An Interview with French artist Jean-Claude Legros, a century of blues painted with passion and originality

"You can find blues molecule in almost any form of popular music created on our planet since 50 years."

Jean - Claude Legros: Musical Colors

Jean - Claude Legros is a painter - blues man. A century of blues painted in oil or chewed charcoal. His paintings, pastels and charcoals showed are entirely dedicated to the world of Afro American music, especially the blues. He was 16 years old. A high school friend had sold him two 45s. Most of the titles were played without any accompaniment guitar singer. He was listened "Democrat Man" and "Louise" from John Lee Hooker and "Louise Blues" from Big Bill Broonzy.

But the same year, came Kingsmen's “Louie, Louie” otherwise noisier (they stung Richard Berry, rhythm and blues singer from New Orleans). He fell for the guitar, but he knew nothing of the history of this music. Then the Beatles and the Stones have sealed the deal and the rock won handily. For Jean-Claude, the original is called Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and Van Morrison. "I was wrong" says. Then came his years of jazz: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, and Coltrane.

He devoured it, with a fondness for the blue notes. It is after this long detour that the blues is back. And then he understood. Where did what and how it all happened. Since, he tries to pay his debt to the music by painting and writing it, with brushes or with a pen.

He started this work in 1995. It makes up now a more than 70 pieces gallery of musician portraits that, from Charley Patton to Miles Davis, left their mark on the popular music of the 20th century. Those paintings and drawings are regularly – and voluntarily – showed in public places intended for leisure, social or cultural activities.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Copyrights, Courtesy © Artworks of Jean-Claude Legros

When was your first desire to become involved in the painting? What does “Art” and “Blues” offered you?

I started painting in the mid 90’s. It was quite a sudden desire. I had always like drawing but I thought that painting was out of reach.

A few time later a friend of mine pushed me to participate to a local painting contest. And, contrary to all expectations, I won the ….first prize! I couldn’t give up painting after that.

As soon as my technique started to improve, I had the idea to paint portraits.  At that time I was deeply involved into digging for the roots of the blues. I was fascinated by those old black and white photos of great figures of the pre war blues. So the connection appeared to me to put colors on those faces!

It’s only after my professional life ends that I got time enough to go deeper in painting. It allowed me to get a new life off the ground, a totally different one, starting from scratch, having to prove myself with new abilities, in a new world, with new people. Regarding the blues, it brings me a constant stimulation for several decades now! So art and blues offer me eternal youth!

What do you learn about yourself from the colors and the blues music?

They offer me keys to have a better understanding of the world I’m living in, and so of myself in this world !  Even on social and spiritual points of view. Deeper I entered those two worlds - colors and music - clearer the essence of life and nature appeared to me. Light and sound waves are physically so close, both being the same type of vibrations. Some combinations of acoustic or visual tone differences enjoy your senses, some hurts them. It’s the same for the organic matter and social life forms, energy and vibrations, with so tenuous factual differences but so much cultural ones at the end. For both art and life, differences can be used to build harmony or to cause chaos. To be aware of it makes one more open minded and tolerant, more positive in any circumstances.

What characterize the philosophy of your work & progress and how do you describe Legros’ ART?

My work is about paying homage to those musicians that created such an important music the blues is. That’s why I don’t sell my paintings. I don’t want to make money of them. I want my portraits to be showed only in voluntary exhibits where I put them at disposal for free, or to be donated to museums or foundations.

When I do a portrait, I try to find the way to express at the same time the artist personality and something of its music. I want my portraits not to be “my” signature but “theirs”. I don’t try to define a style of mine that one could recognize and tell about: “That’s a Legros’ artwork”. What I want is people to be interested enough to want to listen to the music of those artists.

What first attracted you to the Blues & Jazz and how has the Afro America culture changed your life?

I came to the blues and jazz through rock music. I was a teen when rock n’ roll changed the soundtrack of our daylife. Then, being a young guy in the 60’s I discovered new bands, new styles nearly every month. It was an incredible period for creativity in popular music. Tons of new albums, all considered today as historical, arrived daily in small local record shops where I spent all my leisure time. I was fascinated by the cover arts and I often bought LP’s at first sight, sure I was that only great music could be inside! And it worked nearly every time! Gradually I discovered the filiations and the whole story, with the blues as the roots!  Regarding the blues, the starting point was the Rolling Stones first album and their cover of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”. This song really knocked me down. Then there were all those bluesy rock bands: Cream, Free, and Taste. Blues was everywhere in their music. And soul music drove the point home, with all this Memphis sound, Stax records, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley, Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin…

