Riffing On Miles Davis

Here we go, again. (Or, to paraphrase the late, great Jon Hendricks- “Here I Go, Here I Go, Here I Go, Again”)

The film,”Miles Ahead,” gives me cause for concern. No, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m not sure I’m going to see it. Why? Probably for the same reasons I didn’t go to see the Steve Jobs movie. While I’m all for artistic freedom and creative license, as time goes on it seems that “docudramas” that purport to be “about” someone real tend to paint incomplete pictures of their subject. They “riff” on them. Whether they are “good” movies, or not, whether they do any justice to the truth of their subject, or not, the public comes to base their opinions of their subjects on these films, which sometimes 1 have very little basis in fact, even worse, they may leave them feeling there’s no need for them to look past the film for themselves.

This is very sad.

I’m hoping the film, whatever it’s “about,” will inspire viewers to want to hear more of Miles’ music, ideally, all of it, and that will be the primary result of it.

Last time I checked, very few Artists or Musicians had been canonized as saints. They’re human. They had flaws. Some did very bad things. Allegedly committed crimes, even murder. Some did drugs, and weren’t exactly nice or easy people to know. Miles Davis has been accused of doing some bad things. Does creating great timeless Art or Music that effects millions of people make that Ok? That’s not for me to say.

I do know this-

Miles Davis was probably the most influential Artist in my life. While I never met him, his signature and mine actually did wind up on the same piece of paper once, a few inches apart, and I was fortunate enough to see him perform about 40 times. That’s as close as I got to him. But, his music, especially his albums? They’ve been closer- they’ve been a part of me since I learned how to work a record player.

When his album “Bitches Brew” came out, only the latest in a string of game changing albums he released every few years, it was so controversial, it led to the break up of the band I was in at the time. At that point I was playing electric bass in a friend’s blues band, and listening to jazz. After “Bitches Brew,” an unprecedented mix of jazz, rock, funk, avant garde, and what came to be called “world music,” and the first-shot-over-the-bow that something very new and different was going to be happening hence forth, a lot of us realized it was possible to play electric instruments and play jazz. So, I started looking around for a band to do that with, eventually found one, and went on the road with them for five years. They were all far more accomplished musicians than I was. Miles was a legend, even back then, to all of them, too. He has been as long as I can remember.

It’s hard to think about the impact that every single one of Miles’ albums had at the time it came out, going back to the “Birth of the Cool,” which is exactly what it was, in the late 1940’s . It must’ve been like Picasso creating a new work to the artists of his time. Miles had the ability to move mountains with every new album. Musicians would listen to them and think about them vis a vis what they were doing. Miles was always Miles beyond. In fact, all of his albums from the late 60’s bore the moniker “Directions in Music by Miles Davis.” That said it all. With “Bitches Brew,” people began to argue that it “wasn’t jazz.” If you had followed the thread of his music through the 1960’s, you could hear where he was going and you could also hear the same thing that always defined Miles, more than anything else- His sound.

No one could play a melody like Miles. And then, no one else had his sound.

He started the 1960’s fresh off what is widely considered the greatest jazz record ever made- “Kind of Blue” in 1959. His 1960 group, now referred to as his “First Great Quintet” included that other great master of post war jazz improvisation- the tenor saxophonist, John Coltrane. The two couldn’t be more different, and made perfect foils for each other. Miles was the inventor of space- what Artists call “negative shapes,” that is, what isn’t there- in music’s case, silence. Miles could say more with less than any Artist in Jazz history- even with one note. (Even when I heard him in a concert late in his career, racked will illness and apparently having trouble moving on stage, there would be that one moment, that one note that would sear the night and make your jaw drop. The silence that inevitably followed making it infinitely more poignant.) John Coltrane was on his way to developing what became his signature “sheets of sound” style, would solo after Miles and his voluminous brilliance would serve to frame Miles the way black velvet sets off a diamond. Of him, Miles famously once said, “I had 7 Tenor players once.” Coltrane left to form his own group, but somehow Miles managed to put together another great group- his, so-called “Second Great Quintet” with Wayne Shorter on Tenor, Herbie Hancock on Piano, Ron Carter on Bass and Drummer Tony Williams. As the sum of it’s parts, this band of Masters, was, for me, the pinnacle. To this day, I revere every note I have heard them play in the slightly over 2 years they were together as I do no other group I have heard. No group has taken the art form of the acoustic jazz quintet further.

Then, it changed, again. He went from the Second Great Quintet to an increasingly more electric sound. This was the mid-1960’s and rock and funk were influencing him. Herbie and Wayne remained for the first few albums, and then they, too, left and were replaced by people like Keyboardists Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett & Chick Corea, Guitarist John McLaughlin, Bassist Dave Holland, Drummer Jack DeJohnette, and many others, quite a number of whom went on to have had long and important careers.

Today, Miles’ influence is everywhere. His legacy lives on. While many of his side men, like Hancock, Shorter, Corea, Jarrett, Holland, Marcus Miller, Mike Stern, et al, are still among the biggest names in jazz, his legacy is being handed down to their side men, and on it goes. For me, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t hear a piece of his.

So? Why do I dread this movie?

Because unless you grew up with this, it’s really hard to capture on film. Jazz was (and still is) a very hard way to make a living- mostly in small clubs in an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, crime, trouble and little to no money for most. Yes, there was  scandal and a lot of controversy in Miles’s life. It’s very easy to make a drama out of it. I hope that’s not all it does. To do so, would be to miss the point.

From here, to eternity. My other 4 foot "Tutu" Poster. This one, the cover shot.

