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Blending the worlds of music and art

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

Brotzmann working on a prepared piano for Nam June Paik in 1968.

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Peter Brotzmann
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(CNN) -- One amazing day out of four was all I could spend at the ACME Creative Music festival in Athens, Georgia. This monumental free-jazz blowout brought world-class improvising talent to the deep South by way of Germany, Sweden and Chicago.

But it's my very good luck to bring back visual art from a music venue. This is that story.

Reed player Peter Brotzmann is unknown outside an appreciative circle, though legendary within it. He's a founding figure of European improvised music, a companion to American free and avant-garde jazz. That music grew up out of the European audiences that welcomed jazz musicians who had it rough trying to squeeze money out of the free market economy back home.

Brotzmann is a self-taught saxophonist, but he had real training as a visual artist. He studied in the working class German city of Wuppertal -- home to a vibrant arts community, especially after World War II. He had gallery shows in Holland and Germany, but Brotzmann disliked the gallery system. He's on record as saying, "You look around yourself, go out and vomit."

That queasy conviction, and an increasing immersion in his music as he moved from Dixieland and Swing into free improvisation, ended the selling of his art -- but he didn't give up on it completely. As a student he designed fonts, and that led to him doing graphic work for record labels like Berlin's FMP, Free Music Production. This design output still exposes Brotzmann's visual work to an audience.

He also continued making art for himself. As it turned out, a private cycle of creation and consumption was perfect for his visual talents. And recently, after some convincing by persuasive peers, Brotzmann mounted a large retrospective at Sweden's Ystads Konstmuseum in October 2002. Just before it opened, he discovered a forgotten series of work, which was then presented at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003 as "The Inexplicable Flyswatter."

"Flyswatter," by Peter Brotzmann, 1961.

As a subject, the flyswatter is perfectly suited to Brotzmann's black humor and methodical approach. The paintings and prints portray his filthy instruments of insect death in abstracted pictures.

It's a nice exhibit, though no longer on display. But there is a catalog featuring photos of his work, and an essay and interview by the musician-critic and Brotzmann biographer-in-process, John Corbett. There is also a multimedia CD with art and jazz performances, including Brotzmann's earliest musical output.

Why check out Brotzmann's artwork? For art junkies, it's understudied output from a man who collaborated with Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, whose own work laps at the fringes of general fame. For music nuts, it's a parallel product and a hidden history to accompany Brotzmann's legendary brash, but increasingly sensitive, musical output. And for anyone lucky enough to love both -- to think of the music as a suitable soundtrack to cigarettes, breakfast and up-from-squalor art -- it's a merging of talents rare enough to be a real occasion.

Duly recommended.

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