning appeal could be attributed to people’s misconceptions about it.

"There's a stigma with the name,” she said. "Maybe they had a bad experience or think of it as something lofty and not down to earth for people to access...[Jazz] has so much to offer in its self expression, how genuine and how human it is."

In the 1990s, artists such as the Diggable Planets and Guru, with his Jazzmatazz albums, put the hip hop/jazz fusion into the spotlight.

But some rap fans turned their backs on that mix. Many hip hop heads like to stick to the gritty synthetic beats to bang their heads to, said MC Nickel Killsmics. But others, such as himself, find a deeper calling.

Nickel plays every Thursday with a 9-piece jazz band at Smoke Jazz club in New York City. He rhymes over the horns, drums and bass. He loves it and the crowd does too.

"People find jazz when they’re ready for it," Nickle said. "There’s a certain intellect that comes with what these guys are doing."

Nickel was concerned at first at how people would view him rapping over jazz rhythms.

"I wondered how they would react to us," he said. "I was surprised at how supportive the jazz world has been to us."

Once someone falls into the jazz world, it’s hard to come out of it. Because no one wants to.

"I think jazz is still the foundation of all types of new music and all brands of new musicality," Nickel said. "It's always going to be there."

Gordon agrees.  

A curious youngster these days may look deeper into hip hop beats, he said, and feel a yearning for the roots of the groove.

"Let them hear where those beats come from," Gordon said. "Then they’ll listen to jazz."


Will the budget ax hurt

jazz education's swing?

                                                                         Photo by Joan Gaylord


The repercussions of a decade of economic austerity could echo through the jazz world for the next generation. Public schools that have reliably provided at least a rudimentary musical education have been especially hard hit by the economy, potentially leaving us with a shortage of well-trained young musicians.

"I am seeing students arrive proficient only in the basic instruments," said Chris Washburne, director of the jazz performance program at Columbia University. "Finding a well-trained trombone player, for example, is darn near impossible."

"Delighted to hear it isn’t just us," said Carl Allen, director of the jazz studies program at Juilliard. "We're certainly seeing the same problem."

During a recent panel discussion about the future of jazz studies at Columbia, Washburne said he was witnessing a shortage of musicians applying to college programs with solid foundations in anything other than the most popular instruments, typically piano or trumpet. While no one has suggested a lack of talent or interest among young musicians, many educators said they are dealing with the consequences of stringent school budgets that have left music programs in tatters and too many young musicians unprepared. 

"The sad irony is that the urban schools have all but embraced a return to 1950 factory-like schooling and sold out to standardized testing and killed the arts," says Dr. Jere Hochman, a school superintendent and past president of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of multi-racial school districts committed to closing the academic achievement gap.

"Suburban schools get very little state funding and local taxpayers see their taxes going out of the roof.  So, public school funding takes a significant hit and the low hanging fruit has already been cut. What's left?  The arts!"

As a result, many school districts have gutted their art and music departments, eliminating what has been a reliable preparatory program for most young musicians. Those families who can afford to do so provide private music lessons, said Hochman, a solution that is creating a "musical achievement gap." 

College jazz programs have been forced to adapt. One example has been the supplemental auditions for trombone players that Juilliard has held for the last three years. Allen said these have been necessary because "it is so tough finding them at the level at which we need them to be." 

"This has served me well," said Aaron Johnson, a PhD candidate at Columbia who said he gets calls to sit in with younger, college ensembles. "I have played in the bands of at least four college-level programs because there were not enough trombone players."

Sean Jones, a Mack Ave. recording artist and professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says he sees a different facet of the problem. A private Catholic college, Duquesne draws its students largely from the suburban high schools. While Jones is certain there are talented young musicians, he doesn’t see them pursuing careers in jazz performance. The tendency among students from the more affluent families, he said, is to pursue the business side of music rather than performance.

"There's a stigma that they won’t make any money," said Jones.

College programs have not always been the pathway to professional careers, of course, and the history of jazz is woven with tales of resilience. With this current dilemma, some report glimmers of hope.

"I also see more community-based programs nurturing the young musicians again, older musicians helping the younger musicians along," said Allen. "This is very important to carry on the aural tradition of this music. This is a ‘social music’ and we must stress the importance of how it's passed down."

