By Don Heckman
Fine art painter and television producer aren’t exactly career terms that are often heard in the same sentence. Not even in the wildly multi-hyphenate world of Los Angeles. Add to that the description “life long jazz fan” and the combination becomes even more unlikely. But not completely. Because all those labels – and attributes – apply to Norton Wright, whose name can be seen in the producing credits of numerous television shows and movies, reaching over the years from “Captain Kangaroo” and “Sesame Street” to the Emmy Award winning series “Freestyle” and tv movies starring Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds, Susan Lucci, Ed Asner and others. His most recent film, “Safe Harbor,” was aired on the Hallmark Channel last year.
Wright’s color-filled “JazzWorks” paintings, which include titles such as “Mysterioso” (saluting Theloious Monk),” “Four Miles” (saluting Miles Davis), “Good Vibes” (saluting Terry Gibbs), “Touch of Silver” (saluting Horace Silver) and “Take Five” (saluting Dave Brubeck), have had various gallery showings over the years. But at the moment many can be viewed – up close and personal — in the seemingly unlikely setting of the Wine Bistro Restaurant at 11915 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, California. In a recent conversation – peppered with his wry humor and jovial story-telling – Wright talked about his love of jazz, his painting, and the unlikely integration of his left and right brain activities.
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DH: Let’s start with your background, Norton. I know you studied art at Yale with the famous Bauhaus painter and teacher, Josef Albers. But I also know that you managed to sneak away most weekends, and take the train to New York to hear jazz.
NW: Oh, yes. Those were the days. I was a big fan of Marian McPartland. Still am. I remember in the Hickory House days, in the mid-fifties, I’d go there with my college roommate and we’d camp out there starting at 9 p.m. Marian was playing with Joe Morello and Bill Crow. Marvelous.
DH: A terrific band.
NW: Right. And then there was the intermission pianist — a thin, gawky guy, played a lot of notes, and we couldn’t figure him out. His name was Bill Evans.
DH: I’d call that a full evening of jazz.
NW: But it usually was just the start. At one in the morning, Julius, the headwaiter, would lock the door, but we’d get to stay. A little while later there’s a knock on the door. It’s Tony Scott. He comes in. Another knock. It’s Sal Salvador. He’s just come through town. And one after another they would show up. Jackie Paris, the singer. And when the Metropole down the street closed up, maybe Jimmy McPartland with Bud Freeman, and the party would go on until five or six in the morning. The greatest musical time in my life.
DH: When you got back from the service in the early sixties, Bill Evans had been with Miles on Kind of Blue, become a major star, and jazz had evolved rapidly. And you were still as much a fan as ever, even of the new stuff coming along.
NW: Sure. George Russell with things like “Ezz-thetic.” And Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Ornette Coleman. But the guy I’ve always liked, no matter what era, has been Herman Foster, the blind pianist. Never made a huge name for himself, mostly backed singers. But I have these two albums he made in which he starts in full musical orgasm. And his music lights you up. I can feel my whole metabolism kick up listening to this guy. And I listen to him a lot, still.
DH: But you also wound up in commercial television – as a producer. An area that would seem to be light years away from both jazz and painting.
NW: But I didn’t abandon either one. And the reason that this painting thing became so important to me is that I was spending – still do — a good chunk of my time with my left brain on as a producer, where spontaneity is the last thing that you want. In fact, when it does happen there, it’s usually called desperation. From a producing standpoint, you’re turning on the side of your brain that balances your checkbook. It’s people and facilities and budgets and timelines and deliver dates. It’s prying the leading lady out of her dressing room with a crowbar when she has half of Bogota up her nose.
DH: Definitely left brain dominance.
NW: Yes, but it’s not to say that every now and then in the producing business that your heart doesn’t lift. There’ll be times when you’ll look at a rewrite and a tear will come to the eye or you’ll roll around on the floor laughing, and that is spontaneous. The other time that it works for me in the movie production business is when the score is added to the picture. And that which you thought was kind of good, your heart beats faster, and it’s that magic that happens when music elevates a dramatic moment, and really tells you what it’s about.
DH: Would that all television and film producers had the same sensitivity to music. But, okay, so if that’s the left brain of producing, then what about the right brain aspects of painting?
NW: In the kind of painting I do, I look for spontaneity and minimum structure. That’s not to say completely spontaneous. A jazz player knows the difference between a twelve bar blues and a thirty-two bar ballad. There’s a basic structure in 16th century mannerism that’s based on a diagonal from the upper left hand corner to the lower right. And I sketch those in, just a little bit. From then on, I just go. A commercial illustrator friend of mine told me that a painter should always control the painting. And I told him, “No, that’s absolutely wrong for me. I want the painting to tell me what to do. And I think that’s similar to a jam session where you start out knowing what you’re going to do, and then Anthony Wilson does something else, and that gives you another idea about where you’re going to go. In other words, the music tells you where you should go with your sax solo. Which is not at all like doing a commercial illustration of a cowboy in which he has to have the sun in the upper left hand corner and leave room for the Marlboro logo across his moustache.
