Sketching to the Music
November 13, 2015
By Corey Kilgannon
Jonathan Glass and his sketch pad are a regular pair at New York City's myriad jazz clubs. Credit Christopher Lee for The New York Times
Just before the first set at Birdland, the jazz club on West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan, Jonathan Glass, 42, settled into a front row table and pulled out pens, his inkwell and his large sketch pad.
As the bassist Ron Carter and his bandmates tuned up and patrons chatted over drinks and dinner, Mr. Glass waited.
“I only start when the music starts,” said Mr. Glass, who for more than a decade has been a regular in New York City jazz clubs, drawing the musicians onstage. “The drawing is in real time, like the music. The music helps the drawing flow.”
Mr. Glass visits the clubs several times a week and has done hundreds of bandstand renderings. He has captured some of the biggest names in jazz, with a swirling, frenetic style that seems to borrow from the improvisational energy of the musicians.
When the set ends, he finishes, and then he approaches the musicians and asks them to sign the drawing, sometimes with the ink not fully dry.
Later, he makes prints of the drawings and gets copies to the musicians to show his appreciation for the chance to draw them.
“You have to ingratiate yourself in some way,” said Mr. Glass, who has exhibited his work at several clubs.
On this recent night at Birdland, he arrived early and handed Mr. Carter a print from a previous performance. Mr. Carter found it cumbersome to handle.
“He’s a little prickly tonight,” said Mr. Glass, who was exercising care not to smudge any ink on the white tablecloths.
“Gianni hates it when I get messy,” he said, referring to Birdland’s owner, Gianni Valenti, who was not pleased when Mr. Glass once marred a tablecloth.
Later, Mr. Valenti laughed and said he appreciated Mr. Glass’s contribution to the art form, but not at the expense of his tablecloths. Neither can he always accommodate Mr. Glass’s standing request for his own table directly in front of the bandstand.
Mr. Glass, who lives on East 53rd Street, said he almost always pays his own way but is hardly a big spender. He works for modest pay as a security guard at an office building on Houston Street.
This night would very likely set him back about $70, his earnings from a full shift. Mr. Valenti sat him off to the side, where the view was largely blocked by music stands.
Mr. Glass said that growing up in Pleasantville, N.Y., in Westchester County, he was an avid baseball autograph seeker, and he still recalls being spurned by both Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. This helped prepare him for the mixed reactions he gets from musicians.
Mr. Glass said he studied fine arts and illustration in college and was advised by a teacher to use his drawing skills “as your license to experience the world.” So he settled in New York City and began drawing rock and jazz musicians at concerts, including Paul Simon, Pete Townshend and Van Morrison.
He stopped drawing during his late 20s and wound up seeking treatment for depression, which included art therapy. Mr. Glass resumed drawing jazz artists, including the likes of Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and Jackie McLean, he said.
Mr. Glass’s favorite clubs to draw in are the Jazz Gallery, the Jazz Standard and Zinc Bar, where they often waive the door fee.
He has become well known on the jazz scene by musicians, club owners and staff, and fans, said Rob Duguay, a jazz bassist who called Mr. Glass’s collection of sketches “quite literally a New York City who’s who collection of concerts.”
Mr. Glass, he said, has been “contributing to the music’s history, much more than just saving ticket stubs over the years.”
Mr. Duguay said that when he worked as a maitre d’ at the Jazz Standard on East 27th Street, Mr. Glass would often show up “literally paying his last dollar to see these musicians and sketch them.”
Mr. Duguay said he would often waive the door charge or allow Mr. Glass to stay for extra sets, telling him, after years of patronage, “Dude, you’re one of us.”
But sometimes nearby patrons object, Mr. Glass said, like the woman rocking to the music at Preservation Hall in New Orleans who knocked into his pad and then, when he complained to her, shook her hair on the page, smudging his wet ink. There was also the woman at a Keith Jarrett concert who objected to the scratching of his pen, he said.
Musicians sometimes comment from the bandstand, he said, including the saxophonist Lee Konitz, who asked Mr. Glass in front of the audience, “You’re not going to draw me, are you?”
Later, Mr. Konitz stopped mid-solo and said, “How’s it going, Picasso?”
Mr. Glass said the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, a frequent sketch subject, agreed to perform at an opening for Mr. Glass’s drawings at Zinc Bar in 2013.
“When a prominent musician once called me an exhibitionist, Ravi defended me and said that musicians who appreciate art can understand the importance of what you’re doing,” Mr. Glass said.