Meet Jacob Cartwright


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Prior to living in NYC I’d been mail ordering music from Downtown Music Gallery for many years, so it was one of those moments that seemed almost like the end of a long journey when I was then able to cross their threshold in person.
—Jacob Cartwright
Our August Super Fan is a visual artist with a special affinity for improvisational music, which has spilled over into his jazz-themed painting series. In jazz, as in art, Jacob Cartwright values the past while embracing the forward momentum of the new. Plus he's really "down with the jazz cats"—read on to see what we mean! To see more of Jacob's artwork, visit his website.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm a visual artist, working primarily in painting. I grew up in Illinois, and moved to Kansas City, MO in 1996 to study painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. I left Kansas City for Portland, OR in 2004, and I've been based in the New York City area since I moved to Brooklyn eight years ago. For the last couple of years I've been living across the Hudson in Union City, NJ. During the week I work at Laurence Miller Gallery, a fine art photography gallery in Manhattan, and my painting studio is in Long Island City, Queens.

This year I became a member of American Abstract Artists, a New York City based group that, since its founding in 1936, has been a forum for the exhibition and advancement of abstract art. Early members of the organization included Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian; the current membership is a list of many of the very best contemporary practitioners, a group that I'm honored and humbled to be part of.

I also maintain an Instagram for my paintings and other people's work that I see around town at @jacobcartwrightpaintings.

What's your earliest memory of music?
My first memories of music all revolve around my dad's record collection. Those earliest memories are actually somewhat adversarial in that I was frequently admonished to tread lightly around the turntable lest I skip the record. My parents were big Grateful Dead fans; they met at a Dead concert in '69, and saw them together every year after that, so I'm sure the Dead were the first group I was really aware of. Strangely, it was only in recent years that it really struck me that my love for improvisation in music must be rooted in that early exposure to their music.

How old were you when you got your first record?
I was seven years old when I got my first record, a vinyl copy of the Ghostbusters movie soundtrack. I was crazy about that movie and the Ray Parker Jr. theme song, so my parents gifted me the record. It was the only record I owned for a long time and I played it like crazy so I can only imagine my parents were relieved when my musical interests eventually drifted elsewhere.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
Chicago, three hours east of my hometown, was my formative reference point for the arts. The music coming out of Chicago was like a beacon to me. There was a lot of experimentation across genres there in the mid-90s; "post rock" players were playing with people from the jazz scene with roots in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Those bands turned me on to the recordings that opened up the world of jazz for me.

A particular revelation were the early recordings on Delmark and Thrill Jockey by the Chicago Underground group, a revolving cast of musicians that centered around Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor and, often, Jeff Parker. I learned that Rob's decision to play a pocket trumpet was inspired by Don Cherry, which of course lead me to the music of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. I was hooked on the music from there.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
The first show I went to see was Nirvana in 1994 when I was sixteen. A musician friend of mine, Seth Knappen, picked me up, and it was sort of a double date with us and our girlfriends. During Mudhoney's opening set a girl in the audience somehow dumped an entire beer on my head, but I barely even cared, the whole show was so frenzied, and I was beyond excited to be there.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
That's changed as I've gotten older. When I first started going to shows there was definitely a transportive intensity I was chasing. When I was still under-age I was going to friends shows and often helping out as a "roadie" with older musicians so I could get into clubs. That's when I got my first taste of music as part of an artistic network of peers, and I enjoyed seeing them play the same material over time and develop it. Seeing Tortoise in Chicago in 1996 was a turning point. I doubt I'd ever seen anyone play a mallet instrument before, and there's a group playing both a vibraphone and a marimba onstage. Of course as my interests drifted to jazz from there, the immediacy and spontaneity of the music became key.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
I'd refer to one of Thelonious Monk's adages (as memorialized by Steve Lacy) that reads like a Zen koan: Monk maintained that musicians should "lift the bandstand." What that means to me is that in all art there can be a moment where everything comes together and it's like the work leaves the hands of the maker and feels effortless, miraculous, and full of life.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
One year I was strapped for cash and forced to choose between seeing Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman during the PDX Jazz Festival. I was torn but I ended up seeing Ornette that year. Happily, I attended a really powerful show that Cecil played a few years later in Harlem. It was like a who's who in contemporary jazz piano in the audience that night, so there was a strong sense that we were all in the presence of a living master.