 In fact the African American culture didn’t change, but directly participated to the shaping of my life. In the 60’s we absorbed all the aesthetic of a new culture in reaction to the current occidental one, in order to develop something we thought new. But that was greatly borrowed to a way of living inspired by the black community in the USA of the 30’s and 4O’s. The “wandering” lifestyle, inherited of the pre war bluesmen and idealized by Robert Johnson figure, became an universal behavior marker:  the search for individual liberty within a coercive society. It was actually a painful and horrible reality for the African American people during about 100 years of segregation and then, at the opposite end of the social scale, it inspired the emancipation dreams of wealthy teenagers against the society inertia. We took our models in the “hobo” culture: to be free, move everywhere it’s possible to go - in your mind as in the real world - and don’t let anybody restrict you no more.

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues and Jazz are always with us. Why do think that is?

First because those genres are originated in the human being’s deepest feelings. At the beginning, it was not “art” in the way occidental society thinks it, but a deep human expression through the media of the music in a community where music goes with every moment of the day and every situation of life. Those roots - which first forms were spirituals and blues (two sides of the same coin) - shaped a perfect simple music.  Everything pure and simple induces an endless hardwearing emotional effect. It’s like a diamond, a pure form that never fades with time.

The secret of the blues universal and eternal power, in my opinion, is due to the quite magical effect produced by the superposition of three layers, the final combination of which being something like the “gold rule” for drawing: a perfect harmony key in any case. The first layer is the pushy pulsation that underlies the specific beat of the blues, referring to the heartbeat. The second one is the simple everyday lyrics that can be shared by everyone. The third is the effect produced by short guitar fill-ins/ licks intimately inserted between lyrics, embodying the call and response solidarity - a deeply human need - between the singer and the instrument.

Any song played with those three elements can be endlessly listened to. Above all if this association is pure. And that’s why, as long as one can’t fully appreciate an old country blues played with nothing more that those three constituents on a scratching recording from the 30’s, this means that he still have a way in front of him to reach the endless of the blues experience.

You know, art is like cooking. I remember one time in my life. I was in Valencia (Spain) with another guy and a local asked us if we would eat the “best paella in the world” because Spain being the country of that course and Valencia being the best place for paella in Spain, it was easy, if we go to the best restaurant in town, to eat the best paella in the world. The demonstration was undisputable, so all of three we go in this reputed restaurant. What a surprise when the waiter put on the table a  plate with almost nothing but rice, a handful of green peas lost in and a so small and few pieces of meat that a vegetarian could easily have eat that meal ! When we informed or companion about our astonishment, he laughed and told us: “Hey guys, this is the real paella!”. For paella connoisseurs, the distinction between two paellas is based on rice cooking quality. Vegetables and meat are only added stuff to the real thing!  So less of them you have in your plate, better is chance to the rice to express its quality. Undisputable too…. even if two days later we sat in a tourist dedicated restaurant downtown Valencia and ordered one of those paella covered with meat and seafood we were used to ! But I’m pretty sure that, with a little time and several dinners in that first restaurant,   we should have reached a higher degree of culinary satisfaction by learning to distinguish rice cooking subtleties.  And I’m sure that this would have made us able to eat this plate everyday at the very time you can’t eat  with pleasure the other one more that twice a year ! It’s exactly the same for the blues!

What are some of the most memorable drawing and paintings you've had?

I clearly recall the painting of the John Lee Hooker portrait. He made me worry a lot! It’s a full frame face, with little possibility to put lightened colors on. The original hard contrasted black & white photo is so powerful that it was a challenge to keep this impact with colors. I worked it with brushes, then with knife, and I often thought I couldn’t achieve it.  I was never satisfied with the colors. Fortunately, with oil painting, more layers there are more chances you get to have rich deep tones… if you don’t fall on the gruel side of the process!

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the art and the blues?

In everything there are keys one must know to understand and act. It’s true for all human activities, of course including art. Sometimes those keys are well kept secrets, but most often they are at your disposal somewhere and you can find them if you take the time to search after. It’s now easier with internet but it was possible before. I began to learn about painting a long time before I handled a brush. I was deeply involved in photography during the 80’s, from the shot to the laboratory, mostly for black & white pictures. It was a great school to learn how to structure the space and how to use tones with only two “colors” (in fact two non colors!). I read a lot of books to understand how it works and some were true revelations for me. I did the same for painting ten years later. I’ve got a huge library of technical books concerning painting. I learned everything by reading them and experiment on the canvas.

