Expressionist Portraits Capture the Fiery Transience of Jazz Performances

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On Monday, Flavorwire published an article discussing the life and work of New York artist Jonathan Glass, among others. Each of Glass’ works is a mimetic encapsulation of a particular jazz performance that you’ll likely never see (with the exception of occasional, jerky YouTube footage). Glass spends his evenings going to New York’s jazz clubs and music halls and, for the duration of the concerts, sketching expressionistic portraits that capture the ephemeral fervor and movement of each show — while being both permanent and inanimate. From icons like B.B. King to up-and-coming avant-garde acts like RighteousGIRLS to the Donny McCaslin quartet — most recently featured on David Bowie’s Blackstar — Glass’ work sees these musicians and their unique styles translated into feelings, then reconstituted on the page.

“I feel like I’m learning from the music as I’m drawing, and that’s leading me to improvise in the way I do. I have to feel the music — I don’t say I want to capture a likeness. You find your way along the way,” he says.

Glass’ encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history — and the personas of its key players — is on full display here, and for this slideshow he’s contributed insight both anecdotal and informative about his subjects, and about the particular concerts at which he sketched them with pen and ink.

Alan Ferber at Jazz Gallery by Jonathan Glass

Trombonist Alan Ferber played six sets, which was good because I really needed to spread out — most of my drawings are two pages long and this is five. I had to juggle them on my lap, and I moved so I could get different angles through different sets.

Righteous Girls by Jonathan Glass

The Righteous Girls are making avant-garde jazz in a way that’s never been done. Their sensibilities are on the cutting edge of what young performers should want to do; there’s a hard edge and erratic quality to this drawing that their music brought out in me.

The Blue Note 75th Anniversary at Birdland, by Jonathan Glass

What was special about this performance is that Bruce Lundvall, who was the president of Blue Note Records for 40 or 50 years, was at this 75th anniversary concert (he’d passed the torch onto Don Was). Blue Note made the most cutting-edge jazz albums — think Coltrane, or Lee Morgan, or Sonny Rollins. They recorded some of the most seminal jazz albums with incredibly designed covers that now you’ll see on shirts at, like, Uniqlo.

Chucho Valdes with Pedrito Martinez and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, by Jonathan Glass

Chucho Valdes is one of the greatest pianists, and he was accompanied by Pedrito Martinez, who was up for a Latin Grammy for Album of the Year last year. It’s actually a collage. I sat in the same seat over two nights, and drew the whole thing two times, then I tore up both drawings and pasted them together.

Dave Leibman at the COTA Jazz Festival by Jonathan Glass

I think this is a really sensitive drawing. It was at the COTA Festival; I didn’t think I’d ever go because I had no money. One of the performers, Jay Rattman, is a really close friend. He had a friend drive me there and put me up, and all he wanted was a copy of what I did. I’ve never been able to draw Dave Leibman, because he always contorts his face, but for this set, he stayed planted on a stool, and I think I finally got him!

Maria Schneider Big Band at Lincoln Center, by Jonathan Glass

This is one of my favorite big band drawings I’ve done. Maria Schneider is known for having been taught by Gil Evans — a famous big band guy. All of her songs are about nature, they’re very grounded and earthy; she won two Grammys two weeks ago for helping with composing music for David Bowie’s Blackstar — she did “Sue (Or a Season in Crime).” She’s the one who told Bowie to listen to Donny McCaslin, and he went to see his quartet at this hole in the wall, and he sat in and said, “I want to use your band.”

Donny McCaslin Quartet at the Village Vanguard, by Jonathan Glass

Donny performed two weeks after David Bowie died. He was talking about his love of Bowie’s humor and grace as an individual and professionalism. And everyone in that band, with the exception of the bass player, was on Blackstar. It was bittersweet. The fact that Bowie was able to make a jazz album late in life says so much about his integrity. What other rock ‘n’ roller would have said, “Let’s try this”?

Dr. Lonnie Smith at the BRIC Jazz Festival, by Jonathan Glass

Dr. Lonnie Smith is a real character. He’ll poke his cane at you and joke with the audience, and as long as it’s Dr. Lonnie Smith, it’s OK.

Joe Sanders by Jonathan Glass

Joe Sanders is amazing — he plays with everyone now, and what was great about this is, it was commissioned. I had never seen four basses on one stage. He was able to create within a certain amount of time and have his bills paid by Jazz Gallery so he could perform this piece specifically. No other place gives musicians the ability to breathe and create at their own free will and then have this small space to perform the piece.

Keith Jarrett at Carnegie Hall, by Jonathan Glass

I went backstage and his manager wasn’t having it, about me getting an autograph [Glass usually gets the musicians he documents to scrawl their names across his portraits] — Keith Jarrett doesn’t do autographs, he doesn’t take photos, and if people cough he’ll walk off the stage. He did four encores that night, but during the last one, he got pissed really abruptly because someone took a photo, and walked off.

Wayne Shorter with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, by Jonathan Glass

Wayne Shorter is a rare performer — he recorded with the famous Miles Quintet in the ’50s, had his old band Weather Report in the ’70s, and he has the most incredible sensibilities writing and playing-wise. There’s something celestial about the quality of his interpretation. He’s played with a quartet for 15 years or so, and they’re on their toes the whole time he’s playing. He’ll play “Stella by Starlight” backwards; the rest of the musicians have to be in tune with that and go with it. I enjoy people who are master improvisers, because it keeps you aware.

Les Paul, by Jonathan Glass

Les Paul created the electric guitar, and invented multi-track recording, and he was one of the most gracious artists I’ve met. He’d play Monday nights at the Iridium. He would play two sets every Monday night until he was 93 ‚ he did it until three months before he died. Every time I looked at him perform, he would give me this rock ‘n’ roll look, and give me the finger. He played directly to people. Even Keith Richards would sit in, or Elton John came to see him one night.

Dave Brubeck Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, by Jonathan Glass

Dave Brubeck was the avant-garde in the ’50s, but then he became mainstream and never stopped performing, and remained so vital to the scene. There are people I’ve seen like Helen Merrill or B.B. King or Sonny Rollins where I’ve thought, “I’ve been touched by greatness,” and Dave was definitely one of them.