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Making Photographs: Fred Burkhart: An online exclusive interview

An online exclusive interview

Fred Burkhart


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

By Leah Pietrusiak

To view a slideshow of Fred Burkhart's work, click here

In a Chicago gallery last October, the photographer Fred Burkhart sauntered up to jazz reedist Peter Brötzmann with a mischievous grin, sizing him up like an old comrade. Brötzmann, arms folded, was leaned up against one of the walls of the space that was displaying his visual art. The German free jazz maestro eyed Burkhart — who was fitted with his trademark white bush of a beard, and a navy jacket and matching cap — and smiled. “You look like, what…Van Gogh’s mailman?” he jabbed. Then they chuckled and leaned forward to shake hands, honoring an ancient ritual.

Burkhart, a 66-year-old photographer and artist, tilts and sways like someone who has received more blows than mail in his life. But when Brötzmann took centerstage at the Corbett Vs Dempsey Gallery to pound distorted and powerful sounds out of his clarinet and saxophone, Burkhart countered his usual gait with a resoluteness more like that of a soldier who had full command of his weapon. Positioned opposite a painting of Brötzmann’s called “Scheisschiebe” — which showed a soldier peeking out from behind the bush — Burkhart seemed to calculate each move and, without hesitation, would step in and capture the shot before retreating.

Perhaps it’s that he’s been documenting for so long: beat writers like William Burroughs, musicians like Frank Zappa and Tom Waits and destinations like Desolation Row, the California drug compound immortalized by Bob Dylan. Or that this wasn’t the first time he’s shot jazz virtuosos — or Brötzmann for that matter. That happened for the first time 15 years ago at the Southend Music Works on South Wabash in Chicago’s South Loop, back in grittier times, before the neighborhood’s upscale development, which recently forced the Velvet Lounge out of the area. The Southend Music Works venue — named for a nonprofit group that hosted performances at different spots in Chicago in the Eighties and Nineties — was known for introducing jazz musicians from Europe to the Windy City, and to jazz fans. Like Burkhart.

“When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, back in the mid-Fifties,” Burkhart says, “I would go into this place called Randy’s Record Mart outside of Nashville, and I just immediately got into what was considered avant-garde jazz at the time: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor. John Coltrane was really far out 50 years ago.”

In the Sixties, Burkhart found himself hanging with and photographing the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an avant-garde jazz ensemble that grew out of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. And in 1988, five years before he met Brötzmann and other European jazz staples like Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Peter Kowald, he discovered a 10-disc collection of live concerts that pianist Cecil Taylor recorded in Berlin. He couldn’t stop listening to it. “I was in the black jazz scene at the time, and when I met Brötzmann and all these guys, I said that my favorite pianist was Cecil Taylor — who’s farther out than Sun Ra, or maybe any other musician on the planet — and they just started laughing,” Burkhart says.

“They said, ‘You say you’ve never heard us — go back home and listen to those CDs, we’re on every single one of them, that’s why he was in Berlin.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck, man? I’ve been listening to you guys for five years and didn’t even know it.’”

You might say they hit it off. Brötzmann used one of the photos Burkhart made (a phrasing Burkhart prefers to “took”) that night for his next album. And his photos have been included in a number of albums by other artists in the global jazz scene, including Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael Zerang and Swiss pianist Irene Schweitzer, who had played the night before I sat down one night in November and talked with Burkhart in his three-level coach house in Chicago. “I was going to go, but I was just so sick,” says Burkhart, holding a cup of echinacea tea. “She’s like a soulmate of Cecil Taylor.”

Burkhart keeps his soul close to the scene not just going to jazz shows and pulling out his camera (which is now a color digital he’s experimenting with, instead of one filled with black-and-white film). Last June, he restored an old school bus into a mobile gallery of sorts: He painted it turquoise and purple, and filled it with some of his paintings and photos, including some of Hamid Drake and Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The daughter of another member, Malachi Favors, recently commissioned Burkhart to do a painting from a photo he made of the bassist in 1991. (As a sidenote, Burkhart home-schooled his own daughter on a school bus, taking her to meet the likes of Ken Kesey and Jack Kevorkian, as well as various jazz musicians and beat writers.)

While the purpose of the bus is to bring art to the masses, helping to support the artist’s independent lifestyle — the people who he photographs are not decided with such purpose.

“I’m connected to a lot of these people…not because I want to photograph them — it’s not like I’m in school, like I gotta go photograph fire escapes. I listen to that music,” he says. “And [photography] is one of the ways I experience the music, you know, through that medium, that language.”

Burkhart got to experience Coltrane’s music in that fashion when, in 1979, he was invited to be a guest photographer at a retreat founded by the musician in the Catskills, where the poet Allen Ginsberg was also a guest. And in 1999, he opened his Burkhart Underground coffee house in Lakeview, where he offered people who would wander off the street an opportunity to experience the mystery of avant-garde jazz. While the atonal compositions ticked off the folk-singer types, Burkhart still brought in renowned Chicago bassist Tatsu Aoki, and many of his students from Japan. “The Japanese, they add everything into their music — if they drop their stick or belch, it becomes part of the music,” he says. “You have to give yourself over to the sound [of avant-garde jazz]. I say this all the time, ‘It’s like listening to the ancient music through ears not yet transistorized.’”

Burkhart prizes the score that Brötzmann gave him of his Chicago Tentet’s first performance, a long horizontal sketch which Burkhart has posted on his website. It’s signed “To Burkhart from Brötzmann.” Looking at it on his laptop, he points to an almost blacked-out section and comments, “This is where someone comes in and does their solo — zzzppptt — there are no notes or anything…these converge into this, here’s the crescendos…it’s all improv and they all come together under one theme. It’s pretty wild,” says Burkhart, who points out names like Jeb Bishop on the card.

In 2005, Burkhart’s building was sold, so he had to close up shop. But a new Underground emerged this last December. Along with art shows, bondage performances, DJs, folk duos, keyboard soloists, and even a burlesque show featuring Jesus, the three-level coach house — whose Noble Street entrance is marked by the parked Technicolor schoolbus — has also hosted Lonberg-Holm and trumpeter Jaimie Branch, who studied with avant-garde reedist Steve Lacy before he died.

Any visitor to the Sunday night coffeehouse can pick through crates of Burkhart’s photos and find jazz musicians intermingled with erotic black-and-whites and street shots of California in the Sixties. And though the walls are now usually filled with the featured artists, during a visit in October — while the coach house was still under construction — a few photos did remain on the wall in the main room. Including one of Peter Kowald, whose body hung in an intense embrace with his upright bass, bow in hand. It was powerful. I asked Burkhart what photos he considers some of his best. “Oh, that’s not a fair question. I mean, it’s always like a continuum…every time I do one, it’s like the most awesome picture I ever did,” he says.

He does acknowledge that some relationships run deep with certain pictures, like the one he made of his daughter Trinity Valentine with Brötzmann, one of Hannah Jon Taylor or another of Peter Kowald.

“But if I had to pick one, I’d probably have to die and end it all,” Burkhart says. “Because I haven’t made the most awesome one yet…the one which reflects the greatest awareness, the one which reflects a more accurate image of God than we’ve been handed and expected to believe.”

For more on past and upcoming Burkhart Underground events, as well as Fred Burkhart’s art and photography, visit

To view a slideshow of Fred Burkhart's work, click here




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