Jazz ABZ at the Cummer Museum

by Erin Thursby
Jazz ABZ, the graphic art now on display at the Cummer, began in an odd place for something inspired by jazz greats. Graphic designer Paul Rogers was watching a production of Swan Lake, a little bored perhaps, when the idea for the project came to him. He started listing his favorite jazz musicians, each representing a letter, visualizing each in a particular graphic style.
This idea turned into a book, each plate accompanied by a poem by Wynton Marsalis, who gets his own plate as a legendary jazz musician.
“The images…are so evocative not only of these well-known musicians but also of an era in American history. The Cummer is excited to present these works in their first museum exhibition,” says Cummer Curator Holly Keris. The poster-like images and some of Wynton’s poetry are part of the exhibition.
The Cummer used the book as an education tool before they decided to approach the artist with the idea of an exhibition of the works from it.
Besides the graphic art aspect of the exhibition, Curator Keris tells us that “The Jazz ABZ exhibition allows us the opportunity to bring two other arts forms into the mix- music and the spoken word.”
The art on display are the pieces that were physically worked on by Rogers. He did none of the designing on a computer, which, these days is odd for a graphic artist.
“It was the last thing I did without a computer,” says Rogers “A sort of last hurrah.”
For Rogers, who is a commercial illustrator, creating art for his own desire rather than to the specifications of a client, was a pleasure, although it took him a long time. As he worked, he listened to the jazz of the particular artist he was designing, when he was between commercial projects. Part of the way through the alphabet he asked Wynton if he would write poetry to accompany each artist. Since they’d worked together on a past project and had become friends, Wynton said yes. But it took Rogers a few years to complete the alphabet. Rogers gave Wynton the art to look at but Rogers had no idea what kind of poetry Wynton would write. What he got was even better than he expected. Each poem was geared to the sound of their jazz–a sparse haiku for Thelonious Monk, who was always more interested in the space between the notes, and the poem for Louie Armstrong hits almost as heavy as the man himself.
When the book came out in 2005, it caught the attention of the education department at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens (as well as many educators across the country and NPR).
“Long before we ever thought of having an exhibition of the works of art in it, we were using this book in our programs,” explains Hope McMath, Executive Director at the Cummer. The book incorporated art, music and poetry. Children could learn from it and adults loved it. The indexes are a trove of further information. Rogers looked to the era each jazz performer was popular in and the graphic and commercial styles or artists of that time as inspiration. If you love the look of a certain plate, you can turn to that index and find out more about the particular style. Turn to the music index for the recommended record from a particular jazz artist. There are also brief bios by jazz historian Phil Schaap, which let you know the history of each musician. If you enjoy the art in the gallery, you can buy the book at the museum gift shop ($24.99 plus tax, 10% less for members).
It’s no coincidence that the Cummer’s Jazz ABZ exhibition is open during the Annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The exhibition was always meant to intertwine with the Fest. It will be open until August, but if you’re getting in the mood for the Jacksonville Jazz Fest early, take a look at the exhibit or check out their related events (jazz poetry, talks and jazz performance) at their website, www.cummer.org.
Jazz ABZ Related Events at Cummer
Jazz ABZ: Improvisations by Students at S.P. Livingston Elementary School
(March 1 through May 9) Art Connections: Selected 5th grade students at S.P. Livingston Elementary School display their Jazz-Inspired art work as part of the Weaver Academy of Art at The Cummer. Under the guidance of The Cummer Education staff with documentation by photographer Ingrid Damiani, the artists from the school’s Exceptional Student Education Department created abstract paintings, cityscape collages and free-form alliterative poetry based on the sounds in jazz music. Members Free, Non-Members $10
For more information, call (904) 356-6857.
Jazz Fusion at The Cummer
(Tuesdays, March 2, May 4, and July 6, 7 to 8 p.m.) Nationally known poet Matthew Hernandez leads three themed nights of spoken word, music and performance, celebrating jazz music, musicians and poetry. Hernandez is a writer, actor and poet who has been a guest speaker/performer for the PGA, Wu-Tang Clan, WJCT, NPR, The Miami Poverty Conference, along with numerous news features, various internet podcast and radio programs. Free Admission. For more information, please call (904) 355-0630.