What makes a great jazz club?
As much as I love going to jazz clubs it I think it's hard to be in a club these days and not have a sense of how far 2018 is from the heyday. That was something that I felt Jason Moran handled well the last time I saw him at the Vanguard; it was clear from the outset that he was acknowledging the history of the room and almost treating the set like a ritual, something that gains in power and is renewed through re-enactment. I think Anita Mercier and René Pierre Allain have done a fantastic job with Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn; it has a sense of an artistic salon, and captures a bit of the artist-run loft jazz spirit of the 70s, something that's held together by love and dedication, rather than finances.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
Steve Lacy would be my pick for this. I love his playing and he was a musician who embraced influences from all across the arts. If I was going to cheat on this question a little I might say that I would like to have seen Steve Lacy during the time he was playing in Monk's band.

What is the most trouble you've gone to get to a jazz performance?
There's a fabled all-night club called the Mutual Musicians Foundation located in the historic jazz district in Kansas City near 18th and Vine. My friends and I had always been fascinated by the stories of the all-night jam sessions that were hosted in the same room where Charlie Parker and many others had paid their dues. One night we were at a bar at closing time and a handful of us decided we'd set out to locate it.

We didn't have an address and it was snowing so we ended up driving in circles in the neighborhood for what seemed like an hour or more. At some point a collective urge to relieve our bladders set in and we all got out and marched out in the snow and into a vacant lot. We were all standing in silence when my friend said (and this is an actual quote) "I hear angels singing." I listened and determined that what he was hearing was actually the faint sound of a saxophone. We followed the sound through the night which lead us to the backdoor of an utterly undistinguished building. I mustered up the courage to knock on the door and, to our surprise, we were ushered into the warmth of the very jam session we had given up on finding. You can imagine our delight as we settled in for a night of music from there. I have a vivid memory of walking out into the very cold light of dawn the next morning as the musicians finally packed up their instruments and we began to make our way home.

You've lived in several places known for having vibrant music scenes. What impact has that had on your musical interests?
Kansas City's embrace of its jazz history dovetailed perfectly with my growing interest in the roots of the music. Obviously, Charlie Parker in particular was the hometown hero there, along with Count Basie and Lester Young, among others. KC had some great contemporary jazz musicians who played around in the art scene as well. There would be crossover music and art shows and artist organized parades that featured wild and woolly groups like the Dirty Force Brass Band. The saxophonist and instrument builder Mark Southerland was a particular catalyst playing in a variety of ensembles (Snuff Jazz, Malachi Papers) and ongoing collaborations with players who would pass through town like Mike Dillon and Eugene Chadbourne.

In Portland, there were a lot of interesting things happening with shows in alternative spaces and DIY music and art festivals. The best concert series by far was run by the Creative Music Guild, a not-for-profit dedicated to hosting concerts of experimental and improvised music by world class players. I saw lots of European and East Coast musicians play shows there that would have simply never happened without the support of CMG, people like Jemeel Moondoc, Tim Berne, Joëlle Léandre, and Satoko Fujii. I met Jonathan Sielaff through the CMG shows; he's on the council of CMG and plays bass clarinet in a variety of settings, most notably an outstanding duo project called Golden Retriever, with analog synth player Mattias Carlson. They've been putting out great records on the record label Thrill Jockey in recent years.

