Six, with inspiration from “Free for All,” from the album Free for All (RVG Edition), Art Blakey
This is a Paper about Painting
I’ve always dug jazz. I can’t remember a time, from the time I first heard a tune to now, when jazz wasn’t a part of my life. It’s not just an aural thing, man, it’s an everything. It’s a visual culture, a vocabulary, a smell and a taste and a way of walking down the street with a glide in yo’ stride and a dip in yo’ hip. It’s Monk singing along out of tune while he flatfingered the keyboard. It’s Blakey telling to Morgan to “get mad” before Morgan squeals his horn to high heaven. It’s Ella forgetting the lyrics to “Mack the Knife” and scatting her way into the best rendition anybody ever did. It’s Satchmo doing whatever he wanted, growling with his trumpet the same way he did with his voice, slurring words and mixing up lyrics into a cocktail of blue midnight. It’s even Ol’ Blue Eyes stealing “Luck Be a Lady” and crooning the version everybody knows, just to spite the casting director who gave the role he wanted to Brando. Jazz is a vision, an attitude, a crazy sublime profane mix-up of black and white and smooth and rough and earth and heaven. Turns out it also happens to be a way of painting.
If I’m going to do Pollock, I’m going to do it the way Pollock did it. With Be-Bop. I put “Free for All,” on repeat, rolled up some old pants, threw on an old shirt, found some sticks in the yard, laid down some newspaper, found the only sizable canvas we had (the back of a cheap wall-hanging a friend gave my wife to use as a canvas [she actually paints]), and got to dripping. I’m a jazz drummer, so my first instinct was to air-drum with the sticks. That, thankfully, gave way to an ecstatic experience, a release from the pressure of finals and essays and nucleophilic aromatic substitution and verb forms and the chapter twelve quiz. Squatting on the balls of my feet, I played – really played – for a solid half hour. The paint began to fill the canvas of its own accord. Every half minute or so I discovered a new technique, some new way to whip the paint or drip it at just the right angle out of the bottle, and sometimes I stopped just to dig the colors mixing on their own. I learned how to get big splotches of paint with a combination of angle and speed, and it felt good to have one of those hit the canvas when the music climaxed. Doing what felt good, not what seemed good, became my guiding element. Smooth sections of music felt better with swirls, and black felt better with swirls. Red needed to hit just at the right time, with the drums, and splatter up and off the canvas. White is piano – constant, everywhere, behind and under and over everything. Sometimes these roles switched as I felt they needed to switch, but halfway through they felt too good to change much. It looks like jazz. Everybody improvises together, and the sound builds on top of the sound and red and white can become pink and black and white can become grey but black mostly stays black and red mostly stays red and white mostly stays white – e pluribus unum, yeah?
Sometimes the thing that gets me when experiencing art is the transportational effect of imagining myself behind the artist’s eyes, inside the drummer’s ears, hiding out in some sulcus behind the frontal cortex or floating in some wisp of the Atman while they do what they do. Good art takes you somewhere else. The stuff they call “modern” is blatant about this objective – it happens while you watch it. Jazz is recorded, etched into the vinyl, permanently, like these abstract expressions we can check out at the MoMA and Guggenheim, but with every listen it’s brand new, alive, happening again for the first time. It’s evergreen, forever Eden, older than that old devil moon, blank canvas and full soundscape all at once. You see it drip onto the canvas, twirl in the mad dance while the record grooves wear down atom-by-atom. It’s indistinguishable from the sounds that rosined the canvas and waxed the artist, eversame, less splittable than the quarks buzzing, twitching, harmonizing in the snailshell canals that lead down the rabbit hole into the galaxy of sound. Stand in front of a Pollock, and you stand in front of a blank screen. Call it a sound mirror. Or maybe don’t – call it abstract expression, call it jazz, call it whatever. Does it call back? It’s a confusion that makes sense, a tap-step and love-dance choreographed by weighted dice. It’s improvisation, perfection in performance forever recorded in all of its imperfection. It has the grammar and spelling-check turned off so that whatever comes out the first time has to be the perfect thing. It’s Kerouac’s typewriter, Coltrane’s saxophone. In it’s highest form it can only be executed by someone disciplined and practiced enough to handle the anarchy. It’s what high school jazz band kids don’t understand about free jazz, they think they can just blow their horns and squeak and burp and they’ll sound like Bitches’ Brew but they don’t – they sound like squeaks and burps. It’s why my painting is not a Pollock, and why it will only be hung maybe on the wall of my living room – the colors, after all, match my couch as well as they do the trumpet solo.
When I finished the painting and cleaned the paint off the walls, I stared at it for a while. I kept the music on, but I’m not so sure I needed to. I don’t think anybody else would hear Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers on first sight of what I did, but the two are nearly one and the same in my mind now. I didn’t feel any sense of unity or composition when I was flinging paint at the board, but out of the depths of the morass of black and red and white comes a story without words, plot, or hero. It’s probably an inkblot test par excellence, but like inkblot tests it represents always and forever some meeting point near the viewer’s subconscious but pulled out of center by the gravity of the creator. It’s a mix, impure and yet unstained. It’s crazy here because I was the creator, but the creator who was me is now an old me, and the viewer is the me now, ten minutes in the future. The immediacy of this improvisation now looms monolithically over me, more true to life than a picture – that was the creative and free me, unthinking but hyperconscious, and this is the analytical me, but the analytical me that is pulled slightly out of center by the gravity of the creativity I see before me. Ninety-seven percent analytical, three percent gravity-induced creative. Maybe this is part of why this kind of art is unsettling for some people – it induces creativity, and creativity can be uncomfortable. Stand in front of a Pollock, and before you know it you are dancing around and flinging paint and listening to jazz, though nobody else can see it. For people who don’t like dancing or jazz, this would be uncomfortable. For those of us who dig on both, it’s home.
Jazz exploded for me when I learned how to make mistakes. Before it was just a thing I did, a white kid with a bunch of other white kids making black music. When I learned how to make mistakes, it transcended “white” “black” “kid” and “music” and became an indescribable something, a heaven of some sort. When mistakes are cherished, they are no longer mistakes. Eventually even the mistakes are made on purpose. I think Pollock probably discovered this. You want to know the secret to making mistakes? Make them twice. Improvising and squeak out a sour note? Play that sour note again. The first sour note is transformed from a mistake into a motif. Explore that sour note, get inside it and love it and make it the best sour note anyone ever played twice. That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s how Ella and Coltrane and Pollock did it. They made perfect mistakes. Drip some paint on the floor? By Jove, drip some more. Before you know it you will revolutionize art. No one can ever go back and claim your first drip was a mistake – only you’ll know. And, chances are, the truth is that the first drip wasn’t a mistake at all, but a cry from the person you forgot about that lives inside you and has one hell of an artistic side. Yessirree, one hell of an artistic side.
(See what I did there?)