Jeannie McInnes looks at the close connections between the two art forms.

Much has been said about the relationship between playing music and mathematics, but for jazz musicians there is also a strong relationship with visual arts. Both encourage creative freedom and improvisation and there are numerous creatives who work in both visual and jazz mediums.

Did you know that Miles Davis was a painter? He stated that, “painting is like therapy for me, and keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music”, and he approached his painting and drawing with the same passion he approached his music. He also commented that “music is a painting you can hear, and art is music you can see”. Albums released by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, an avant-garde band from the 50s onwards, often had covers designed and created by Ra and other members of the band, with the whole audio and visual experience made by the musicians themselves. Ornette Coleman was another who painted the cover of an album. Tal Farlow was a sign painter and can be seen at work, on scaffolding, on his album A Sign of the Times.

Jutta Hipp, pianist and composer who moved from Germany to the US as a refugee following WWII, created caricatures of other musicians and watercolours, selling them on the streets of New York in her later years. She commented that with painting, they look at your work, not at you. The great Duke Ellington and singer Tony Bennett painted portraits. Sydney based jazz singer and composer Gregg Arthur is also a painter, and a recent album cover featured his self-portrait. These are just a few of the examples of musician artists.

Here in Australia, more specifically Sydney, we realised that there were so many of our musicians who also made visual art, that we held an exhibition called The Doubly Gifted Jazz Art Happening. It was the idea of the late Harry Stein, a colourful writer, journalist and founder of the Eureka Youth League and co-founder of the Australian Jazz Convention. The exhibition was held at the Waverley Library in the early 90s and what Harry envisaged to be a one-off exhibition, went on for about 23 more years, outliving him by a couple of decades. I was a member of the organising committee, and over the years we had many dozens of jazz musicians participate, including Graeme Bell, Verdon Morcom, Bob Baird, Marie Wilson, Jiri Kripac, Pat Qua, Barbara Colhoun and Belinda Holland.

To highlight a couple, Graeme Bell, one of the major figures in post WWII Australian jazz, trained as an artist before becoming a professional musician and continued making art as well as music well into his 90s. Verdon Morcom not only played piano internationally, but if my memory serves me correctly, he also painted interior murals on a Qantas jet or maybe a P&O cruise liner or two.

Then there were visual artists who embraced jazz in their work. Otto Dix was part of the 1920s German ‘New Objectivity’ movement. He included jazz bands in some of his paintings, but jazz being a symbol of freedom was banned by the Nazis as being degenerate, along with artists such as Dix.

Jackson Pollock loved bebop and his style of ‘action painting’, spraying and dripping paint onto the canvas, was often created while listening to records of Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, Hawkins, Hampton, and Waller. New York’s Museum of Modern Art put on major retrospective exhibitions of his work and released a compilation album of hot jazz tunes from his collection. If you look at Australia’s Pollock painting, Blue Poles, each colour is painted as if an instrument in a jazz band. They have a rhythm to them, intertwining and connecting, forcing our eyes to keep moving just as our ears keep listening to the music. There’s the shrill thin lines of the clarinet and the strong pulse of trumpet and trombone. The eight dark blue poles hold the whole thing together, much like the rhythm section of a band. He painted intuitively and instinctively, improvising as he worked and wanting to express his feelings and using technique as a means of doing this, much as a musician uses hours of practice to do the same.

A program of jazz musicians who also make art can be heard on Jazz Rhythm on 7 May, and another based on the listening of Jackson Pollock on 14 May.

Jazz Rhythm airs on Tuesdays at 12 noon.