The acclaimed artist John Nichols has lived his life with consummate vigour, painting with extraordinary creativity and rhythm, at the crossroads where art and jazz meet. His stunning body of work has been collected by Tony Bennett, David Bowie and Sarah Vaughn among others, and has taken him all over the world, displaying at more than 100 one-man art shows.
Nichols’ childhood in Nashville, Tennessee threw him headfirst into the burgeoning jazz scene, meeting icons such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie during his time in High School.
But his outlet, the way he expressed himself, was always on canvas. The opportunity of filling the blank page was something that called to him as a way of dealing with the turmoil that rumbled inside him as a young black man in a country that was struggling to come to terms with diversity at a time of great social change. Nevertheless, jazz was never far away.
When he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, he lived down the street from the great Johnnie Hodges, a saxophonist in the Duke Ellington band. Miles Davis was, however, his biggest influence. These constant and meaningful connections were bound to affect his art. It was during a meeting with Davis that Nichols decided to make the first of his many trips to Europe.
Jazz was always close but art was everything to Nichols. It was the his desire of taking total control over his own destiny that appealed most to him. The freedom, the responsibility, the sense that he did not need to rely on anyone but himself to shape his life, was critical in his decision not to follow many of his friends into the monotony of the working world. Nichols also liked the thought that his work would stand the test of time, that it would last as a sign of his talent, his endeavour and his overarching passion.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that his Art in Jazz projects are some of his very best work. He has painted Louis Armstrong, Vaughn herself, Fats Waller, Errol Garner and James P. Johnson. The breadth of his skillset is extraordinary and throughout the collection he moves from oil on canvas to etchings, from watercolours to woodblocks, from sculptures to acrylics, always using materials that are the best that money can buy.
His artistic style is varied but the thread that ties it all together is his love of jazz and meetings with the genre’s most significant figures – not only in the subjects he paints but in the way he constructs his work. Throughout his collection, there are flowing forms and interlacing linear rhythms, just as you would find on a jazz score. The texture and colour of his art correspond to the vibrant energy and dense harmonics of the music he loves and his ambitious freedom and, at times, improvisation on canvas is what has come to symbolise the chaotic wildness associated with jazz. That spontaneous invention and creativity is the hallmark of Nichols’ work but it is also found in the best jazz musicians.
That is not an accident or a coincidence. With Nichols, each stroke is a decision, just as each note is – fragments coming together gradually, from chaos comes form and brilliance.
These days, Nichols lives in Hawaii. The nature that is all around him is, unsurprisingly influencing his art, with flowers, water, the rays of the sun and movement in the air all having been featured in new and wonderful work that he is producing. It is clear he is in sync with the heartbeat of his surroundings now, just as he was with jazz for so many years.
He continues to be recognised for his art and his achievements, having been awarded artist of the year in Hawaii and received the Honolulu Mayor’s Award for his “Living Harmony” Exhibit. He continues to be commissioned to paint significant figures too, having been invited to do a portrait of the Surgeon General. While he was rewarded for his academic and community work by the Massachusetts Chapter with the Jewish War Veterans Brotherhood Award.
Nichols’ life is an extraordinary study in the possible. His work has been bought by Diana Kraal, his hero Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck among others. He backed himself and his talent to carve a life out for himself and he has done that and then some. And in doing it, he has inspired others to show what can be achieved if you want it enough and believe in yourself. And he shows no signs of slowing with his latest work being some of his very best.
His collection is available to view online (http://www.artnjazz.com/gallery_jazz.php), with some extraordinarily beautiful work that will continue to leave his audiences full of joy and music. Just as Nichols himself always has been.