Jazz is Dead, Long Live Basquiat
by Tash Moore
On May 12, 2005, a piece went on sale in Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art afternoon session. The work ultimately fetched $120,000 USD with a certificate of authentication from Basquiat’s estate. In 1981, Basquiat signed his piece, which highlighted the name John Coltrane four times, JMB. Simple, black and white, straight to the point, a sketchy crown overhanging a skull or rudimentary head. Above Coltrane’s name, a reference to Pork, & Po. Coltrane was known for his gluttony during certain periods, and even after he broke free from heroin, he maintained a lifelong love of his downhome favorite: hog brains with scrambled eggs accompanied by grits with gravy. While on the road, if he found a diner that served such a meal, he’d eat there every morning during that town’s entire run. To say Basquiat was a fan of another legend whose life was also cut short is an understatement, he was a devotee. Ultimately, he didn’t make it to the other side of sobriety like his hero, but the love was real.
Another portrait–Untitled (Stardust), Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983–depicts a saxophone player that appears to be Coltrane. Coltrane recorded Stardust, one of the most widely covered standards in American music, in 1959, however the song wasn’t released until 1963. Basquiat’s homage eventually fetched 7 figures in 2010. In the more colorful piece, Coltrane is depicted as a traveling man, as there’s a solid block nearby. Is it a suitcase? The colors are vivid, the body fluid, and the man is one with his instrument, blowing intently, and focused. Coltrane is noticeably slim, having already lost the jelly donuts about his midsection as he became healthier and healthier, sober and consistent. The period going into the early 1960s was one of Coltrane’s most organizationally stretching as he commanded his own groups readily and stepped into leadership with confidence, recovering nicely from the blow of losing the Miles Davis’ gig some years back. If Coltrane had broken and given into drugs and sugar, would Stardust on canvas be a thing twenty years later? Some other player might’ve picked up the tune, but would Basquiat have cared as much? Perhaps Coltrane’s personal elevation inspired Basquiat beyond the boxes he was checking off on fame’s list. Though his options were often lucrative, he was noticeably unhappy the richer he became.
Basquiat and Coltrane shared some more similarities grounded in early trauma. Coltrane’s grandfather and father died within a month of one another when he was a child, prompting his family to leave his birthplace of North Carolina for Philadelphia, making them pre-War participants in the Great Migration. Basquiat, in turn, came from a fractured family of a different sort, losing his beloved mother to institutionalization right before his teenage years.
Thinking of their relationships with family and drugs, one may picture an hourglass, both running out of time on either side. Where Coltrane turned to heroin before he became significantly or critically recognized and had to quit to stay connected and work, Basquiat got on board afterward, once he’d made serious money and began to keep different company than his old graffiti and hip-hop associates. Where someone like Fab 5 Freddy bemoaned his friend Basquiat being shunned and simultaneously beatified by so-called polite society and investors, the painter evolved quickly yet destructively to maintain relevance. While in the 1940s and 50s, poets and jazz musicians–with their accompanying drug use–populated the edge of creative society in New York City; by the 1980s, almost anyone working in Basquiat’s price range–whether via art, music, or especially the stock market–turned to drugs to fuel their days and nights.
Freed from addiction, and onto his second marriage, Coltrane’s sound became noticeably untethered as though his desire to escape organized sound had picked up where narcotic escapism left off. Even his mid-decade works, particularly as the violent backlash of the Civil Rights movement claimed more lives, began to move from organized sound to near-cacophony. Songs such as Alabama, a piece he wrote and performed in response to the Birmingham Bombing that killed four little sunday school parishioners in 1963. While Coltrane has no recorded natural daughters, he’d raised a step-daughter with his first wife, Naima, and always considered her his child. No doubt, that little brown skin girl was on his mind as he composed.
After the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, all attachments to his previous sounds or arrangements were utterly frayed or in tatters. Where many supporters, aficionados, contemporaries, and even bandmates of Coltrane resented his evolution–his drummer Elvin Jones upon finding himself caught between endless jam sessions with less and less structure, threw his cymbal against the wall, shattering it rather than continue–Basquiat loved Coltrane’s post-1965 deconstruction. Coltrane’s most famous recording–indeed the piece that brought him financial independence–My Favorite Things was a mainstay throughout his years of recording, but slowly over time, he’d let himself play all over the place. Jones, a man who appreciated Coltrane’s genius yet couldn’t adjust to the burgeoning style, ultimately left the group.
While Coltrane was gaining creative traction in his era, decades later, Basquiat was enjoying his own heydey in New York’s music scene. When he wasn’t partaking in the art of being seen or painting, he deejayed and jazz was his go-to.
‘If you can’t dance to John Coltrane, then you can’t dance.’ — Basquiat
And as Coltrane’s professional life was in flux, his personal life soared after he married Alice and quickly created three boys. With each child’s birth, he responded with a burst of energy, composing pieces in days. Locking himself in his home studio over the garage. An unconventional man in suburbia, creating as he saw fit. Coltrane’s life after drug use seemed quite fulfilling and he also seemed unconcerned overall with the negative reactions to his growth. For Basquiat, the opposite occurred. He was still a very young man and very single. While he stayed productive and worked until the end, his drug use–and possibly his unaddressed trauma–made him ultimately unreliable, volatile and irritable. After his attempt to gain recognition for his style and to be taken seriously, partnering with Andy Warhol for a joint show in 1985 that was shredded by critics, Basquiat seemed to be lost and disillusioned. He attempted sobriety at one point, and talked about life after art and being the It Boy, but his changing moods made friends worry. In their respective eras, Coltrane and Basquiat both traveled to Japan. Coltrane was at ease and creatively unburdened. Basquiat was supposed to be somewhere else entirely, missing shows on a whim.
Eventually forced to retire and downgrade quickly once he became terminally ill, Coltrane’s professional friendships were strained by shifts in his work. Instead, Basquiat’s were strained by sheer intensity, though both remained highly regarded. One may wonder if anyone would dare give a negative opinion by name though given their now legendary status. Decades apart and only a few years from death, Coltrane and Basquiat connected on the dance floor. Two men who needed to get outside of what others thought and succeeded. And unexpectedly, Coltrane gained a second life. Immortality in the hands of an all too avid fan.
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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.
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