DH: That reminds me of what Ornette Coleman once said: “How can I know what I’m going to play until I play it?” And then there was Harold Rosenberg, the art critic, who wrote about a painting as the produce of the encounter between the painter and the canvas. That sounds pretty close to some of the things that happen in jazz, as well.”
NW: Yeah. For me, in terms of the process, first and foremost is the business of me encountering a canvas and putting stuff on it that I hope is going to be unstructured, spontaneous and surprising.
DH: Okay. We know you’re not an image painter – no Marlboro cowboys – so the JazzWorks aren’t portraits, they’re abstractions. But what happens when you’re doing a JazzWorks painting, when you’re working on something inspired by a particular musician? Don’t you listen to that musician while you’re doing the painting, and doesn’t that tend to guide your hand as you work?
NW: Nope. In fact, sometimes it’s a kind of retrofitting process. I use music to trigger spontaneity. But I don’t listen to a lot of different things. And somewhere in the course of the visual structuring of the painting — the color tones, the horizontal relationships that kind of look like melody to me, and the vertical relationships that sort of have the feeling of a harmony of colors — a particular jazz artist will come to mind. In the painting “Aloft,” for example, I don’t know if I was deliberately listening to Chris Botti, but that was a time when I was frequently playing his CDs in the studio. And, hearing that floating tone of his, suddenly I thought “I’ve got two elements in this painting: I’ve got a firmament in the bottom. And the second element floats at the top.” And I thought, “This is the tone of Chris Botti, who seamlessly seems to float over this rich orchestration.” And that loftiness, that airness led me to feel that it was a salute to Chris Botti.
DH: So, it’s like you said earlier, the painting tells you. And since jazz is so much a part of who you are, the painting frequently tells you something that triggers a jazz response.
NW: Right. It’s like when I was doing “Mysterioso.” It’s got the opposition of complimentary colors, it’s got blood red against thalo green. Well, that’s like hitting a black note and a white note together, doing a diminished second. It just jumps off the canvas. I was exploring what you could do with shock in coloration. And who shocked us more than Thelonious Monk in terms of the deliberate juxtaposition of the incompatible? So that’s when I discovered that it sure did look like how Thelonious sounds. Rather than the reverse approach — that I’m listening to Thelonious as I do the salute to him. It actually goes the other way.
DH: Norton, I know jazz has always been an intrinsic part of your life, and your paintings. But you listen to other music as well, I gather, while you’re in the studio. How do you decide what to put into the CD player on any given day?
NW: It changes for me. Yesterday, because of the way a painting was going, I knew it was going to work. And when I know something’s going to work, I tend to put on happy stuff. When I’m struggling, I usually put on the gloomy stuff.
DH: Like what?
NW: Well, like the Polish classical composer, Gorecki. He’s got a choral work with Dawn Upshaw, and when I’m struggling I put that on because it’s contemplative. And it’s dark, and it’s slow and it’s not ebullient at all. It’s like a human struggle, which is something that art can be.
DH: And when you’re not struggling?
NW: When you’ve already gone around the corner and you know you’re putting on the finishing touches to the visual, it’s time to put on Diane Schuur and the Basie Band. The record that won the Grammy. That just rocks along. She’s so good on that. And she has a way of being able to shift from the up tempo stuff to something where the lyrics really make a difference. You just get the feeling with her that there’s a tenacious and gorgeous spirit in that lady.
DH: If I were to ask which specific jazz artist you feel most reflects the way you work and think, who would come to mind?
NW: It probably changes from month to month. I’ll say this, though. Lee Morgan is my kind of guy. He’s muscular, he’s daring. I don’t know if I paint like Lee Morgan sounds, but I sure would like to. I was a boxer at one point, in college, and I wanted to be Rocky Graziano. Because he improvised, he had a huge right hand, and he was passionate and he was terrific. Regrettably, I fought like Willie Pep.
DH: And what about your overall body of work? What would that resemble, in a jazz sense?
NW: Much as I love her, it wouldn’t resemble Marian McPartland. I think I’d have to go back to Herman Foster again, starting out in full orgasm and just getting better. And I like to think that’s where my appetite is, in art and in life. It’s so short, and so precious a period of time, that I really don’t want to spend it logically building something. I just want to jump in feet first, and have so much fun.
DH: Thanks, Norton. It’s been great talking with you.
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Norton Wright’s exhibition of New Paintings can be seen at the Wine Bistro Restaurant, 11915 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA. (818) 766-6233.
Norton Wright is represented in Los Angeles by the Susan Schomburg Gallery. (310) 453-5757.