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Portraitist Kate Shaffer Interprets Immortal “Women of Jazz” at ZAVO

Artist: Kate Shaffer

By Euletha Dukes

Music, like so many of the arts, evokes feelings we often are hard-pressed to put into words. It moves us to feel a range of emotions, and there are few genres more expressive of pain and triumph than jazz. Those who are able to rise above adversity certainly merit celebration, and in her series, “Women of Jazz,” painter Kate Shaffer pays tribute to some of the voices that soared high above it: Dinah Washington, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, and Sarah Vaughn.  All trailblazers who left us a tapestry of music so rich that it has influenced multiple genres and generations.

Each portrait in Shaffer’s series is a display of rich texture, color and movement. Shaffer blends a color palette that expresses each woman’s personal contribution to jazz, from their distinct styles to their singular, inimitable voices. She explains that she wanted to bring them to life on canvas by capturing their brilliance in a particular way. Shaffer says, “Instead of focusing on accurate skin tones, I wanted to show that the colors are the jazz. It’s a way to show that they are the music and the music is them.” This is most notably seen in the way their faces are highlighted in bright hues of lavender, green, blue and yellow, beaming against dark backdrops of shadow. Profound emotion is right there on the canvas, where the weight of the world around them is palpable, yet their voices ring bright. Each singer is featured singing in mid-song because, despite personal trials, this is how they let their voices be heard. 

One of jazz’s most influential voices was that of the iconic Billie Holiday, also known as “Lady Day.” A backdrop of velvety, darkened shades of crimson and blue represent the weight of her tempestuous life. This is a woman singing from the depths of her soul. She faced battles against racism, sexism, and in later years a severe drug addiction that ultimately took her life. Yet that singular gift of her voice rose above it all. She is posed in her trademark tilted head and closed eyes. The bright yellow and green hues on her face radiate the freedom and joy of singing.

The powerful, bluesy sound of Etta James is another voice that seems to plead right off of the canvas. Her personal life was a series of hurdles from childhood, including a string of abusive foster homes and an abusive vocal teacher. In her adult years a struggle with drug abuse, domestic violence, and prison time threatened to obscure her career. Yet she went on to become an award-winning musician who was inducted into three music Halls of Fame. Her trademark platinum coiffure is painted in lavender and yellow hues, and there is anguish in her brow line as she sings. This is music from the gut, a voice that comes from a deeper place. 

The standout piece of Nina Simone is the only portrait of a singer shown from the waist up, instead of in a close-up of her face. Shaffer explains that “you don’t see the piano, but you envision it because it is so deeply ingrained with even just the mention of her name.” Simone was not only a gifted singer but was self-taught on the piano from the age of three. She had aspirations to be a classical pianist. Her life took a different turn, though, as she became known as a prolific songwriter whose passionate music served as a herald of empowerment, social commentary and change. Simone’s style was unarguably her own, a fusion of jazz, blues, gospel, folk and classical. In the timbre of her contralto voice there is melancholy, pleading, and a vivacious energy that stirs emotion in a way few other artists can.

If you stand long enough in front of these portraits, you are almost moved to sing along with them. Each of these women’s contributions is invaluable to the world of music at large, and one could even say that music would not be what it is today without them. This collection is an ode, not only to their individual successes, but also to their timelessness. Kate Shaffer’s work will be on view at ZAVO Restaurant & Lounge at 1011 Third Avenue through May 1.