Legends of Jazz! Portraits by Frederick J. Brown from the Permanent Collection

Legends of Jazz! Portraits by Frederick J. Brown from the Permanent Collection of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

In the spirit of Black History Month we embrace the work of renowned African-American artist Frederick James Brown (1945-2012).  Black History Month seeks to give voice to the unique experiences and struggles of African-Americans in North America.  In addition to drawing artistic inspiration from his Seminole and Choctaw ancestry, many of Frederick J. Brown’s paintings focused on African-American subjects from various walks of life.  Brown was motivated to celebrate the achievements of black individuals, especially musicians, who enriched the experiences of all peoples in the post-civil rights era.  Some of his subjects were relatively obscure while others had already achieved fame and recognition in mainstream culture.

Throughout his career, Brown himself had developed many close associations with renowned musicians.  In the 1980s, his SoHo loft studio, replete with a grand piano, was frequented by stellar musicians and top painters of the neo-expressionist generation.  During this time he began painting his portraits of musicians, a body of work that would eventually number over 300 paintings including portraits of Thelonius Monk, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, and the incomparable B.B. King.  Brown’s musical portraitures in particular remind us that African-American musicians pushed the boundaries of evolving musical genres and established unparalleled levels of musical artistry. 

Frederick J. Brown was born in Greensboro, GA in 1945.  His family moved to Chicago, IL when he was very young.  Brown attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL and graduated in 1968 with a degree in Art and Psychology.  Upon graduation, Brown continued to pursue his passion for painting while also teaching at various universities in the United States and abroad.  For over four decades, Brown’s work has been celebrated all across the globe in a countless number of exhibitions and institutions including the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Marlborough Gallery in New York, NY, and the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City, MX.  In 1985, Brown moved the Beijing to teach at the Central College of Fine Arts and Crafts for two years.  In June of 1988, a retrospective exhibition featuring 100 works spanning Frederick Brown’s career opened at the Museum of Chinese Revolution (now known as the National Museum of China), making Brown the first Western artist to be featured at the museum. 

In addition to all of this success, Frederick Brown’s work has been featured in a number of publications including the New Yorker, as well as on many LP album covers.  His art can also be found in the permanent collections of countless major institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, MO, the permanent collection of the White House in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, NY, and in Canada at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery in Lethbridge, AB, the Simon Fraser University Art Gallery in Burnaby, BC, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax, NS, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB.

As an artist, Brown was influenced by both German expressionists and abstract expressionists. He drew inspiration from painters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, both of which he knew personally.  Although he remained fascinated with abstract expressionism throughout his career, much of his work, including the portraits in this show, is regarded as figurative expressionism.  The six works featured in this exhibition epitomize both Brown’s artistic inspirations and his celebration of African-American musicianship.  These portraits of notable jazz musicians are not executed in a photographic or naturalistic manner.  Rather, these renditions are, in many ways, in keeping with the spirit of jazz music; they are vibrant, colourful, and free.

John Coltrane (1926-1967) was a renowned African-American jazz composer and saxophonist.    During the early part of his career he helped pioneer the incorporation of modal systems in jazz music, which relied on the use of modes instead of chord progressions for the basis of jazz music.  Later in his career, he was also a leading figure in the rise of free jazz, which pushed the boundaries of traditional jazz music.  In the studio, Coltrane met with considerable success, having released more than 45 studio albums and many compilation and live albums. Coltrane is widely regarded as one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz.

Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) was a prominent African-American jazz singer.  Known for the power of her voice, she has been described by critics and historians as one of the best singers of jazz and has often been ranked with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  She began her music career in the 1940s after winning a contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY.  Soon afterward, she toured the United States as a supporting vocalist and pianist for the Earl Hines big band.  By 1948, Vaughan’s solo career had taken off and she was regularly performing across the United States.  Songs such as “If You Could See Me Now” and “Tenderly” were commercially successful and she started working with other notable jazz artists including Jimmy Jones and Miles Davis. 

Johnny Hodges (1907-1970) is regarded by many to be one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of the 20th century and he is known for his unique alto-saxophone tone.  Early in his career, Hodges was a multi-instrumentalist and played drums, piano, and saxophone in various jazz, swing, and blues ensembles in Boston.  His professional career took off in 1928 when he joined the Duke Ellington orchestra playing the alto-saxophone. Hodges quickly became a central member of the group and he toured frequently and was an active contributor in countless recording sessions.  Johnny Hodges remained with the Duke Ellington orchestra until 1951, when, to the surprise of many in the music industry, he left to form an ensemble of his own.  After pursuing his solo interests for four years, Hodges returned to the Duke Ellington orchestra and remained there until his sudden death in 1970.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is considered by many critics to be not only the first important soloist to emerge in jazz, but also the single most influential soloist in the history of jazz music.  He was raised by his mother in New Orleans and showed a keen interest in music at an early age. He learned to play the cornet while attending school.  As a young adult he moved to Chicago to become a professional musician.  After playing in some small groups, he emerged in the 1920s as a jazz trumpeter and recorded countless numbers with his own jazz ensembles the Hot Five and Hot Seven.  In addition to jazz, Louis Armstrong was also a highly regarded performer of popular music, and celebrated hits such as 1967’s “What a Wonderful World” are a testament to his acclaim.

Dexter Gordan (1923-1990) was a major jazz tenor-saxophonist who had a long and successful career.  Known for his distinctive tenor-saxophone sound, he became successful early in his career.  In 1940s and 1950s, Gordan regularly performed and recorded with other important jazz artists including Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzie Gillespie.  Despite some trouble with the law and drugs, he was able to overcome these challenges and he continued to perform and record intermittently.  By the 1980s his health had declined, however he acted in the motion picture Round Midnight, and this silver screen debut was praised by critics.

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) is considered to be one of the most important jazz pianists in the history of the genre, and a giant in the history of Canadian music.  Born in Montreal, he began taking classical piano lessons at an early age and his talent on this instrument quickly flourished.  At the age of fourteen, Peterson won a contest hosted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and promptly left school to pursue a professional musical career.  He began his professional music career by doing recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, working as a sessional musician on a weekly radio show, playing in hotels, and occasionally playing in jazz clubs.  In 1949, the esteemed producer Norman Granz discovered Oscar Peterson and steadily promoted him.  By the early 1950s, Peterson was a household name and collaborated with countless notable jazz musicians.  Peterson remained an important and influential jazz artist and continued to perform and record until his death in 2007.  In total, Oscar Peterson’s discography contains nearly 150 studio and live releases.

Curated by Meredith Briden, Curatorial Assistant, Beaverbrook Art Gallery.  Organized by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

Works featured in this exhibition:


Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
Sarah Vaughn, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 96.5 x Wi: 76.2 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.
 

 

Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
John Coltrane, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 96.5 x Wi: 76.2 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.
 

 

Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
Johnny Hodges, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 96.5 x Wi: 76.2 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.
 


Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
Louis Armstrong, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 182.8 x Wi: 76.2 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.

 

Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
Dexter Gordon, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 95.2 x Wi: 76.2 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.

 

Frederick James Brown (American, 1945-2012)
Oscar Peterson, 2005
print on Arches paper
Ht: 76.2 x Wi: 106.6 cm
Gift of Aida Minerals Corp.