Encouraging, of course, but the return to a tradition brings with it a caveat and an opportunity to improve upon some of the old ways. As Johnson observed, the college programs have helped open doors that had been stubbornly held shut before.

"I have been made aware that the college system, being somewhat institutionalized and formal, has the effect of creating access to jazz for women, that the informal bandstand networks have not historically done very well," said Johnson.

The final outcome remains to be written. Years of coping with a harsh economy could reshape the music or merely become a footnote in its history. Reflecting upon the current challenges, Gary Bartz spoke with the perspective of one whose career has spanned decades. Though Bartz is a Juilliard graduate, he said he isn’t concerned.

"Coltrane didn’t go to college," Bartz said. "Many of the greats didn’t. Remember, universities can train musicians but they can’t create an artist."


Singers ... You Gotta Move!

Singer Lezlie Harrison hosts and performs at Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village for its Vocal Open Mic Session on Sundays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.



My first memorable experience with performing came from my early days spent in the alto section of the young adult choir in my grandfather's North Carolina church. It was from there, in the front row directly behind the pulpit, that I witnessed the effect that the choir’s selections and the preacher’s sermon, had on the congregation. As an ensemble, we were able to stir souls, ease whatever troubles may lay heavy on the mind. As performers, we possessed the power to move the audience to "get happy", do the "holy dance", cry, shout and release. I loved that. That's what I wanted to do.

Singers, like preachers, are storytellers. We are responsible for giving our audience, a true and deeply heartfelt experience in hopes of lifting someone’s spirit.

On my way to becoming a professional singer, I had the good fortune to spend many hours in the company - both on and off the stage - with singers who could really deliver lyrics. Shirley Horn, Carmen McRae, Phyllis Hyman, Jimmy Scott and Abbey Lincoln are the most memorable to me. They drew you in, held your attention and made you feel their truth. The beautiful, the bad and the ugly truth.

Unfortunately, I am witnessing a lot of un-truths being perpetrated on the bandstand these days from some "aspiring singers," lacking in inspiration. This phenomenon is perhaps a sign of the fact that the legends have gone on to bigger, better, eternal gigs and there has been no one to replace them on the "scene." No elder to shout out, "OH HELL NO!" , if you dared to scream your version of Love for Sale, in the wrong key, oblivious to the form and looking like you just rolled out of bed to sit in with the band.

Recently, I became the host of the Vocal Open Mic Session at Smalls Jazz Club, in New York City. I accepted gladly but trepidatiously.  Some singers come to the sessions to work on new material, hear and encourage their fellow singers and are serious about advancing the art form. For others the session provides an opportunity to "sing in front of an audience". To that I say, gather your friends and go to a Karaoke bar. The audience deserves more than your mere presence. The music must be given the highest respect.

Singers. The audience must get the very best from us. Hit them in their souls not below the belt or beat them "upside the head" Choose material that is suited for you, your voice; songs that share what is true and real from your heart. Go in deep and bring out truth - in the right key!


Lezlie Harrison is a vocalist, bandleader, actor and a fixture on the New York Jazz Scene. Find her at, On Facebook, Follow MzLezlie on Twitter 


Art is Yoga, Yoga is Art

By Jerome Burdi Yoga is what connects us to our divine nature, the wellspring from which all our beauty comes. It aligns us with the natural flow and helps calm our racing minds so we can see things as they are, not as we’d like them to be. The 2nd Century B.C. yoga sage Patanjali said yoga “chitta vritti nirodhah.” It ceases the chatter of the mind. Yoga turns the mind inside of itself, where the entire universe and all its secrets await to reveal themselves to us. Yoga is not just the postures, as many in America have come to know it. The goal of the postures is to make us comfortable in our body so we can sit for long periods of time and meditate. Art is yoga and that’s why many singers, painters, sculptors, dancers and the like turn to the ancient practice to help them master their lives and in turn, master their art. Adesuwa, a jazz afro pop singer who lives between New York City and Atlanta, said her Bikram hot yoga practice helped free her as a musician more than her days as a gym rat ever did.

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