I “got into” jazz some years ago and quickly found that Count Basie was my favorite, particularly from his Kansas City days before he had a big orchestra. I’ve had this post in mind for quite awhile, but had to find the right video of him and then formulate why I believe his music is of value to visual artists.
Here’s what I think painters, or any artist really, can learn from listening to pieces like the one in the video:
1. Simplicity– Compared to everything going on in the orchestra, Basie plays very few notes in this version of “Good Time Blues”. It takes years of experience to be able to strip away all the “details” and play with such elegant simplicity. If you watch his older performances, he plays more conventionally. As he went along, he simplified his playing to an extremely sophisticated level. And, as one of my art teachers once said “The simpler statement is the stronger statement.” One could explore this idea with brushwork. Instead of ten strokes to define an area, can you do it in five? How much information can you convey in one? Can you say “grass” in 3 strokes instead of 300?
2. The spaces between the notes– artists call it “positive” and “negative” space. Both are equally important and a painting can be approached from either direction. In the Basie video, the spaces between the notes are every bit as important at the notes themselves. Watch the video for the notes, then watch it again for the spaces. When you do a drawing for a painting, do you check the negative spaces between the objects? If not, try it and see what happens to your visual perception. Try designing a painting by thinking about the negative shapes first.
3. Timing– Every one of those relatively few notes is played at EXACTLY the right instant. By this time in his career, his timing instincts were unerring and seemingly effortless. One can not imagine any note being the slightest bit earlier or later. How long is your brush actually in contact with the canvas? How does varying that change the appearance of the mark? How could you change the look of your painting by using this idea consciously?