Music To My Eyes

By Milo Miles
November 18th, 2005

World-famous jazz impresario George Wein went to Boston University. I went to Boston University. The Boston University Art Gallery is currently hosting the show “Syncopated Rhythms: 20th-Century African American Art from the George & Joyce Wein Collection.” Boston University is behind this blog. None of that matters: it’s still the most amazing art exhibit you’ll see this year, and putting the Wein collection on display was a brilliant idea, overseen by curator and director Stacey McCarroll.

The works displayed include paintings, sculptures, a quilt and mixed media. They range from folk artists to the most rarified abstractions. But the unifying point is undeniable: as Patricia Hills writes in the catalog, “By rejecting ‘art as usual,’ the artists in the Wein collection transformed themselves into modernist artists – but, like jazz, it was a modernism on their own terms.” Music, soul music, is everywhere in the gallery – implicit, explicit, irresistible.

Today at noon, George Wein talked to an overflow audience in the gallery about the works, the stories behind some of them and about assembling an art collection in general. Modest to a fault, Wein was clearly thrilled that BU had asked to display his work (though “now all the walls are bare” at his New York apartment) and noted that way back when he ran the Storyville jazz club he had presented legendary players who drew smaller crowds than the one before him.

He said a persistent question was whether the two Miles Davis paintings would be there if they were not done by Miles Davis. Wein said that history would judge Davis’s talent with a brush and suggested through a story that the trumpeter’s own opinion of his art had changed. When he was just starting out and had canvasses all over the floor, Miles rolled up a couple and gave them to Wein. After they were mounted and framed, Wein called up Miles to remark how fine they looked. “Give me back my paintings,” said Miles. “He never really explained anything he did,” said Wein, “just ‘Give me back my paintings.’” So Wein returned one of them. Later he saw it on display in a gallery for $15,000. “Miles, you could at least give me the $600 it costs to have it framed.”

Wein noted that many players had been painters, from Tony Bennett to Pee Wee Russell. And that an enormous number of painters did their work while listening to jazz. He said that in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Sidney Bechet and Lousi Armstrong were favorites. And nowadays it was Coltrane. So the painters tend to lag a generation or so behind the musicians. But the musicians tend to draw inspiration from the very latest styles of art.

As one looked at earlier and more recent works it was obvious that, as Wein remarked, that African American artists had moved away from strict attention to racial autobiography to more universal and abstract themes, though it was still challenging for non-figurative material to be taken as seriously as it would be by a white artist.

Finally, Wein said he had turned down numerous artists who sent him works that were flashy depictions of musicans playing – waving saxophones, strutting with trumpets. That wasn’t interesting, said Wein. What he looked for was a portrait that captured the personality beyond the performance, such as Oliver Johnson’s portrait of a savvy, slightly pensive Louis Armstrong, done while the artist was serving time at Attica.

And it’s worthwhile to know the lives of the artists – the 35 biographies alone make the “Syncopated Rhythms” catalog a valuable book. And then there’s all that music on the page.

Biographical sketch of George Wein

All About Jazz interview with George Wein

Link to Boston University Art Gallery

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