The men who make art from the music called jazz
"The Velvet Lounge" is jazz artwork by the movie producer Bill Horberg. (Bill Horberg photo/HANDOUT)
Bill Horberg was on the phone. He was in Canada where he is producing a new movie directed by and starring Sean Penn. That’s what he does. Horberg make movies. He has made some very good ones in his more than three decades as a producer. Perhaps you have seen one of them: “Cold Mountain,” “Milk,” “The Kite Runner,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
This latest film is “Flag Day" and it also stars Penn’s daughter (with Robin Wright), Dylan Penn. But that is all beside the point, the conversation, in which Horberg was saying, “I think American jazz music is one of the greatest art forms ever created and drawing the people who make that music is a way for me to remember them.”
Horberg’s later-in-life artistic explosion has manifested itself in hundreds of drawings, two shows (at the ArtYard in Frenchtown, N.J., and Cross Contemporary Art in Saugerties, N.Y.), and, very much to the point, his “Portraits in Jazz,” a month long exhibition opening June 28 at Firecat Projects, 2124 N. Damen Ave. (more at firecatprojects.org). A jazz trio will be playing.
Stan Klein, who operates the gallery, says of the work that will be shown (and be for sale): “Selective in color and subtle simplicity, they speak a language that allows viewers to wander through the world of jazz music at a certain point in our time.”
Though Horberg has known Klein for decades, he has never met Neil Shapiro. Still, there is no doubt that they would get along — for a few hours after my conversation with Bill, Shapiro was telling me, “I can’t play or sing a note to save my life but jazz has long been my passion and I wanted to honor the music I love and the musicians who make it.”
What he has done is create a book. “The Jazz Alphabet” has, naturally, 26 portraits, each accompanied by short descriptions of the musicians and quotations from or about each ( more at jazzalphabet.com). This, for instance, is courtesy of Duke Ellington: “By & large, jazz has always been like the kind of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”
“I have chosen as subjects mostly the giants of jazz who were most familiar to me,” said Shapiro.
The idea for “The Jazz Alphabet” came to him more than 20 years ago. He was at Syracuse University pursuing a M.A. in illustration that he felt would allow him to add teaching to a resume that then included being an advertising art director for major clients such as McDonald’s.
“The instructor told us to follow our passion,” he says. Since his was jazz, he drew John Coltrane and added this: “C is for Coltrane.”
“Then life got in the way,” he says. Not unsatisfactorily, as he continued his advertising work, illustrated children’s books, exhibited his art and started teaching and lecturing. Eventually, the letters and musicians began to pile up. He was, however, stuck on “X” until he and his wife Maureen met jazz critic and writer Neil Tesser at a party here.
“Do you know any jazz performers whose last name starts with an ‘X’? Shapiro asked.
Immediately, Tesser had an answer. “Ed Xiques,” he said, naming a saxophonist.
Tesser has done more, writing a fine forward to the book, in which he recounts that first encounter and writes, “in illustrating the uniqueness of his subjects, [Shapiro’s portraits] exhibit his own individuality in equal measure.”
One of the striking elements of the book are its words. “I love drawing letter forms,” Shapiro says, by way of explain the wild and colorful shapes that capture such words as these, from Dexter Gordon: “Jazz to me is living music. It’s a music that since its beginning has expressed the feelings, the dreams, hopes of the people.”
Horberg would certainly understand that sentiment.
Chicago born and raised he attended the prestigious Berkelee School of Music in Boston, his instruments flute and piano. He dropped out, came home and played in a local band until getting in on the ground floor of the movie business as the manager of the bygone and shabby Sandburg Theater in the Gold Coast. He did this with his high school friend and later film-producing partner Albert Berger.
Soon enough, Hollywood beckoned and he headed west. He stayed. He married. His wife is Cuban-born Elsa Mora, an internationally known visual artist. They had kids. He learned the film business, working with such masters as Francis Ford Coppola and Mike Nichols. He ran a production company with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella.
In 2015, he was in Spain working on a film called “The Promise” starring Christian Bale.
“It was a tough, hard and tiring shoot and I was lonely, bored and wanted company,” he says. “So I started to think of who I would like to be hanging out with and into my mind kept coming the faces of jazz artists.”
His started sketching some of these new “pals” in a notebook. Then he had a heart attack.
“I was lucky,” he says. “But the recuperation involved a long hospital stay. That enable me to listen to a lot of music and then take a deep dive into that music and do some research about the lives of performers I knew of and loved. While I was on the mend, my notebook sketching took on whole new dimension. I found it therapeutic and I just couldn’t stop.”
He and his family moved from Los Angeles to the Woodstock, N.Y.-area, primarily, he says, “because 30 years in L.A. is a long time and I wanted be, and wanted the kids [teenagers Natalie and Diego; older son Miro from his first marriage lives elsewhere] to be, closer to nature.” In so doing, he has gotten closer to music, joining the board of the area’s Creative Music Studio and playing regularly again.
“It’s been amazing, so rewarding to reconnect with my musical past,” he says.
Horberg will be back home next weekend, excited to see family members, which include sister Marguerite, a local arts powerhouse as a producer and activist who was the founder of the greatly lamented club the HotHouse.
He will be at Friday’s opening and at a reception that Sunday he will read from a memoir he is writing. It’s not his first literary venture. He long ago collaborated with his wife on a couple of comic books, one of which was “Greek Lightning: The True Story of The Sandburg Theater.”
“I will use any excuse to get back home,” Bill said. “It makes me super happy. Am I a little anxious about this show? Well, yes. I have no self-identity as an artist. I have had no formal training. So I am ready for the critics to have at me.”
Born and raised and still living in Chicago, Rick Kogan has worked for the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times and the Tribune, where he currently is a columnist. Inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003, he hosts “After Hours with Rick Kogan” on WGN radio and is the author of a dozen books, including “A Chicago Tavern."
Daywatch Newsletter – Chicago Tribune
Start every day with the stories you need to know delivered to your inbox from the Chicago Tribune.