From here, to eternity. My other 4 foot “Tutu” Poster by Irving Penn. This one, the classic cover shot of “The Prince of Darkness.”

It would be to miss why Miles is an Artist for the ages.

While I don’t believe in comparing Artists qualitatively, I do think it can be illuminating to see similarities and differences between them. Miles is often called “the Picasso of Jazz,” and I can understand why- Their lives largely overlapped (Picasso- 1881-1973, Miles 1926-1991. Miles also painted.) They both refused to be pigeonholed, and changed styles as frequently as it suited them. They both continued to grow and evolve as Artists literally right up to the very end. When I think about Picasso and Miles Davis, I wonder if the total number of pieces Picasso created may be very similar to the total number of performances that Miles Davis gave, when you consider live and studio performances. Though Miles was infrequently in the studio during large portions of his career, he was active as a live performer. Whatever the total numbers might be, the two are similar in that they were both extraordinarily prolific.

Picasso was very aware of the history of art and what was going on in and around him, witness his long relationships with Matisse, Braque, among others, Miles immediately sought out, then played with Charlie “Bird” Parker, the greatest musician of his time, soon after arriving in NYC to study at Julliard, and, startling to many, the  young unknown, barely out of his teens, was asked by Bird to join his group. Interestingly, as time went on, Miles, in turn, nurtured the careers (to varying degrees) of the likes of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock among many others. He was also very aware of what people like Jimi Hendrix and later, Prince, were doing, and played with both.

Along with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and a few others, his performances of standards define them.

Along with this, the kid from East St Louis, Illinois wound up sonically defining New York City. It’s impossible for me to listen to “Kind of Blue,” which may be the greatest improvisation in music history, without seeing a tone poem of New York City in my mind each time. (A live performance shortly after it’s recording, with John Coltrane-)

No one else I have ever heard, in any kind of music, has come closer to it. A couple of years ago the Village Voice  ran a list of the greatest New York City songs. Nothing from “Kind of Blue,” which was recorded on 30th Street in Manhattan, made the list. Someone is out of their mind. “Kind of Blue” celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009. Get back to me on how some of the songs the Voice picked are doing in 50 years. The “cool” sound, style and attitude he created, and embodied, in the 1950’s became en vogue everywhere, nowhere more than right here.

Maybe one day I’ll see the film and feel my fears were for naught. Miles Davis made a unique and extremely valuable contribution to music, to American and World culture. Even though he didn’t die that long ago, this contribution is already in danger of beginning to be forgotten. This is not something to be taken lightly. His legacy is important- to me and countless others. I’m writing this to express how I feel about Miles (and “riff” about him the way the film may), and to say that I hope anyone interested in him hear as much of his music as you can2, get to know him that way, and make your own mind up about him. If you want to know what’s really important about Miles, do yourself a favor- Go to the source- start with his music. It’s a font that will be inspiring millions for as long as music is played.

Yes, Miles Davis was a complex man by all accounts. Like Steve Jobs, people will be trying to understand him and tell stories, even make films about him for many years to come. Both were, by all accounts, incredibly complex men. That alone makes it very hard to do them justice in a 2 hour film. Some love Miles, some loathe him, many found him scary, difficult or impossible to deal with. All I know is that Miles, the Artist, is one of the greatest Artists in music- that’s what’s important, and the rest is, now, details. If you go and see the film, keep this in mind and try and imagine the effect his music had at the time and how often it changed the musical world. That doesn’t happen often. How many Artists take those kinds of risks anymore? How many risk losing their audience? And how many do it over, and over, and over, and over, again? That’s a big part of his legacy that shouldn’t be forgotten, and one I hope will be emulated by those still being influenced by him, those who want to get to the heart of what’s really important, like this-

Next time you listen to Miles, listen for that one note that says more than words ever can- it’s there in every one of his performances, and then listen for the silence.

*Soundtrack for this post is “It Never Entered My Mind” as performed by Miles on “Cookin’ & Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet” (there are other versions), a long time personal favorite. It was written by Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart and published by Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. “Lady Sings The Blues” “about” Billie Holiday.
  2. Miles created a long legacy of recorded music, and changes styles of music more often than almost anyone else has. “Kind of Blue” seems to be where most people start. After that, I’d recommend “Sketches of Spain,””Milestones,””Sorcerer,” “E.S.P.,” Miles Plus 19,” “Porgy & Bess,””Cookin’ & Steamin’,””Tutu,””Big Fun,””Jack Johnson,””Seven Steps To Heaven,””In A Silent Way,” along with “Bitches Brew” as essential…for starters. He also wrote an Autobiography.

Rachel Harrison & The Question of Faith


“Your faith was strong but you needed proof”*

Perfectly timed for Easter is Rachel Harrison’s Moma show, “Perth Amboy,” a multi-media installation centered around a well-known series of photographs1, including “Untitled,” above, Ms. Harrison took in October, 2001 at a suburban house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey that had gotten wide attention when thousands of Christians began coming to see what they believed was the image of the Virgin Mary on a window on the house’s second floor. Her photos show some of those who were allowed in to touch the pane.

Could it REALLY be?

This is the question at the center of all religious faith.

“And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah


Maybe there’s a God above”*


*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen ( Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing), in the version by Jeff Buckley on his mystical, magical and transcendent album, “Grace,” which has been seen 68 MILLION times. Thank God.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. There are examples from the series in the collections of The Met, The Whitney as well as Moma.