Regarding the blues, books and magazines were also my main sources of knowledge. But It was important also for me to have an inside feeling of this music. I’ve always played some guitar since my teens, but I’m a very poor musician so I didn’t try to really improve due to the time required when you’re not gifted. Ten years ago I decided to focus on country blues, took back an old acoustic guitar I’ve quite forsaken on the behalf of an electric one. It was a long way but I wanted to play Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson,  Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins music for a better understanding of what was happening inside when those guys played their music. This training was a big help for me to feel the blues, its pulsation and the innermost combination of the player and his instrument.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I like the idea of my paintings being useful for helping to keep the blues alive.

In that order, one of my best moments was in 2011, when I delivered a painting personally to Steven Johnson, Robert Johnson grandson, on the occasion of the Centenary of Robert Johnson birth in order to be exposed in the Robert Johnson Museum in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. I remember another moving moment when I donated a painting to the president of a blues association. He discovered the painting when I unpacked it. It was a portrait of R.L. Burnside who died a few years before and whom this guy was a close friend. I saw tears in his eyes. I knew that this portrait was useful!

Donating must be a complete rewarding activity ?

A “donator career" can have its bad days too. I was less lucky with another donation. The beneficiary collected my donation but acted like being ignorant of my gesture. It appears that for some people “for free” means “valueless” and they don’t consider they have to give at least a thank you. I don’t want any retribution but not to receive any rewarding is unsatisfactory. The worst of it all is that I’ve worked very hard for this one. But that’s life!

How does the blues music come out of your art? What kind of music you hear when you are on progress?

During the first step of my painting process, the draft time, I listen extensively to my subject’s music. I remember me listening about 20 Miles Davis albums - eventually all my collection - within one week before starting “Ahead” on the canvas. But as soon as I take the brushes, I stop listening any music during my sessions. I want no more input from my subject and no other music disturbing the silent alchemy I expect operating while I do my painting! 

During the last stage, when all colors are on the canvas and I just have to add finishing touches, I use the music to check the fitting of my painting with my source of inspiration. I do that without necessarily listening to my subject’s music. Most of the time, I just mentally “play” a bit of it.

Are there any memories from your travels in USA, which you’d like to share with us?

I’ve traveled two times in the USA to discover the holy sites of the blues, jazz and soul. I visited Memphis, New Orleans and the Delta area in Mississippi. One of the most amazing experiences I lived was in New Orleans, discovering Congo Square by a sunny winter day. This “sacred ground” is such a key point in the African American story. For any passer-by ignoring the history the place would appear like any square around the world, early in a sunny springlike morning: deserted, calm, with only muffled street noises hardly reaching your ears. But for me, it was a very much unique moment. I have so often read about the location and what weekly happened here for several centuries. During the early 18th there could be more than 500 unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing here.
So, for me «Congo Square» represents the place where the African rhythm was kept alive on this land during centuries before seeping out through Afro American musical languages (spirituals, blues, ragtime, jazz). Here the flame was supported! So I entered the square like a pilgrim in a holy place. I was thinking about all those generations of folks beating the rhythms and dancing here during all those years. I imagined thousands and thousands people, and gradually a physical sensation occured. It was like the air around me slowly becoming thicker and thicker, like density increasing and the pression raising, pushing on my body. Nothing uncomfortable, nothing frightening, just as if all those people’s spirits were gathering here, around me, occupying progressively the space. It was something very friendly, very smooth. Fascinating experience and one of the highest emotional one !

Who from bluesmen’s faces you have drew and paint, had the easiest pure original attributes for your art?

The main difficulty in a figurative portrait is the likeness. Sometime likeness is easy to catch, sometime it is always receding.  With some faces you keep this likeness under control even with some approximation, with some an extreme precision is required and the least non correct line or light make the result unrecognizable. Mississippi John Hurt and Furry Lewis are of the first kind.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your inspiration to make a portrait?

For Eric Clapton portrait, I knew immediately it shouldn’t be a single face on the canvas. I didn’t know why, but this conviction forced itself upon me that I have to paint a multi representation of Clapton. I eventually put three. One from him during the 60’s during his participation to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, one from the 80’s and one of the early 00’s.

Which memory during of your progress makes you smile?

When I paint Tommy Johnson portrait I wanted to do a drawing more contemporary and, rather than hiding some winks like I use to do sometimes, I wanted to show more clearly allusions I insert.: a bottle, a woman, a playing card. It appeared easier to integrate those forms, especially for the “guitar-woman”, that I expected .One can identify quite easily the three symbols of Tommy’s loose life. But one thing caught off my guard: Tommy’s moustache! As soon as I put it on his face, he looked like…. Adolf Hitler!! And I found no way to change this effect till I decided to paint it in….blue! This absurdity was the only escape I found to resolve the problem. But I thought that it was not so incongruous because of the deformations I’ve already introduce in this one. And this “blue” was another wink, this time to the “blues music”. At this point I nearly called the painting “Blue moustache”!

