Visual Arts

Gwen Black Celebrates the Soul

I recently had the happy opportunity to talk with Gwendolyn “Gwen” Black, fine artist, and arts activist. She is the founder of Arts and JazzFest NYC™, Women in Jazz, and Incorporation of Artists on the Move (IAM), all of which support creativity through the arts. Black is a seminal organizer of groups advocating jazz in New York City, nurturing people, and integrating cultures to uplift the local community. A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and FIT, in New York City, the skills she learned there, along with her familial exposure to jazz in her hometown of Pittsburgh, inform her creative vocation. She has also been blessed by having Broadway composer Emme Kemp as her godmother and the late jazz pianist/composer Randy Weston as her mentor and friend. 

For Black, jazz evolved from ancestors looking for relief from troubles, brought on by the cruelties of slavery, with emotions expressed through spirituals – lessening deep hurts encountered in hard lives. She has been creating mixed media paintings of jazz musicians to communicate the spiritual essence of this music, drawing a connection between the aural and the visual, painting and jazz, joined lyrically by melody and graphic line. For her, “painting is a whole bodily flowing,” an adaptation of what one is seeing while music provides opportunities to express what one is feeling. Her mixed media collage of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was her reaction to Clint Eastwood’s movie, “Bird.” She wished to underscore her feelings that Eastwood did not emphasize Parker’s intellectual qualities enough as a musician in the film. In Black’s piece the viewer sees notes coming from Parker’s mind with Gillespie acting as a mirror to Parker’s intellect, thus bringing out Parker’s power as a cerebral and emotional musician. 2020 would have been the 100th anniversary of Parker’s birth. 

She just completed a piece on the innovative composer and jazz musician, the late Alice Coltrane, wife of the legendary John Coltrane who became a force for good, after overcoming his heroin addiction. Alice and John forged a new spiritual musicality together with Alice becoming a swamini, which Black captures in the mystical quality of her new work. By pairing up both husband and wife when she exhibits the works, she shows both artists as positive influences together in the world at large. 

Alice Coltrane

The pandemic has delayed Black’s vision of jazz. Her 2020 summer music festival on Governor’s Island was put on hold and she is currently creating jazz performances virtually for the public, until audiences can once again congregate in larger groups for concerts. Instead in September, she produced “Jazz by The Water,” a virtual concert celebrating music of the past but featuring contemporary musicians, such as the young Eddie Allen on trumpet, saxophonist Bill Saxton, vocalist Rochelle Thompson, blues singer Cindy Lou Robinson, Joe Chambers, percussionist, and the timeless Emme Kemp. 

As an educator, Black is a mentor to young people, focusing on their needs for artistic expression, because the arts have been mostly taken from the classrooms. She also feels it is very important to get children away from entertainment concentrated on gun violence, which is on the rise and glorified by the media. Black’s family was exposed to gun violence and as a result she is looking to develop a mentoring program particularly for young black men who may not have had access to positive resources. 

Through her work with the AHRC day program, Black has also nurtured people with disabilities, who have never been exposed to jazz, by organizing a mural project for participants to paint a 20’x 9’ work dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” The muralists listened to music while creating the work and the project even transformed a woman, who had been completely non-communicative, into a vibrant participant after she listened to the music while painting. 

Gwen Black emphasizes that jazz can be the cultural, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual foundation for future music. Young people often do not have a frame of reference to this rich musical past and it is important to reacquaint them to its history, bringing them beyond the mechanical and cursory to a touchpoint of the intangible immanence. To this end she feels it is important to teach the young how to play instruments in all their intricacies, so that music is a soulful expression producing heartfelt results. She believes people must access what is within themselves in ways that are emotionally healing, in contrast to cultural expressions that are negative and destructive. She says we have to start rethinking the ideas of what we want to expose young people to and that parents should nurture and understand their children to keep them from extolling destructive impulses. 

John Coltrane

Black feels creative people have the task of carrying forward uplifting experiences, celebrating what brings people together. Mass media has substituted window dressing for real messages originating from the depths of the human soul; and the public should be supporting activities that bring decisions to fruition, based upon essence where resulting changes arise from love. 

She says it is also important to hold governments accountable so that the arts are supported not just as societal afterthoughts. She emphasizes that artists find it hard to create if they are always struggling to survive —“the spirit cannot flow freely.” She created Arts and Jazz Fest ™ as a vehicle to show artists’ work in a venue that is a catalyst for deep realizations, being much more than lip service to creativity and just entertainment. 

Truly a Renaissance person, Gwen Black champions the arts in so many ways. She is wished good fortune in all her endeavors as she continues to advocate fervently for creativity, her efforts intersecting jazz with the visual experience. We need more people like her to turn the tide on the pessimism we find so predominant now, so that we can indeed celebrate the culture of both beauty and goodness, and in particular advocate for the stirring music of jazz.

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