Program Type: 
Jennie C. Jones


January 29, 2011 - March 27, 2011


Jennie C. Jones' practice resides at the intersection of art history, music history and African-American history, layering the formal language of modern art — abstraction and minimalism — over the conceptual and technical strategies of avant-garde jazz. Her work in audio, sculpture and drawing extends the parallel legacies of experimentation, of what Jones calls, 'wit and riff of these types of radical cultural forms — exploring cultural confluence, hybridization, and a more complex and historically inclusive version of modernism.'

Counterpoint is an intimate foray into the investigation of African–American modes of formalism, with an emphasis on the contributions of the influential composer/pianist John Lewis, a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). Inspired by a concert of the MJQ at the historic Blackhawk Jazz Club in San Francisco, the project re–frames the notion of 'West Coast Cool' linking its beginning to this single early performance. Functioning not only as an homage to Lewis and MJQ, Counterpoint is comprised of prints and works on paper, as well as sculptural objects ranging from re–configured piano sharps to vintage LP storage racks.The project attempts to transform the routine action of listening into a minimalist art form. Counterpoint also marks the artist’s first collaboration with a musician, Seattle–based Cellist Paul Rucker, who will perform interpretations from a rare book of scores written by John Lewis.

Julio César Morales Interviews Jennie C. Jones

JCM: The exhibition Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, attempted to explore 'California's cultural aura' and to create a link between modernist innovations in art, architecture, design, film and music. Do you feel that there's a missing link within the premise and content of the show?

JCJ: The premise of the show seemed not to be about the cultural confluences that led to West Coast 'cool' but rather the result or 'products' stemming from The Birth of the Cool. The aforementioned Miles Davis album and title of the exhibition, has three songs arranged by John Lewis — 'Move,' the opening track, as well as 'Budo' and 'Rogue'. Yet emphasis in general is always given to Gil Evans, a brilliant arranger, but alas the white arranger. This exhibition, Counterpoint, as exemplified by the title, is a way to present another conversation. In the catalogue intro essay by Elizabeth Armstrong, she references Ted Gioia 'who in his landmark book on the topic [West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California from 1945–1960] defines the West Coast sound in terms that could also be applied to the hard edge painting of the period. He states that: ‘By and large it had a strong compositional emphasis; it delighted in Counterpoint; it had a cooler demeanor than Bird and Dizzy's bebop.' The West Coast sound was cleanly articulated, the execution fluid and polished. The cool, airy vocals and movie star good looks of innovative trumpeter Chet Baker epitomize West Coast cool at midcentury.' Nothing is cooler than Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker, his solos highly articulate to the trained ear. This also implies that 'back east' musicians in general were not articulate, clean, or composed. All of which are found in the elegance, mastery of composition, and indeed exquisite use of Counterpoint by the Modern Jazz Quartet over the more than 40 years that they preformed together. Oddly enough MJQ was formed out of the percussion section of Dizzy's big band, which they were all a part of. This exhibition is also inspired by the image of an early marquee at the Blackhawk featuring MJQ and the notion that perhaps this early (unrecorded) performance had a larger impact on the scene than we know. Interestingly, that very photograph turns out to have been cropped. The original image includes John Lewis standing next to a painter below the marquee and was discovered by the Uptown Tenderloin District Museum in San Francisco. The metaphor could not be more appropriate.

JCM: Do you think the actual origins of 'cool' have any connection to class in regards to accessibility? For example the blues came out of specific economic realities . Was 'cool' affordable only to specific people?

JCJ: Yes, people of color have always been the lynchpin in defining notions of cool in America—from Bebop to hip–hop. So much has been written about cultural crossover and how it forces reinvention. It's a thesis unto itself. Economically, if cool is something that has a big price tag, its kind of a signal that whatever it is, may already be over!

JCM: What was your introduction to jazz and how has this exploration of sound connected to your experience as an artist?

JCJ: Jazz was always around. It came from my mother mainly. I remember being invited to a 'sock hop' themed party in the 5th grade when Happy Days was on TV. I asked her to make me a poodle skirt and asked her about the 1950s. Her response was that she was wearing a pencil skirt, not a poodle skirt, and listening to the MJQ at basement parties while attending Ohio State. I listened to her albums. That was my first impression of what was cool and my first impression of jazz.

Later, after being a punk in the 80s, then going to undergrad and grad school, I approached jazz more academically. I found that, of course, there are endless historic junctures where music and art are talking about the same thing, but they were kept completely separate from each other in discourse. One fell onto the genre of black history, the other art history. For me, I kept seeing these amazing parallels in ideologies in both disciplines, especially in jazz and abstraction. Conceptualism allows these different mediums to occupy the same space. As a formalist and minimalist at heart, I felt I had found my place. In the end I spent more time 'curating' what to listen to in the studio when 'stuck.' This became the work itself—my listening as a conceptual practice.

