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Beauty Is A Rare Thing

Essay for artist monograph

Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Artwork of Ian Johnson

80 pages, paperback, 6'' x 9''
Paper Museum Press (August 2008)
ISBN: 978-0978873929
Click here to purchase monograph

I remember the first time I heard John Coltrane’s seminal 1961 Live at the Village Vanguard recordings, with a potent ensemble of McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and on several tracks, Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet. Living in New York City at the time, I regularly listened to WKCR 89.9 FM, the radio station of Columbia University uptown. I had recently started listening to jazz, beginning to get a sense of who all these iconic musicians were as the DJ announced the playlist – Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker...

The propelling rhythm of the hi-hat and swing on the bass that provided the solid foundation for melodic flights on the piano, trumpet or saxophone drew me in with its crisp sound and insistent momentum. The music kept me listening and my leg shaking. I then heard a track from Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard on the radio and the music came through the speakers with such palpable urgency, full of life, texture, and spirit. I stood there awestruck, completely overwhelmed by it all.

I was hooked. I started buying lots of jazz records.

Trying to absorb the jazz tradition and learning to hear how Thelonious Monk would construct melodies different from Bud Powell, I would listen to dozens of records and CD’s and lose myself in the world of an amazing era of jazz of the 1950’s and 1960’s. These recordings and the musicians who made them became heroic in stature. And for someone born in the 1970’s, the historicity of that era became even more mythical because of its distance. Looking at the record sleeves and CD booklets, with photographs from the recording sessions and insightful notes on the compositions, the listening experience was transformed into something beyond a purely aural activity. It became an exercise in imagination and visualization.

Yet, despite how accomplished these works were at the time (and still are), the true genius of many musicians’ compositional and performance output wouldn’t be recognized until years later, sometimes posthumously. Many jazz musicians from that era found more financial and artistic success outside of the U.S., primarily with European audiences, who responded enthusiastically to the blending of compositional structure and instrumental improvisation. During a time when this country was immersed in the Civil Rights Movement around fundamental issues of freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality, many jazz musicians found a more respectful and responsive attitude towards their art and color of their skin outside of America.

In a way, I see Ian’s work in this light – a rightful, necessary return to how these men and women should have been perceived and treated all along – as cultural innovators and true artists whose music truly embodied notions of freedom, dignity, and respect. Ian’s portraits radiate in worlds and bands of color as vibrant and angular as the music he paints to, and they make profoundly manifest all those hours I spent conjuring visions in my head from the music entering my ears. It’s as if they had existed all along.

- Kevin B. Chen