By MINA JOHNSON
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."