But jazz, with a capital Ken Burns 'J,' or Wynton Marsalis headlining at Lincoln Center are quite a different continuum of this history than what I speak to, and a male one at that. The core radical ideas have mutated and shifted, just like the technology we use to listen to music. It's my aspiration to find new colleagues (like Paul Rucker) to create a dialogue with and bring a freshness to the first American art form in the context of the gallery/museum.

JCM: What is your approach and strategy in addressing the absence of an African American contribution to a Modernist aesthetic?

JCJ: It's a two–pronged approach in that I get to indulge in the practice of making formalist and minimalist work, while at the same time shedding light on the historic gaps in the conversation. My work creates a path for me to pay homage to some of the unrecognized influences on American Modernity. Maybe because jazz, and music in general, was all we had for so many years it became a cliché and a hands–off topic for African American artists. There are many types of artists who work with sound. I find that there are not many who work with music or music history directly—reconfiguring or reframing it.

JCM: MJQ are known for breaking boundaries within jazz by mixing it with Baroque music techniques and concepts of time, space, and rhythm. How does MJQ's unique way of 'claiming' sound influence Counterpoint?

JCJ: Initially this project was going to focus on Third Stream Music. Third stream is a term coined in 1957 by composer Gunther Schuller, within a lecture at Brandeis University, to describe a musical genre, which is a synthesis of classical music and jazz. Improvisation — a key element of jazz, but far less common in classical music — is generally seen as a vital component of Third Stream.

There is an album in which Gunther Schuller collaborates with John Lewis, among other jazz musicians, to delve into a dialogue about improvisation in tandem with highly composed forms of music. In the end, after much listening, I came to the conclusion that the Modern Jazz Quartet's album Blues on Bach was the only successful attempt at Third Stream music. Lewis in particular melded beautifully the classical fugue structures found in classical quartets with the chord structures found in blues. This is a fine example of truly hybrid music, and a phenomenal example of a true African and American synthesis.

I would hope that this exhibition, Counterpoint, could be received as a gift to John Lewis, and also Percy Heath, Kenny Clark, Milt Jackson, and Connie Kay, the founding members that made it cool to wear suits, to read and study music history in all its forms, and to grant me the opportunity to embrace formalism in my visual practice.

January 3, 2011

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  • Artist talk: Jennie C. Jones and Rita Gonzalez
    Jan 29, 2011 2:00pm – 4:00pm
    Large Conference Room
    FREE w/Gallery Admission

    Conversation with artist and Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Rita Gonzalez

  • Paul Rucker live music performance
    Feb 3, 2011 6:00pm – 8:00pm
    Upstairs Galleries
    FREE w/Gallery Admission
  • Rare jazz film screening
    Feb 5, 2011 2:00pm – 4:00pm
    Upstairs Galleries
    FREE w/Gallery Admission

    Rare jazz film screening including a 1960's concert of Modern Jazz Quartet in San Francisco

  • YBCA, CJM and MoAD Celebrate Black History Month
    Feb 24, 2011 12:00pm – 8:00pm

    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Contemporary Jewish Museum and Museum of the African Diaspora are all currently presenting exhibitions celebrating the rich musical heritage of African American artists. Thursday, February 24, in honor of Black History Month, we invite you to attend all three institutions for the price of one. Paid admission at any one of the three institutions will also allow you free access to the other two — all you have to do is show your ticket stub. Members of YBCA, CJM and MoAD will also have free admission to all three institutions that day by showing their membership card. Gallery hours that day at all three institutions will be from noon – 8 pm.

  • Jennie C. Jones: Counterpoint
    January 29, 2011 – March 26, 2011
    Upstairs Galleries
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Artist Bio

Jennie C. Jones was born in 1968 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. She creates audio, sculptures and drawings, concentrating on the abstract, minimal and formalist languages of modernist art forms merged with the conceptual ideologies and techniques of avant–garde jazz. Jones attended Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts where she received her MFA in 1996. Over the past decade, she has participated in numerous prestigious artists residency and fellowship programs, both nationally and international, including: Cité Internationale des Arts–Paris, France (2002–2003), The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Residency at the World Trade Center (1999) and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (1996).

YBCA's programs are made possible in part by:
The San Francisco Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts
Koret Foundation
Adobe Foundation Fund

YBCA Exhibitions 10–11 is made possible in part by:
Meridee Moore and Kevin King, CEC ArtsLink and Members of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Le Meridian
Free First Tuesdays
Underwritten by Directors Forum Members