All That Jazz on the Wall

I inherited the painting from my mother thirty-two years ago. It was one of many by an accomplished artist named James Carlin. But this one differed from the rest. I’ll get to that in a minute.

My mother and James ‘Jimmy’ Carlin struck up a friendship in the 1950s. She was the first female stockbroker in New Jersey. She worked in Newark, which was a vibrant financial hub back then. Every day she ate lunch at her favorite local place, Hyler’s—a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall with great food, a friendly but near-deaf waitress, and plenty to drink. Sometimes as a kid, I’d meet her there and order my go-to, a turkey club that is still the best I ever had—I’m sure even tastier with time.

But most days my mother ate alone at Hyler’s. Yet, on those days, three men often ate together at a nearby table. Three artist friends. Henry Gasser was the most well-known. His paintings, oil-on-canvas, are still on display in several museums. They are mostly colorful street scenes of Madrid, Paris, and Mexico as far as I remember; Dick Crocker was more of an amateur who preferred pastel watercolors; and Jimmy Carlin, a raucous Irishman who both plied his craft in every medium and taught art in Newark.

The Quartet

It wasn’t long before my outgoing mom befriended the three. They couldn’t have been more different, but there they were, the four of them, now a regular quartet at lunchtime. My mother became close friends with all three, yet closest to Carlin. They shared a love for stories, laughing, and plenty of drink. The drinking included a few at lunchtime, which was not uncommon in those days. Hers—always Dewers on the rocks.

Between gifts and purchases, paintings by the three artists began to appear on the walls of the two-bedroom apartment my mother and I shared. Within a couple of years, there was hardly space for more. There might have been fifty in all, mostly Carlins, but some Gassers, and Crockers too.

I loved those paintings, particularly Jimmy Carlin’s. He traveled the world and must have painted thousands of scenes over a lifetime of Paris, London, Mexico. And from beaches and boardwalks to amusement parks to bike races and many, many of his daughters who were dancers. There were charcoal and pencil sketches, watercolors, stained glass, and massive oil paintings. At ten years old, I could travel the world in those images. Jimmy even did a charcoal sketch of my mother with a troubled smile, a crooked black hat, and a rainbow-colored scarf that hangs prominently on my wall to this day.

Years later, when my mother knew she was going to take her own life, she asked my brother, sister, and me what of her things we would like after she was gone. Not knowing her furtive plan, my immediate answer was, “The paintings!” I got my wish. She gave me all of them. What a gift.

Jazz Pinting by James Carlin

Back to the one that was different, unique, my favorite. It’s a scene from a jazz nightclub pictured here. Or was it a strip club, or both? There are five black musicians in tuxedos packed tightly together. The piano player is prominent with his long fingers splayed on the keys. Just above and beyond him is a barely clad white woman dancing, presumably the stripper. There is a drummer, a sax, a bass, and I’m hearing the trumpet playing My Funny Valentine like Chet Baker, in long languid, dulcet tones. The musicians’ faces are distinct, angular. The stripper is looking away—we only see the dark hair on the back of her head. I can smell the beer and the cigarette smoke in the air.

All That Jazz

I imagine the drummer is Kid Jones from Ann Petry’s famous Solo on the Drums, playing through the pain of losing his lover this very morning, soaring through the pain, and transporting those not too drunk to hear him. The pianist’s extended fingers, head cocked, remind me of McCoy Tyner’s as I sat two feet from him at the Village Vanguard years ago. Suddenly, John Coltrane is wailing away on the sax, My Favorite Things. I suspect, like Baker, some of these talented men, and perhaps the dancer too, have struggled with addiction to where all that is left is the music and the dance.

The painting exudes both frenetic energy and cool, very c-o-o-l at the same time. It’s jazz, my passion. The patrons are indistinct, fuzzy in the background, some facing the musicians, others drinking at the bar. I love how this single two-dimensional image, seemingly stopped in time, can be so full of life and movement. These musicians and the dancer all have some history, I’m sure. In jazz, it’s usually the misery of loss and love, the traumas all of us face, that comes through in harmonious rhythms seizing us in our gut. We inhale their pain, their joy, their longing. We are there with them in that fleeting instant. It could be we’re sitting next to Jimmy Carlin as he sketches the scene, later to be filled with oils, transported by the intensity, the sights, the sounds, the smoke, the fusion, the otherworldliness of it.

I see it all. I hear it all. I feel it every time I walk by that painting on our wall. That’s all an artist like Jimmy could have hoped for. My mother, Jimmy, and the other artists are long gone, but their art remains. The memories of them remain with me on the wall too… for now.

Oh wait, I think they’re playing Monk’s Round Midnight. Can you hear it? Listen.


If you have a special painting or work of art that moves you, please tell us about it in the COMMENTS below.


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