In high school Shepherd plays bass violin, tuba, and sousaphone–instruments requiring both physical strength and intestinal fortitude. He describes the crucial role music plays in his life. From the beginning he is obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.” He comments on a show that his playing tuba in the school orchestra is the first time he ever created beauty. Using music as metaphor, he illustrates his joy in making art.
His love of music continues throughout his life: He hosts a Cincinnati radio’s weekly opera broadcast; plays contemporary jazz records on his programs and emcees major contemporary jazz concerts; writes two magazine columns focused on jazz; improvises narration of the Charles Mingus piece, “The Clown;” and narrates an album, “Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown With Jazz Music.” He plays a major role in New York’s 1950’s jazz scene and is named by a jazz magazine as its “jazz personality of the year.” He also delights his radio listeners with his proclivity to scat along with the recordings he plays and to perform on nose flute, jew’s harp, and kazoo with outstanding skill and (nearly) universal acclaim.
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I had a fear, and really, it was a great fear. It had nothing to do with algebra, nothing to do with English or history. But every Thursday afternoon at three-thirty I used to have to go into this private band room. I played in the orchestra and the band. And I would have to go into the private band room, and we had a lady, she was not really, strict, but she was “enigmatic.” She was tall and thin, her name was Miss McCullough.
About 40 years ago, my then-significant other and I went camping in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park about three hours north of Toronto. A great, partly-wild and yet, alongside the access highway, partly-civilized campground on the edge of a vast, untamed forest with designated, individual campsites out in the wilderness. She got out her oils and acrylics and set up painting. All I could do was sit and read and admire her work for most of the several weeks—it was pleasant to be outside among the trees, lakes, and sky.
The following year I brought watercolors and paper. We both painted. We would look at the progress the other was making—she admired my rather realistic style, and I admired her semi-abstract, emotional attack on her canvasses. We each wished we could paint as the other did. It was a contrast in temperaments that made much of the differences.
First I worked in a 6” X 9” black-covered sketchbook and eventually found some vision and skill. The next year I brought along a medium-rough watercolor pad, about 11” X 14”. Of the pictures I made during those summers (they took me about 4 to 5 hours each), most were done in Algonquin, and a few at other outdoor sites). Each represents–with only some slight adjustments–the motif I observed in front of me. Some, though, interrupted in process by the day’s fading light, I continued in camp, enhancing the effect I sought. I think of them, visually, as musical chords.
Post vacation, back at my job in the Museum, a co-worker, a rather conservative, uptight fellow, asked me why I didn’t fill in all the white areas of my pictures. I pointed to a painted area of one image, then, toward every blank white space I simply said, “Ditto. Ditto. Ditto.” I’d found my way of seeing and designing what I wanted on the page (maybe somewhat inspired by Japanese woodblock prints I admire), and I stuck with it. (Click on each one for bigger views. For technical causes, some of the background areas are not the pure white of the originals.) I consider the second one here, with rotten fence post in the middle, one of the two best visual objects I’ve ever produced.
Despite my “dittos,” I’m not sure how to defend what I do. (Who says I gotta DEFEND ‘EM?) All I know is that, despite being an admirer of more adventuresome modern art and artists, this is what I did and I’m happy with the designy/artsy result.
I did several dozen watercolors over several years, then one day, walking our dog across the street from our apartment into Central Park, I decided that I’d try crayons. I got a 4” X 6” watercolor block and spent about three laborious hours doing a single image, recording a tightly condensed, accurate depiction of a scene just inside the park at Central Park West and 93rd Street.
Down a sloping path (white, triangular area), with green, sunlit-grass and a single, central tree; on the far right, a vertical tree trunk; above the slope, just at eye level and so un-noted except for a thin white, horizontal line for separation between bright green and much darker, is an open field beyond which is a wall of trees, dark green because of the shade of the late-afternoon sun.
With utmost exactitude and concentration, with the rich intensity of crayons on the textured paper, I worked through the afternoon and produced, with Crayolas and sharp-pointed scraper for the thin white lines, an intense, pared-to-simplicity piece I now consider probably the best picture I have ever produced.
A few days later I decided to find another motif in the Park and produce, as quickly as I could, an “empathic” picture to contrast with the earlier, studied effect. I did it in about 15 minutes, and I also like that result. I have the two individually framed and mounted on gold boards, one over the other. But it is the upper one, in its intense color and focus, its singularity and simplicity, that holds my interest and self-admiration.