The Five Foot Assassin, The Funky Diabetic…R.I.P., Phife Dawg

Damn! 2016 has been one sucky year. So far, we’ve lost-

Pierre Boulez

David Bowie

George Martin

…and now Malik Taylor, aka the one and only Phife Dawg, of a band I love like few others- A Tribe Called Quest, who passed, today, at the tragically young age of 45, due to complications from the diabetes he’s had since 1990. The 4 of these lost Artists equal a sizable part of my musical listening life. As for Phife, who immortalized himself in one line-

“When was the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”#

Answer- Never. He speaks best for himself.

“Yo, microphone check one two what is this
The five foot assassin with the ruffneck business
I float like gravity, never had a cavity
Got more rhymes than the Winans got family

No need to sweat Arsenio to gain some type of fame
No shame in my game cause I’ll always be the same
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have
You want to diss the Phifer but you still don’t know the half

I sport New Balance sneakers to avoid a narrow path
Messing round with this you catch the sizing of em?
I never half step cause I’m not a half stepper
Drink a lot of soda so they call me Dr. Pepper

Refuse to compete with BS competition
Your name ain’t Special Ed so won’t you Seckle With the Mission
I never walk the streets, think it’s all about me
Even though deep in my heart, it really could be

I just try my best to like go all out
Some might even say yo shorty black you’re buggin’ out”*

I saw A Tribe Called Quest 4 indelible times in the 90’s, including once on New Year’s Eve at the Palladium, as I mentioned earlier, and one time when I drove all the way to Asbury Park, NJ with a friend who had never heard of them, to see them in a bar/small club. We stood up on the top of the booths along the wall to try and see them, the place was so packed. Seeing them in such a small room (it was closer to a bar than a club, size-wise. A small bar.) was a completely different thing than seeing them in a show at the large halls they would play thereafter.

Tribe Source 9.1998P2NH

Can I Kick It? (L-R)Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip & Phife Dawg. On Point. All The Time. The Source, Sept, 1996. From my collection.

For most, Tribe defines what’s called “Old School” today. I hate labels, as I’ve said. For me, Tribe represented, and will always represent good music.Their music that has stood up for the test of 25 years, and counting, so far. Well, you can stop counting. It’s here to stay. They’ve never left my iPod/iPhone and are still among the most played when I look at my song count totals, even after all these years. Why? In spite of some dated references here and there (“Mr. Dinkins will you please be my Mayor?”Classic!), it’s GOOD MUSIC, and it’s as fresh as anything happening right now. Tribe was many things to many people, and still are (including a big influence to quite a few, like him.). I loved how Tribe melded jazz elements, (including the great Ron Carter on bass on “Verses From The Abstract”) into the mix, and so were a big part of the continuum of the music that goes back to the bebop era jazz Q-Tip raps about his dad listening to.

“My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles”+

Thay had the jazz, to paraphrase a title.

"We bounce off each other like Yin & Yang, nice and smooth, you know?" Phife said last year. Great groups have a chemistry I've never been able to define. From some unknown magazine, circa 2000, after "the Love Movement" came out. From my collection.

“We bounce off each other like Yin & Yang, nice and smooth, you know?” Phife said last year. Great groups have a chemistry I’ve never been able to define. From some unknown magazine, circa 2000, after “the Love Movement” came out. From my collection.

In “The Source” article, above, Phife says, he doesn’t think they’ll ever break up(p. 110), but, sadly, that didn’t come to pass, and they did after “The Love Movement,” in 1998. A must see documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” came out in 2011 and ever since I lived in hope they’d reunite to record and tour, especially since Q-Tip has continued to grow as an Artist with his terrific solo albums, along with Phife’s own excellent solo album, “Ventilation, Da LP,” in 2000. There was so much individual growth, the next Tribe album HAD to be another classic and put them right back on top. Alas, the only time I got to see or hear of them since was what turned out to be their final performance, on “The Tonite Show” last November.

And now, like The Beatles and The Smiths, that dream is over.

“You on point Phife?
All the time, Tip”@

What I love most about Phife is that he had the gift of bringing you into his life and let you walk around in it. His style sounded so fresh it was impossible to tell if he had written it or if he was freestyling as you listened to him. While Chuck D saw the big picture, and Tip brought that timeless “Miles Davis-NYC Cool” to Hip Hop, Phife was holding it down in ways the rest of us could relate to.

“When this kid tried to tell me I didn’t deserve my occupation
He said I wasn’t shit that I was soon to fall
I looked him up and down, grab my crotch and said balls
Of course he tried to bring it on the battling tip
Ay, you know me, you know I had to come out my shit
Trying to lounge at the mall, meet Skef and Mr Walton
Finally I banged his ass wit the verbal assault
He said a rhyme about his .45 and his nickelbags of weed
That’s when I preceeded to give him what he needed
Talking ’bout I need a Phillie right before I get loose
Poor excuse, money please, I get loose off of orange juice
Preferly Minute Maid cuz that’s exactly what it takes
To write a rhyme, huh, to school your nickels and your dimes
Because an MC like me be on TV
Don’t mean I can’t hold my shit down in NYC”%

Peace out, Phife.

Soundtracks for this Post are- *- “Buggin’ Out”  +- “Excursions,” #-“Oh My God,” @- “Check The Rhime” and %-“Phony Rappers” by Ali Shaheed Jones-Muhammad, Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, & Malik Izaak Taylor, immortalized on record by A Tribe Called Quest.

Phife, on point, from 1;49-

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

Richard Estes’ Dayhawks At The “Corner Cafe”

Appearing at the very end of the excellent “Richard Estes: Painting New York City” show at the Museum of Art & Design (aka MAD Museum), which I mentioned in my Post about 2015 Art Shows, the first-ever Estes show in an NYC  Museum, was a work depicting one of those all too common places to be found all over New York, and indeed much of the world, making it easy to overlook, or to look through, or to see-but-not-really-see. Mr. Estes titled it “Corner Cafe.” It’s dated “2014-15.” Given that the Artist was born on May 14, 1932, that means that he was 82 or 83 years old depending on when he actually finished it. Situated as the show’s conclusion, “Corner Cafe” could be a make or break work for the entire show.

