At KCI, Jazz Meets Visual Art in Willie Cole’s ‘Ornithology’

Harold Smith, KC Studio, January 3, 2023


The New York artist is creating an assemblage from multiple saxophone evoking a flock of birds inspired by Charlie Parker’s jazz standard “Ornithology”


The power of art to articulate the human experience is a well-known concept. Artists have used multiple mediums, from painting to photography and beyond, to reframe and reinvent universal and individual narratives. Sometimes art also reinvents the reinvention. Painters like Kehinde Wiley and the late Bob Thompson have looked through the Black gaze to reframe European classical paintings.


This idea of using art to reframe past art in a new context is not limited by genre. For years, singers have referenced the Mona Lisa and reframed the romanticized notions surrounding it. Painters have reframed jazz standards by painting the notes and rhythm.


“Ornithology,” acclaimed contemporary sculptor Willie Cole’s sculptural ceiling installation for the new $1.5 billion terminal at the Kansas City International Airport, is inspired by one of the city’s favorite sons, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, and flight itself.


“My work is about synchronization,” Cole says. “In the case of my KCI project, I sought a symbol that could speak about flight as well as Kansas City. These two concerns merged or synchronized in the image of a flock of birds made out of saxophones in honor of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.”


Born and raised in New Jersey, Cole forged an early path into the arts. After graduating from the Arts High School of Newark, Cole attended Boston University School of Fine Arts and, in 1976, received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York. He engaged in further studies at the Art Students League of New York until 1979.


Cole’s impressive resume includes Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum of Harlem and the 2006 David C. Driskell Prize. His stunning work has found places in some of the nation’s most prestigious collections and museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.


Known for assembling ordinary objects into sculptural installations, Cole repeatedly uses single objects to form groups, creating metaphoric patterns that redefine their meaning and purpose.


The Charlie Parker memorial at 18th and Vine pays homage to Charlie Parker, the man, myth and legend. “Ornithology,” consisting of a flock of 11 sculptural bird forms, not only pays homage to Parker but visually reframes the soaring ingenuity and sound of Parker’s music.


Similar to Cole’s method of repurposing everyday objects to create new sculptures, Parker’s musical practice was notable for his ability to create new songs by constructing new melodies over the chords of existing songs. Parker and Benny Harris used this method, known as contrafaction, to create the jazz standard “Ornithology” from the chords of “How High The Moon,” another jazz standard. Included in the Grammy Hall of Fame, “Ornithology” is a classic of bebop.


In “Ornithology” the song, Parker’s alto saxophone floats crisply and distinctly over the string bass, piano and drums. There is an ascendence in Parker’s sound. It rises above and spreads its wings over all other sounds. In “Ornithology” the sculpture, Cole’s assemblage of alto saxophones likewise floats crisply and distinctly over the public terminal, rising and spreading its wings.


Both the song and the sculpture beckon listeners and viewers to ascend above the fray of humanness the same way that birds do. As Cole states, “. . . it’s about layering and synchronizing symbols, about being both conceptual and contextual.”


Charlie Parker once said, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”


Willie Cole expresses similar sentiments when asked about this work. “Assemblage is the technique. It’s about seeing and ‘assembling’ objects to suggest something new. Like having a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box but still proceeding with faith and intention.”


So, 2022’s “Ornithology,” a new sculptural artwork by one of America’s foremost contemporary artists, visually reframes and recontextualizes the sounds of 1946’s “Ornithology,” a past work by one of America’s foremost jazz musicians. More than that, it reframes the sound that put Charlie Parker on the map into a sound that we can hear with our eyes.


Cole states, “My intent is always to awe and be unforgettable.” He clearly has succeeded with “Ornithology.” Visitors to Kansas City will not soon forget this stunning flock of saxophones as they pass through the terminal.


Cole’s sculpture, which is being assembled locally in the soon-to-be-redeveloped historic Boone Theater in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, is one of the major public art projects that will adorn the new airport terminal. Costing $1.5 billion, this new terminal will include more than $5 million of new commissioned art. The many artists commissioned to create projects for the terminal include Nick Cave, Nassia Inglessis and Soo Sunny Park. Park’s installation “Molten Swing” will honor another iconic Kansas City jazz musician, Bennie Moten, and his “Moten Swing” sound.


Says Cole, “I, of course, am honored to be part of such an important and massive project. Art in general is a chance to both educate, entertain, distract and escape.”

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