Artists preserve New Orleans’ jazzy flavor

By Chase Myers, @chasemyers_DE

Madonna and Herbie Hancock may sound like a random musical pairing, but in Madonna’s 1994 jam “Sanctuary,” she actually sampled Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man.”

Ever since the roaring 1920s, artists at each end of the creative spectrum have attempted to capture the essence of jazz’s roots from cities like St. Louis, and more traditionally, the “Big Easy.”

Robert Ketchens and William Burton Jr., two visual artists from St. Louis, will discuss their artistic journeys with jazz and present six fine art pieces from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Lesar Law Building. 

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A New Orleans native, Ketchens’ art career began in 1970 when he volunteered for the U.S. Air Force as a medical illustrator and eventually fell in love with fine art while in Germany, he said.

Ketchens said general creativity is the main focus of the discussion, something New Orleans has plenty of.

“Once you are in the city … you can feel the sense of something special in the air,” he said.  “For me, that is the sense of creativity that hangs in the air like a ripe pear waiting to be plucked by the individual passing by the tree.”

Ketchens met Burton Jr. 10 years ago at a group art exhibit sponsored by the Urban League of St. Louis.  Their booths were near each other and they were both impressed by each other’s work.

About five years ago, Ketchens was chosen to teach for St. Louis Artworks, an agency teaching art to teenagers, and chose Burton as his assistant.

Burton Jr. began drawing at a young age, but his career arose many years later from an epiphany he had as an inmate in an Oklahoma prison, he said.

A guard noticed his work and told him to put his talent to good use and make an honest living.

He said two weeks after he was released, his mother died, which motivated him even more to pursue a career in art.

“I remember telling her on her deathbed that I am going to get my act together and I am going to be an artist like I said I would when I was little,” he said. 

This is the second year they have visited Carbondale; the first was for a discussion on blues music.

“We’re approaching it, not as another research project on jazz, but the perspective of visual artists … from the pure standpoint of what it takes to be creative in an environment in which an artist finds themself,” Ketchens said.

Both artists said jazz should be recognized as a parent of modern day art and be respected as such.

The two have been working on a two-year series of art pieces, half of which focuses on blues and the other half on jazz, mapping their transition.

“From blues we went to jazz, but we knew there was a gradual evolution of it so we wanted to be true to not only the art, but to the music and culture,” Burton Jr. said.

The birthplace of jazz music is widely recognized as New Orleans, a place where voodoo rituals were openly accepted and everyone, regardless of race, could own a drum. 

As technology allows popular music to be produced frequently and conveniently, the intricacy of traditional jazz music tends to be unappreciated.

“Rhythmically, I think everything we see nowadays is an outgrowth of what we had from New Orleans,” Richard Kelley, director of jazz studies said. 

New Orleans jazz was a collective effort among musicians in the form of ensembles, whereas in cities like New York, music was more solo oriented, he said.

“The collective group aspect of New Orleans music at the time was really the calling card,” he said.

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