How VERY Daring.

Richard Estes, "Corner Cafe," 2014-15. Oil on Canvas. I only hope I can still get out of bed when I'm 83.

Richard Estes, “Corner Cafe,” 2014-15. Oil on Canvas. I only hope I can still get out of bed when I’m 83.

To end a show that covers over 40 years of work with a piece created at 83 is certainly making a statement. Especially a show that is, among other things, a showcase of his amazing craft & technique and how it has evolved over time. In fact, his craft is such that this was the first ever solo show by a painter at the Museum of Art & Design, who specialize in “craft.” A very close look reveals he has signed and dated it right under the very small Statue of Liberty near the lower right corner. An appropriate conclusion for a show entitled “Painting New York City.”

To my eyes, it’s every bit as good as anything he’s ever done- In this show or not. Technically, it’s flawless. Mr. Estes remains at the peak of his considerable powers in his 80’s. Remarkable! Compositionally it’s subtly fascinating,

In spite of the fact that the show was a first chance for me to see paintings by Mr. Estes that I’ve loved for 30 years and never seen in person before, since I first saw “Corner Cafe” at the show’s opening in March, 2015, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.



Here’s what the “Real” Corner Cafe looked like in December, 2015. Mr. Estes hasn’t eaten here1, so why did he choose to paint it?

I’ve actually made a number of trips to the corner of West 94th Street and Broadway to ponder the “real” Cafe in situ, both to experience it for myself (I did not go in), to see if it screams out “PAINT ME!” and to see what, exactly Mr. Estes has altered, even though no less than 3 of his reference photographs hung very close by in the show, and are reproduced further below. These photos should serve once and for all to clear up many of the myths and fallacies about Mr. Estes work. Like-

He DOES NOT project photographs onto his canvas and then draw or paint them.2

He DOES NOT paint his reference photographs verbatim.

He DOES NOT, apparently, even rely on a single photograph when he feels it doesn’t contain all he wants.

One of 3 Estes Reference Photos in the MAD show shows 2 people at the counter, who you can barely see, and no woman in red on the left.

One of 3 Estes Reference Photos in the MAD show shows 2 people at the counter, who you can barely see, and no woman in red on the left.

This brings up my biggest pet peeve about the perception of Richard Estes work. That he is ENDLESSLY called a “Photorealist” or “Hyperrealist.” “Photorealism” is a term popularized by art dealer Louis Meisel as a means of selling the work of a group of his artists, and then perpetuated in a series of now 4 books, each including Estes work. I’ve never heard what Mr. Estes, himself, feels about this term. As I’ve said, I believe that labelling artists by a one word term that is supposed to enable viewers or readers to pigeonhole them and their work for easy consumption is something that must end. Artists are unique beings. If their work looks like that of someone else (like Picasso’s Cubism did Braque’s Cubism), it’s by their choice, but it’s not necessarily indicative of the sum of their Artistic being. In Picasso’s case he went on to another style as soon as his last one was “named.” In the end? He is simply, “Picasso.” Artists, like Chuck Close, also included by Mr. Meisel, have made no secret of not wanting to be considered a “Photorealist,”3 and for the most part, haven’t been since. This wanting to put Artists in a box is something that only serves to provide a “crutch” that may serve to make viewers feel they already “know” what a given Artist does and so they don’t need to actually look at their work for themselves. I feel it’s better to forget what anyone (besides the Artist) calls it, and just look at the work.

As I began to do that with “Corner Cafe,” I was quickly faced with two overriding questions-

Why This Scene?

What is this “about?”

While the endless details Mr. Estes has so incredibly faithfully recorded are delicious to enjoy on their own- the reflections in the metal framing, the sample meals in the window, the latticework of the furniture, the surrounding buildings, the inside of the cafe and on and on. As wonderful as it is to enjoy these details (as it is in almost any of his work), as time has gone on, I’ve found myself considering it as a whole. Visiting the actual site a few times, something most viewers may not be able to do, one thing strikes me- Mr. Estes has chosen to leave out what is, perhaps, the most noticeable thing about the real Corner Cafe- it’s sign. Why? Many (most?) other Artists painting this site would no doubt include it. But, whatever his reason is, it puts the focus of his painting elsewhere. I think he did it because he didn’t want viewers to be distracted by it.

Over and over again, in thinking about the feeling I get from “Corner Cafe,” I was inescapably drawn back to something very familiar. And familiar to anyone reading this Blog. Look up above.

That’s right. I’m reminded of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Well, the “real” one.

There are two people visible through the large front window (and parts of others inside on the left), and a woman in a red jacket disappearing stage left around the corner onto 94th Street. There’s a woman who appears to be a customer. A counter man, an employee of the cafe and between them sits a white bag, it’s handles pointing up. Interestingly, these two appear quite a bit brighter than in the reference photo, especially the female customer, who has gone from being completely in the shadows to being completely sunlit. They’re not looking at each other, though their mouths may both be open. Perhaps they’re speaking to each other. The woman is looking slightly to her right, whereas in the photo she looks almost straight ahead. The woman in red appears in a different reference photo than the one with two people inside.

So much for Richard Estes “Photorealist.” Making even that one change (which, as I’ve said, isn’t the only one he’s made), changes the whole thing. For me, it brings it all into focus.

