Capturing the essence of the musicians and the music

Frederick J. Brown’s “Energy is Jazz” exhibition is filled with his portrayals of jazz and blues figures who were critical to the music’s history, as seen in “Dream Band III (Mississippi John Hurt, Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner).”

Frederick Brown’s “Energy is Jazz” exhibition at the American Jazz Museum

If you are a patron of Kansas City’s art or jazz community, then you have seen the painterly work of the late artist Frederick James Brown. Two large, elegant portraits, one of Charlie Parker and the other of Count Basie, permanently adorn the atrium interior at the American Jazz Museum in the 18th and Vine District. Halfway across the city, Café Sebastienne at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art contains an intimate dining room with a floor-to-ceiling installation of more than 100 paintings by Brown expressing his rendition of art history.

In 2002, a traveling exhibition of Brown’s work, focusing on his portraits of jazz and blues luminaries, premiered simultaneously at Kemper Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Titled “Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues, & Other Icons,” the exhibit then traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

A large oil painting of Etta James (below) demonstrates Brown’s masterful ability to capture the essence of the musician through his use of color and pose.

Born in Georgia and raised in Chicago, Brown graduated in 1968 from Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a degree in art. He lived and worked in the SoHo district of New York City for decades. Along the way, he taught at various colleges including one in Beijing, China. His 1988 retrospective of 100 works at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution made Brown one of the earliest Western artists to exhibit in China. Brown passed away in 2012, at the age of 67.

In October, Brown’s “Energy is Jazz” exhibition, co-curated by the American Jazz Museum and Bentley Brown of the Frederick J. Brown Trust, opened at the American Jazz Museum. While the world has changed in innumerable ways since Brown’s last exhibition at the AJM, the sheer energy collected, refined and expressed in Brown’s work continues to astound.

Viewers are greeted with “Dream Band III (Mississippi John Hurt, Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner),” a large work radiant with velvety blacks, crimson reds and bright whites. Turner, known in jazz history as a “blues shouter,” is painted as bellowing into the old-school microphone, while Hurt and Williams stand guard. Brown, in his paintings, often portrayed jazz and blues figures who were critical to the music’s history but are often overlooked by the music’s historians. Turner, the main figure in this work, was a Kansas City native who was critical in the development of a derivative of the blues and rock and roll. Songwriter Doc Pomus has stated, “Rock and roll would have never happened without him.”

A large oil painting of Thelonious Monk demonstrates Brown’s masterful ability to capture the essence of the musician through his use of color and pose.

Large oil paintings of Thelonious Monk and of Etta James demonstrate Brown’s masterful ability to capture the essence of the musician through his use of color and pose. Saturated with blues and browns, Monk is portrayed in profile with a cigarette in his mouth. There is a feeling of coolness, synonymous with the image of Monk the musician and his work. Brown uses fiery yellows and swipes of tan, red and green to capture the intense earnestness of Etta James and the way it translated into a smoky passion on record.

In Brown’s work, eyes truly are windows to the soul. Monk, who struggled with schizophrenia, gives viewers the side eye. James looks earnestly ahead as if she is about to go on stage or is waiting for her moment to sing.

“In Search of Jimi’s Space” is one of the exhibit’s most powerful works. It is abstract, a departure from Brown’s other works in the exhibition. It is an intentional and aesthetically independent array of splashes, splatters and streaks that seduces viewers from across the room. According to the description, “Hendrix was a bridge between the blues and rock n’ roll often incorporating blues standards into his music. Brown translates, into painting, screeching guitar licks and soft melodies into a single palette, taking the viewers on an emotional journey through the spaces in Hendrix’s music.”

Installation view of “In Search of Jimi’s Space” (left), one of several paintings in the show demonstrating Brown’s command of abstraction

The exhibit also includes archival materials, including video and photographs of Brown in his SoHo loft, which served as his studio and a spot for local jazz musicians during the ’60s and ’70s.

Brown’s work, first and foremost, is a feast for the eyes. Brown was a painter and his work is indeed painterly. His finely tuned strokes and color choices are enough to satisfy the visual senses without overpowering them. There is a gentle braggadocio in his brushstrokes that, when combined with his masterful usage of chiaroscuro, synthesizes the energy of the music with the ambiance of the smoky and dark jazz and blues clubs that are synonymous with it. Brown treats the lesser-known figures of jazz and blues with the same care that he treats the icons of the music.

His work brings everyone into the same room, and we are the better for it.

“Frederick J. Brown: Energy is Jazz” continues at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., through May 5. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 816.474.8463 or www.americanjazzmuseum.org.

Photos by Harold Smith

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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