When I moved to Brooklyn, suffice it to say, the New York City jazz scene was an embarrassment of riches. I was going to multiple shows a week in the years after I first landed in NYC. I was seeing performances all over, but Village Vanguard, Cornelia Street Café, Zebulon, Manhattan Inn, Roulette, Issue Project Room, and The Stone all became frequent haunts of mine. Prior to living in NYC I'd been mail ordering music from Downtown Music Gallery for many years so it was one of those moments that seemed almost like the end of a long journey when I was then able to cross their threshold in person (free Sunday night concerts!). More often than not I would see DMG owner Bruce Gallanter hanging out at The Stone when I was at shows there. New York had that feeling in general, like it was the place I'd been heading to the whole time without necessarily knowing it. Since becoming established in New York City I've connected with a number of visual artists who also have a strong affinity for jazz and improvised music. Paul Corio is very terrific painter and a great jazz drummer. Gilbert Hsiao and Daniel G. Hill (both members of American Abstract Artists) are great artists and also "super fans" when it come to this music as well.

Tell us about how jazz and your artwork intersect.
My early interest in jazz coincided with the beginnings of my exploration of abstraction in visual art. To me there always seemed to be a clear parallel; I saw jazz as a form of musical abstraction, and the improvisational core of the music seemed like a distillation of the creative process. Of course, the historic development of jazz and the visual arts in America were intertwined, and American abstract painting in particular often cited jazz as kind of a kindred form of expression. An embodiment of that would be the uniquely American influence found in Piet Mondrian's 1942 painting "Broadway Boogie Woogie." I cut my teeth during the pre-internet days so, not living in major metropolitan area, all this stuff felt like secret knowledge that I had to seek out.

One thing I respond to in jazz is the role of tradition in the form. If the tradition is seen as a tree, the good players are like new growth. I look at painting the same way, it's something that is enriched by its history yet it has to find its way to make itself new, to be of its moment and unique to the maker.

My "Many Worlds" series of paintings was a way to pay homage to my influences from across the arts—music in particular. The paintings were made to resemble record covers and pair abstract paintings with text and graphic design elements. They operate as a kind of fan fiction in that they all center around hypothetical musical collaborations and groupings. In one sense they are a nod to the great what-ifs in the musical world. More broadly, those paintings were about how art tends to inspire other art and how creativity doesn't thrive in a vacuum but rather in unique intersections between people and ideas.

We first came across your work in a show at Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn.
My recent show at Scholes was a unique opportunity to place my paintings in a musical context that relates directly to the work. For the opening I invited drummer Sam Ospovat to perform with his band, a quartet with Matt Nelson on sax, Jaimie Branch on trumpet, and Devin Hoff on bass. All of the members of that group are musicians I admire individually. Most of the attendees were visual artists who don't attend jazz shows regularly, but the band played one continuous piece to an absolutely rapt audience that night. Jaimie Branch's record Fly or Die was one of my favorite jazz releases from the last year and, to bring things full circle, her band features Chad Taylor (of Chicago Underground) on drums. My friend Ava Mendoza, an amazing guitarist, helped me set up that concert. She was meant to play with the group, but an accident the week prior led to a broken thumb, forcing her to sit out that night.

Scholes hosts a lot of great jazz and new music, so it's been fantastic to see players that I've long admired, like Joe McPhee taking solos in front of the paintings. Through the show I learned that both Joe and myself are both big fans of composer and instrument maker Harry Partch.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?
I listen to music all sorts of ways, but I do collect vinyl and recently I've been sharing my collection on an Instagram page that my fiancé Adrienne and I host. The page is called @jazzcathouse and it began as Adrienne's idea. We have a number of rescue cats that live with us, so the feed is split 50/50 between cats and jazz records. The page has become a great way to engage with other jazz listeners, and we've discovered that many jazz enthusiasts are also cat lovers.

What's most likely to be playing when you listen to music at home?
The '60s free jazz explosion that sparked my love of the music is the core of my collection, but it spans the whole history with a particular interest in players who had an individual take on how the tradition could be extended. I love jazz piano, in particular-people like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Paul Bley, Martial Solal, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), Vyacheslav Ganelin, Misha Mengelberg, Geri Allen, Marilyn Crispell, Connie Crothers up into the present day with people like Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran. Recently I've been immersed in the two large group recordings that Henry Threadgill released in May. After his 2016 Pulitzer Prize I can't say he's under-recognized but, as someone who has been releasing a new recording every year or so since 1975, it's possible to take him for granted. His two new records strike me as late career masterpieces.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
...requiring of its invention.

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