Mr. Estes is an Artist. He is NOT a machine, or reproducer, or copyist. He makes conscious decisions about what he includes in his work. No camera or machine can do that.

Mr. Estes has said that he consciously chose to omit people early on in his career to avoid the narrative element that comes with them. That is, no doubt, why most of his work feature people who are,  at best, “incidental.” Sometimes, however, my attention has been drawn to these “bystanders,” and I find it hard to believe that that is not intentional. (The black customer in line in “Lunch Specials” who gives us a look over his shoulder, for example, as if seeing what is going on when most others (ourselves?) do not. And, there are the guys on the payphone outside. A metaphor for talking to people who are not there, while those who are there stand in line not talking to each other? He’s right. It’s hard not to read into them when people are present.)

3 of Estes' rarely seen Reference Photos at MAD. The bottom one is reproduced above.

3 of Estes’ rarely seen Reference Photos at MAD. The bottom one is reproduced above.

What we’re seeing here is one of the countless, brief encounters we all have every day, encounters that are the hallmark of the modern world. A world that is clad is shiny surfaces, with neon signs and images and examples of what is to be found inside. (Things that have changed since the 1941 world of “Nighthawks,” which is almost distraction free, somewhere, possibly imaginary, possibly real, in the Flatiron or the West Village neighborhoods.) Tables and chairs fill the right foreground, in case you want to bring what’s inside out, but no one has. Yes, it’s winter, given the snow seen on the left, but it’s a sunny day.

Like the woman in red disappearing4, these two will, most likely, probably end their encounter very soon, and move on with the rest of their days.

Am I making too much out of these changes? Maybe, maybe not. I’m responding to what I see. To quote Frank Stella in his recent Whitney Museum Retrospective, “What you see is what you see.” These are conscious choices the Artist made for a reason. That reason is, of course, to match his vision. Perhaps his idea starts with the two people inside, perhaps they are ancillary, and he chose to give them more light as part of the overall whole composition. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I’m not saying that Mr. Estes was thinking of  “Nighthawks” when he painted “Corner Cafe.” I’m saying that I was reminded of it as I’ve looked at it. There is the same isolation. The same counter person-customer interaction. The same other random person included. And both feature cafes that are located on a corner.

Interestingly, one detail Mr. Estes has omitted might seem to reinforce that “Nighthawks” connection- on top of the awning is a sort of logo that has the words “corner” and “cafe” at right angles to each other (which does appear, smaller, on the divider in front between the Brooklyn Bidge and NYC Skyline. My guess is the one over the awning was too large to not be “read,” or it would appear as a meaningless distorted mess given the angle of the scene), not all that much different from the somewhat sharper angles of “Nighthawks” cafe. Unlike the Hopper, the door is obvious and central. Are we being invited inside? It’s hard to say. There’s a tall, evergreen like plant (since replaced) “guarding” the front door, with an ATM machine looming right inside. It almost looks like the way into a different business. But, we known better. The overhead awning tells us it’s all the same place.

Inside, given too much choice, perhaps the customer is having trouble deciding on something else. Her eyes (which in the reference photo that she appears in- the only one of the 3- I almost thought she was wearing sunglasses), appear to be looking down at the items on the counter.

Mr. Estes has omitted the large “Corner Cafe” sign, with it’s preceding coffee cup, above the awning, which serves to focus our attention on the windows. We can barely see the bottom of the cup over the “2518” sign. Puzzlingly, he has added what appears to be a drop shadow for this sign above the rest of the awning, but it is not there in real life.


Scrunched into the phone booth, below, to take it all in on August 21, 2015. With the umbrellas open, it's not nearly as interesting.

Scrunched into the phone booth, below, to take it all in on August 21, 2015. With the umbrellas open, it’s not nearly as interesting.

Almost everything else is! The level of detail makes my head spin. You can get easily lost in it. When people talk about “pure painting,” THIS is what I think they mean. Yet, every single detail has meaning and purpose here. They are all the means to an end.

The chairs are different now. They have square backs and don’t have that marvelous lattice work he masterfully shows. The signs in front of them are different, too. Gone are the NYC sights, two of which, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline, happen to be subjects of large, earlier Estes.

It just screams "Paint Me," right? It took a bit of work to find a place to stand to even shoot it, August 21, 2015.

It just screams “Paint Me,” right? It took a bit of work to find a place to stand to even shoot it, August 21, 2015.

Also interesting, the apparent spot where Mr. Estes likely stood to capture this view of the cafe is a bit hard to get to. Now, there are 3 large circular recycling cans on the spot. I had to stand on the curb to shoot it. There is also a somewhat large telephone booth (remember them?) immediately to the right. So, even getting the photos he wanted may not have been exactly easy. There is no “famous” building here, though there are some of the metal reflections Mr. Estes is renown for depicting along with glass that allows us to see in while also reflecting what lies outside. The outdoor seating is closer to the front wall and neatly squared thanks to an additional divider on the left, and he’s cropped the lower part of the image to the very base of the outdoor divider.

The sun is high enough in the sky to the south to pass through all the intervening buildings along Broadway. There is only the woman exiting to be seen, along with the two large evergreen plants as outdoor signs of life.

Perhaps that is the point.

Unless you are “stuck” there, like the employee or the two potted plants, everyone is destined to come and go, like those who presumably once sat outdoors have already done, the woman in red is doing, and the female customer appears about to do.

Life, itself, is an endless series of comings and goings, too, with encounters of varying lengths in between.

Until it ends.

“Stop the rush and relax,” reads the sign below.

(This is the first in a series of posts I plan to do on the Art of Richard Estes.)

Soundtrack for this post is “Hello/Goodbye” by The Beatles and written by Lennon & McCartney, from their album “Magical Mystery Tour.”

