By David Pulizzi (March 2017)
managing editor, Jazziz magazine
By the time Jo King began painting jazz musicians in 2010, he had long been an admirer of their work. He recalls the first time that jazz music — or at least jazz-related music — struck him forcefully, in 1974, when he saw Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting, a film that featured a handful of Scott Joplin rags. Soon afterward, King, a talented composer and musician himself, sat down at a piano and learned to play “The Entertainer” and another Joplin composition not included on The Stingsoundtrack, “Maple Leaf Rag.”
From that first dalliance with ragtime music, King went on to explore other jazz avenues — for instance, the buoyant sounds of Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt and Rose Murphy. He discovered Louis Prima, Nat Cole, Julie London, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. “I was so into the music of Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Louis Jordan that I named my son Louis,” says the 58-year-old King, writing by email from his home in the Dutch municipality of Zaltbommel, where he’s lived and painted professionally for the last seven years.
King was born in Buckinghamshire County, England, in 1959. His parents — Jeremy King and the late Brenda King — were both accomplished painters whose work was exhibited and sold in England, the United States and elsewhere. Jo received no formal training from his parents, but watching them work influenced his own artistic ambitions.
After graduating from Dartington College of Arts, in southwest England, in 1981, he moved to Holland, where, for eight years, he worked as a cabaret performer. In 1989, he returned to Britain and put in another eight years with the acclaimed Horse + Bamboo Theatre company. In 1998, he saw the epic film Titanic, and was deeply moved by the scene in which Rose, played by Kate Winslet, posed for a naked portrait. Shortly thereafter, King began painting more seriously, usually taking the human form as his subject.
His work is influenced by a range of artists and illustrators, among them Andrew Wyeth, Gil Elvgren, Norman Rockwell, Alphonse Mucha and Frank Frazetta. He says that most of his jazz-related oil paintings began as collages that he created from black-and-white photos that were shot before he was born. For instance, King explains, “If I look at my painting of Billie Holiday, it started life as a collage of eight separate photos, including the famous photo by William Gottlieb. Billie is reversed, and I’ve painted the famous gardenias she wore on the left side of her head. I always attempt to put the subject into another context that says something new.”
King’s technique and style recall the work that was commonly produced by commercial artists from the 1930s through the 1960s. “I love the style of the mid-20th century and try to put it over in a new, exciting way,” King says. “A contemporary swing band or Dixieland band might be out of fashion with today’s music industry, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for retro styles.”
Indeed, most of King’s original jazz paintings have been purchased. Others are presently being exhibited in the Netherlands.
For more information about Jo King, go to www.jokingpaintings.com.