Discovering the cool: Creating a visual identity for Jazz Appreciation Month

By Keith Henry Brown
Watercolor of Strayhorn in progress

April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), with a variety of events and programs throughout the museum and country designed to celebrate the past and stimulate the future of the uniquely American style of music. Each year, the Smithsonian issues a poster to celebrate JAM and honor a jazz master. This year, the JAM poster features composer-pianist Billy Strayhorn, whose legacy is well-represented in the museum's vast Duke Ellington Collection. The poster was designed by the Brooklyn-based artist and jazz aficionado Keith Henry Brown. He also created the drawing for the 2011 JAM poster, featuring pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. Brown shared his thoughts on what jazz has meant to him and the experience of creating posters for Jazz Appreciation Month.

It began for me at the drop of a needle and the first strain of "All Blues," a track on Miles Davis' seminal record Kind of Blue. I was a music geek for most of my young life, but never much delved into jazz, which seemed opaque and impossible to decipher. But there was something about the languid bass line and Miles' fluid trumpet on "All Blues" that drew me in. It was the image of jazz, the cool.

Artistic rendering of a woman in front of a piano

Kind of Blue features five supremely gifted musicians in addition to Davis—tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Bill Evans (Wynton Kelly substitutes on one track), alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb—meshing their collective experience into something that was extraordinary and singular. In my mind's eye I could see them: a half-lit studio, cigarette smoke billowing. I clung to this seductive world, and so began a lifelong love of this music.

Always drawing since childhood, I found jazz imagery becoming just as prominent as the superheroes that had dominated my numerous earlier sketchbooks.

Outline sketch of woman in a dress seated in front of a piano

In 2011, I received a call from the National Museum of American History. Would I consider allowing them to purchase the rights to a painting I had posted online of the great jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams? I told them I would be honored. I was ecstatic, but secretly, I wasn’t happy with that particular piece. I explained that I had another painting of Williams that I wanted them to see. That weekend I quickly drew what I thought was a better rendering and sent it in the following Monday. To my joy, it was accepted and became the 2011 JAM Poster.

Side view of man with glasses, making an explanatory hand gesture

I never forgot that happy experience. In 2014, I inquired about the opportunity to submit a second image for Jazz Appreciation Month. I was informed that this year's subject would be the brilliant jazz composer Billy Strayhorn. As before, I was asked if I had an existing piece of Mr. Strayhorn. I mentioned that I did, yet I decided to create a new picture. After doing a bit of research and reading David Hadju’s book, Lush Life, I painted Mr. Strayhorn's portrait. To my happiness, my image was again chosen.

Watercolor painting of African American man being completed

The opportunities to create work for the JAM posters are among the highlights of my career. Beginning with the first few notes I heard on Kind of Blue, I can think of no more pleasurable a progression than to share my enthusiasm for jazz with young people all over the world. My hope is that they, too, discover and embrace this wonderful music.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Julia Falkowski and Meg Salocks contributed to this blog post. We have limited quantities of JAM posters featuring the Strayhorn portrait. To request one, complete this online formBe the first to know about jazz programs and activities; sign up for our newsletter.

Support of jazz programming is made possible by the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, The Argus Fund and the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, founding donor of the Jazz Appreciation Month endowment.