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. As was stated on the description card for the painting.
  2. As I heard him say in the interview he gave at the MAD opening.
  3. Chuck Close-“The reason I never liked the word “realist” or “new realist” or “photorealist” was I was always as interested in the artificial as I was the real.  I’m as interested in the distribution of color on a flat surface as I am in the image it ends up making.  So it’s that tension as it works back and forth between marks on a flat surface and the image that it’s making that has always interested me.”
  4. She may be there to distract the eye with her blonde hair and red coat, or to emphasize the “corner” element of the title, or as a means of visually breaking up the reflection to her right with the street scene to the left

Live, From the New Met Breuer!

It doesn’t officially open till March 18 but being The Met (TM) “regular” that I am, of course they let me in 10 days early. I wish. Actually, they’re letting Members in early, starting today March 8. I still feel special.

I can report the layout is unchanged, so muscle memory from visiting this place when it was the Whitney Museum still works just fine. Ah, the Breuer Whitney Museum. I was involved in the debate surrounding it’s proposed expansion/modification way back in 1987, but I’m saving that tale for my upcoming post about the “New” Whitney Museum, almost a year in the making. Stay tuned. In the meantime…

Think about this for a minute.

This place was the entire Whitney Museum until a year and a half ago 1.

The Met already runs the biggest Museum in the country at 1000 Fifth Avenue, AND The Cloisters way uptown. Now that the Whitney has moved downtown, TM has taken over the building, which is now known as The Met Breuer (TMB).

By itself, TMB is as big as the Dallas Museum. To be operating 1000 5th Ave, the Cloisters and now to open a new, additional location of that size, a few blocks from 1000 5th, I find to be a “WOW!” moment.

They seemed to get it up and open pretty quickly (judging from how it looked when I passed by in December).

December 18, 2015

December 18, 2015


December 18, 2015. I was told the “Circle” Motif is a take off on the lobby’s ceiling lights. See next.


March 8, 2016. Member’s Preview Opening Day

So? What’s new? What’s old? What’s borrowed? What’s blue?

Actually, nuptial euphemisms are not out of place here, since The Met & The Breuer building are “married” for at least the next 8 years, with an option to extend, which is longer than most marriages last between people, while TM’s contemporary galleries are undergoing complete renovations that will take a few years. I fully expect they will turn out to be as exemplary as the American & Roman Wings have. Though the layout of TMB made it instantly “familiar,” my first visit was not without some major surprises.


Members Only. It won’t look like this for long. Only 1 street vendor apparently got the word.

Apparently, I didn’t get the word, either. Since the contemporary galleries are those closing I was expecting ALL of TMB to be contemporary Art. Nope. 2 Floors are devoted to a superb show, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” featuring such well known “contemporary” artists as Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Eyck, Durer and Titian.


Apparently, TMB will be a “satellite” featuring Special Exhibitions AND contemporary Art. Hmmm… To say I’m surprised by this and why they’d do it is an understatement. Well? “Unfinished” is a VERY large show that handsomly fills Floors 3 & 4. Perhaps they see the Shows as the draw for getting a large number of people into the building, while they “also” display contemporary Art? There is a show, which I haven’t seen yet, by contemporary Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), but no display of works from the permanent collection of contemporary Art, at least to begin with. A cafe & bookstore will be on the top floor, which wasn’t open today. So? Three full floors can be devoted to shows, the small lobby gallery featured a live performance by Vijay Iyer and his trio today, which was well attended and sounded good throughout the adjacent lobby.


“Wake Up over there on the right!” It’s MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, Vijay Iyer, left on piano, performing with his Trio in the first floor Gallery.

Regardless, “Unfinished” turns out to be a surprise blockbuster, a wonderful chance to look over the shoulder of some of the greatest Artists in history, both Old & Modern Masters, as they create. Create, not created because for some reason, even death, they never “finished” the works in this show. The reasons vary. TM defines “Unfinished” as it applies to this show as- “This exhibition addresses a subject critical to artistic practice: the question of when a work of art is finished. Beginning with the Renaissance masters, this scholarly and innovative exhibition examines the term “unfinished” in its broadest possible sense, including works left incomplete by their makers, which often give insight into the process of their creation, but also those that partake of a non finito—intentionally unfinished—aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended.” However, what is here in nothing short of a chance to experience what it was like to visit the studios of these Artists. Processes and choices are laid bare as an astounding roster of names go by in the course of 197 works. Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Turner, Jackson Pollock, Robert Smithson, Rauschenberg, Basquiat, Rodin (yes, there are some sculptures, too), David, Kerry James Marshall, Alice Neel, and of course, the “King of the Unfinished Work”- Leonardo da Vinci.


Parts of just 4 galleries reveal wonders by Picasso, Juan Gris, Manet and others


Van Eyck, one of my personal favorites, shows he can boggle the mind with his unfamiliar (under)drawing as much as his more well known paintings.

My initial reaction is that TMB is great for Art lovers. Another major location to see world class Art in the City, with TM’s unequalled expertise, resources and 2 million or so collected works behind it, “Unfinished” is a must see show, especially for Artists. it’s chock full loans from major Museums (60% of the show), which is rare these days.


“Portrait of the Hound,” was left unfinished on Lucian Freud’s easel at his death. Crowds will flock to see Munch’s “The Scream” a few blocks away. I’ll be back to see this as often as possible. PS- There’s a spectacular Munch here, too!

How it will turn out for TM, financially2, though it also remains to be seen what, if anything, will be done with the contemporary Art collection in the interim.

