In his essay, Royalty, Heroism, and the Streets: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Farris Thompson recounts the story of the first time he was able to watch Basquiat at work. It was in February 1985. Just before Basquiat began painting, he did something rather interesting, as Farris Thompson notes
"Basquiat activated an LP of free, Afro-Cuban, and other kinds of jazz. Then he resumed work on an unfinished collage. Hard bop sounded. Jean-Michel pasted on letters and crocodiles. He did this with a riffing insistence, matching the music. Digits in shifting sequences, 2 2 2 2, 4 4 4, 5 5 5 5, further musicalized the canvas
He continued to work. Four styles of jazz free, mambo-inflected, hard bop, and, at the end, fabulous early bop with sudden stops accompanied the making of that collage."
Towards the end of the 1970s, Jean-Michel Basquiat whose nom de plume at that time was SAMO was producing graffiti on street walls around Brooklyn, New York. It was a slightly different style of graffiti compared to that of the graffiti that clothed the New York subway trains. Rather than simply writing SAMO (which meant Same Old Shit') he included slogans which were implicitly political and drawings that were primitive in style yet complex in meaning. It wasn't long before Basquiat gained recognition for his unusual style of art. Just as music was an essential part of the subway graffiti art scene, music was a fundamental contributor to the art produced by Basquait. It was the exhilarating, frenetic improvised jazz sounds of the 1940s and 50s, with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among other be-bop musicians that inspired him. Jazz has roots embedded in the African American lifestyle, and it was the lifestyle of the jazz musicians that Basquiat identified with. It was a constitutive part of Basquiat's work, as Farris Thompson states "understanding the art of Jean-Michel depends in part on understanding his lifelong involvement with music literally his working ambient. Jazz and blues are prominent, consciously chosen Afro-Atlantic roots." Particular jazz musicians Basquiat idolised were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, but most prominently Charlie Parker. In her book Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban draws upon numerous comparisons between Basquiat and Parker: they both left home at fifteen, both were terminal junkies and sex addicts, both became acquainted with the latest artistic trend of the time, thus both becoming famous by the age of twenty-one and both were intelligent yet "self-conscious bad boys." From this evidence it is clear why Basquiat had such empathy with Parker and why he saw himself as "art's answer to
Charlie Parker." It is with the influence of Parker and jazz on Basquiat's art that we can observe the improvisation in his work "grounded in a knowing assimilation of the past." And it is with Parker that I want to explore Basquiat's art to see how he used Parker's music and his legacy to create the masterpieces: Charles the First (1982), Horn Players (1983), CPRKR (1982), and Zydeco (1984). I have chosen works from 1982, 1983 and 1984 as that was when "all hell broke loose" and when he really started to introduce themes of jazz into his oeuvre.
Charles the First, painted in 1982 is seen as a pivotal piece as it was the first time Basquiat had tried to bring back the memory of Charlie Parker. The title of the piece, like so many of his titles, draws for further examination. He once said in an interview with Henry Geldzahler that the subject of his art was "royalty, heroism and the streets;" in the title of this piece,Charles' refers to Charlie Parker, but the First' puts Parker into a position of royal status. It has a comical element to it, but at the same time it reveals Basquiat's adoration for the musician. Basquiat experimented vastly with the frames of his paintings and the material he painted onto. Charles the First is no exception; painted on three...
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