One day in, that’s the big question for me- What TM’s full plans are for contemporary Art at TMB. I’m looking forward to seeing how they unfold. My gut tells me it’s going to surprise a lot of critics and give TM new cred in a realm it’s been denigrated in for years. Oh? But that new Met logo isn’t wearing well on me.

For now, it’s terrific to have Art back at the Breuer, and, “Unfinished” is an unmitigated why-hasn’t-anyone-thought-of-this-before joy- for lovers of painting, and Art. I’m pleased to be among the first to “Kiss the Bride.”

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “The Art of Fugue” by J.S. Bach, left unfinished at the Master’s death, as recorded by Glenn Gould. You can see Gould perform the final part of  it here, and the entire hour and a half long piece, here.)

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. The Whitney Breuer closed on October 19, 2014.
  2. It costs $17M a year to run per the NYT article linked above.}, is going to be something to watch. I’m hearing that by the 2 year mark it will be apparent where this is going long term, so we shall see. Yes, we’ve “lost” a little temporarily with the closing of TM’s contemporary galleries, but unlike when the American & Roman wings were closed for renovation, TM has more than made up for it with TMB[3. While TM didn’t open alternate spaces, beyond showing some works from the American Wing downstairs in the Lehman Galleries.

R.I.P. Sir George Martin

Perhaps more than anyone else I can think of George Martin is responsible for the role of Record Producer coming into it’s own and being acknowledged as a creative entity in his or her own right. He certainly influenced me. My musical life evolved from being a Bassist (where I had control over only one part, and needed other musicians to make actual music) to Producing, where I had control over EVERYTHING! After that, there was no going back. My own “solo” album being a 60 minute sonic exploration of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1992), in homage to the song that first made me interested in The Beatles.


1992 The First Test Copy of my album. In ’92 it cost me $150.!

It features two late, great Artists- Thomas Chapin & Mark Ledford, along with Lonnie Plaxico, Vinnie Bell, Steve Johns, and others, in an arrangement by Bob Donzella and vocals by Joe Izen. What did I do? I Produced it, mixed it and edited it. So, when I say George Martin is responsible for the role of the Producer coming into it’s own? I put my money where my mouth is. If you missed it, it may be reissued soon. I’m working on it.

Of course, Mr. Martin can be heard all over the timeless Beatles original which sounds every bit as revolutionary today as it did in 1967, and probably will in 2367!

“Produced By George Martin.” Those words create a sonic image in the mind that very few other Producers (I’d include Alfred Lion & Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records) evoke. Beyond his revolutionary and visionary work with The Beatles, which is what he will, rightfully, long be remembered for, Mr. Martin was highly sought after for the rest of his life. His Production Discography lists many other great records over his long and illustrious career, including a number of Paul McCartney’s solo albums. Thinking back on it, I recall two albums that really hit a number of musicians I was involved with at the time, and myself, of course-

“Apocalypse” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra


Still a unique and great record. My Lp is long gone and my CD is worn.


Flanked by one of the greatest guitarists in history and one of the world’s great conductors, George Martin gets the seat in the center of the Apocalypse Session Photo. THAT’S respect.

“Wired” by Jeff Beck.



Both albums were seminal for bringing new elements to music in the wake of Miles Davis’ bringing elements of rock to jazz with Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and other albums in the late 1960’s. In 1974, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of the top 3 electric jazz bands in the world. McLaughlin decided to turn the second incarnation of Mahavishnu into something of an actual Orchestra adding 4 string players to the electric rhythm section. Their highly anticipated first album, “Apocalypse,” melded classical elements with jazz being supplemented by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by no less than Michael Tilson-Thomas, while “Wired” brought a futuristic guitar sound to both rock and jazz, adding original Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboard virtuoso Jan Hammer and Mahavishnu Orchestra Version 2’s drummer, Narada Michael Walden to the legendary Beck. Both albums were (largely) instrumental and led by guitarists (John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu and Jeff Beck) and, unlike The Beatles, were records of music that was performed live. (Mr. Martin also produced Beck’s earlier album, “Blow By Blow.”) These albums contributed to the opening up of the sonic possibilities for other genres of music the way Mr. Martin’s work with The Beatles had helped open the sound of Rock.

While I’m very sad to hear of the passing of Mr. Martin yesterday, his legacy, (which continues with the work of his son, Giles) will last as long as music is heard.

Soundtrack for this Post is “Strawberry Fields Forever,” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney, “Produced by George Martin,” as the famous line reads. The song that made me a fan.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

Watching The Watchers With Laura Poitras

Laura Poitras is, perhaps, best known for her Documentary “CitizenFour,” a behind-the-scenes chronicle of Edward Snowden’s unprecedented classified documents release and it’s after effects. It’s the culminating work of her “9/11 Trilogy”. For Ms Poitras, and many others, Film is an Art Form1. I would agree that as a means of creativity and expression, Film as an art form is undeniable. In the bigger picture, Film, being 100-odd years old (depending on when you say it began), is still a relatively young Art Form to be considered “High Art.”

Does it belong in Museums yet, or is that premature?

Face to face with unspeakable horror.

Face to face with unspeakable horror. A screenshot of Poitras’ video “O Say Can You See” in her new show, “Astro Noise,” at the Whitney Museum.

While Film’s place in the front ranks of our popular culture seems assured to us now, it’s unknown what future generations will think, as is if it will speak to them. Of course, they could also reject Painting, Sculpture or whatever Artform that we accept now, but given a few thousand years of history to the contrary it at least feels there’s a better chance those will endure. Then, exactly what Film’s lasting works are, if any, also remains to be seen. If history tells us anything about Art it’s that what appears to be “Great” to the people of any given time often gets resigned to the dust bin by those that follow. No doubt that will happen to most of what’s been created in our lifetimes, but some of it may remain that speaks to those who come after us, even much after us. Consider that documentaries (one of my personal favorite genres of Film) are an even newer form, one that is continually evolving in both form and possibilities, and it may be somewhat surprising that Laura Poitras, one of the most respected Filmmakers and Documentarians working today, now her first solo Museum show, “Astro Noise,“at The Whitney.

Obviously, The Whitney Museum, like many other Museums & galleries around the world isn’t waiting for the future to judge what is or is not Art. In this case, I applaud their choice, and given the controversial nature of much of the show’s content, their guts. That, actually, shouldn’t be surprising. As Whitney Museum Director, Adam D. Weinberg says in the Foreword to the fascinating book of the same name accompanying the show, (which features a striking contribution from no less than Ai Weiwei), “(Whitney Museum founder) Mrs. Whitney’s early commitment to radical realist artists and her profund belief in the democracy of American art positioned her as a champion of free expression and the Whitney as a site for potential controversy2.”

“Is this “art?” I’d say Yes- As much in the presentation as in the work3. I’m not big on most of what I’ve seen done in video in galleries or Museums (William Kentridge being one exception off the top of my head). The pieces on view are beautifully conceived (individually and as a group), charged with meaning (for her, you and me, yet globally as well) and presented in a very artful way that regardless of what side of any political fence you may be on will give you pause to think. They force you to see the world around you, very far from you, and indeed, even hidden from you while showing how the world has changed since that fateful day almost exactly 14 and a half years ago. In “Astro Noise” it’s all plainly on view.

Poitras “Disposition Matrix,” 2016. “Don’t attempt to control the horizontal…the vertical…”

The first room features a double sided video screen, a fact not obvious until you walk to the other side of it, both sides showing her 2 channel video “O Say Can You See,” 2001/16, pictured above. At first you’re faced (literally) with watching people’s expressions as they view Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. For most Americans, these are the first days of a new world, and these people are both witness to what is before their eyes and the implications of it their mind’s eye also sees. In spite of the fact that 9/11 was one of the most photographed & filmed tragedies in history, this is something not many who aren’t named Laura Poitras took the time to look at. It’s the “right in front of us” element of this show. As someone who lived here that day, it’s something “familiar” yet seen in a new way, which is always something I value in Art, (and reminds me of the Man Ray quote I Posted recently.) As we may not know from her documentaries, which deal largely with “others,” this powerfully shows that Laura Poitras is also gifted at documenting what’s in front of us and largely missed.

From here, all becomes “movie theater dark” as we encounter the unseen and the hidden.

Walk around to the other side of the video screen and the ramifications begin to become all too real. We watch two prisoners being interrogated in Afghanistan shortly after. Two types of reaction to 9/11. From there, the show’s dark & winding trail continues with video of drones in various night skies around the world intermingling with the peace, beauty and serenity of the stars, which you watch lying flat on your back. Then there are banks of “peep show” like slots containing documents and videos from various government surveillance agencies around the world (See “Disposition Matix,” above and “Anarchist,” below), including ours, which, unlike in the first rooms, can really only be seen by one person at a time, making it personal. Finally “Astro Noise” leaves us with a graphic proof that we are all now being watched- even while we’re looking at this show.

While I was pondering the “Art” of this, I realized that her trials and travails that are a part of the genesis of this show, and of her work, reveal something I admire about Laura Poitras very much-

Her integrity is not for sale.

As such, she strikes me as something of a “throwback.” She’s a throwback to Artists, Musicians & Writers of yore- men and women who created because they had to. It’s as if their very lives depended on it, their raison de’tre.  If the public responded to their work and paid for it, the better to create more of it, but regardless, they were on a mission. They lived, breathed and died their art.

Laura Poitras is using art to show us “ourselves”- our collective selves. Me, you, the people in power- elected or not, and enabling us to “see” them and decide for ourselves how we feel about it all. That’s pretty much all any Artist can do. Say what you want about Ms. Poitras politically charged show, she’s on a mission.

“World peace is none of your business

You must not tamper with arrangements

Work hard and sweetly pay your taxes

Never asking what for”*


Poitras “Anarchist,” 2016. Somebody in the U.K.’s tax money hard at work. “What for?”

“Astro Noise” creates the undeniable feeling that somehow along the way Post 9/11, in addition to all the horror that’s gone on here and around the world be it by terrorists or by trying to stop them, as the “cost” of it all continues to become apparent, as the unseen becomes visible, we’re seeing we’ve all lost even more than we realized or consented to. We’ve lost our right to privacy.

While Edward Snowden “tipped” Ms. Poitras to the NSA’s role in that sending her a file titled “Astro Noise,” this week, I saw a headline that read “You’re On File In China.” Yes, that’s another part of the story, though every bit as concerning.


A surveillance camera surveils a sign warning it’s presence. How quaint. There’s too many cameras to hang signs anymore.

Closer to home, it’s enough to make me how much of our freedom we’ve lost, too ?

“World peace is none of your business

So would you kindly keep your nose out”*

Consider this- In a country where the law says a suspect is “innocent until proven guilty,” all of a sudden, we’ve ALL being treated like suspects.


*-Soundtrack for this Post is “World Peace Is None Of Your Business”s by Morrissey & Boz Boorer from his 2014 album of the same name. Published by Warner Chappell Music and Universal Music Publishing Group.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. I think of filmmaking as art...”
  2. “Astro Noise” by Laura Poitras, Published by the Whitney Museum, P.20
  3. Whether this will be “Art” and continue to speak to people generations from now or not is anyone’s guess.