Who of the musicians were the most “difficult” and which was the most “gifted” on brush, canvas and colors?

It’s more difficult for me to paint people faces when I don’t know them at all or, at the opposite, if I know them too intimately!  Blues musicians are perfect for me because I know their music and at least a part of their life. Some are easier to paint because the whole – feature, music, life – is perfectly consistent. That is the case for B.B. King for example. But inscrutable faces are exciting to paint, like Skip James or Robert Pete Williams. There are those whose features connections are nearly imperceptible. Those ones don’t reveal anything so you are bound to the precision of the drawing at the risk of losing any likeness. That’s the case for Robert Johnson.

What is it that draws (inspiration) you to paint an artist? To whom you would like to donate one of their paintings?

During several years I wrote biographies of blues musicians for a French website. As I painted a portrait to be showed with the article, the choice was first a “writing” one: a story I wanted to share. Otherwise I have always several artists in mind. Some I want to paint because they are blues legends still missing in my collection, some I’ve already work on but I have a new idea about, some I didn’t think about but I’m hit by their expression on a photo on an album cover, a magazine or a book. For a donation, I try to fit to the aim of the institution the painting is designed to. That’s why my donations are always made at the benefit of museums or foundations dedicated to an artist or to the blues music.

What is your painting DREAM? Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet and drew?

I dream about painting with … “musical colors”!  I’ve already started to work on this idea, but only from a theoretical viewpoint so far. It’s quite advanced, the concept and the process to make it a pictorial reality are well documented, but some keys are still missing.

There are so much blues figures I would have like to meet. To name a still living one, B.B. King would certainly be the first I ring the door of if I was allowed to.

What's the legacy of Blues and Jazz in world culture, art and civilization?

Blues and jazz are certainly among (if not) the most important genres having fed the musical field all over the world. You can find blues molecule in almost any form of popular music created on our planet since 50 years. It’s a pity that blues and jazz are not more celebrated for this. But maybe the highest level of achievement for an art form is to become so influential and part of our day life that one can no more distinguish it.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I told you about my love of pre war blues and my thought about it as being the hardcore of the genre, but that doesn’t mean I’m limiting the blues to this period. Great blues were created after, of course.

What can be said is that blues is no more the specific music of the community that created it. It’s easy to notice that the creative period for the blues was the “segregation” time, beginning short after the end of the slavery in 1865 and ending short after Civil Rights conquest, one century later. Blues was intimately linked with the African American social conditions of life during all those decades.  Fortunately the situation has changed, so the relation between black people and music has changed. Soul, funk, hip-hop are entertainment music, as rock n’ roll, pop and electro have always been from their starting point. Blues and even jazz were not at all, or hardly, known out of the black community during segregation years. Only by some specialists and often, starting from the 50’s, in Europe rather than in their own country!

So nowadays the term “real” can be used only for a very few local musicians who carry on the old way, if that.  Is Terry “Harmonica “Bean still playing real blues at Red’s juke joint in Clarksdale on a Sunday night when the audience is almost all white and international folks visiting the Delta ?  On one hand, yes because it’s formally a “real blues” act. But on the other hand the artist is mainly an entertainer playing a repertoire, no more a guy of the community sharing feelings and thoughts to make relieved and go beyond worries and frustrations.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

Blues is professional music now. Nowadays, new acts can’t stay turned toward the past, playing Chicago blues the way it was played in the 50’s, or Texas shuffle like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Let’s take the example of the Hill Country blues, starting with Fred McDowell, revivified in the 80’s by R.L. Burnside and some others North Mississippi Hills musicians.  It was a good thing that some rockers like Jon Spencer and Jack White introduced a punk touch in this style in the late 90’s, followed by the Black Keys and Seasick Steve. Now the “cigar box” guitar is a must and the “one man band “and “hard blues duo” are trendy. It’s all right with me because the inquiring part of the young generations will try to know where this odd instrument comes from or they will discovered Joe Hill Louis early 50’s Sun recordings.

There are good blues in all those acts. I like the work of artists like Chris Thomas King who tries to go further by melting hip-hop flavors with deeply rooted Delta blues components. For music, GMO manipulation is a good thing! That’s the only possible future to the blues for remaining visible in music it influenced so deeply.

The only limit I see for music to appropriate the name of blues is when an explicit reference is made to it since the content is obviously lacking all of its components. I remember a bandleader proudly presenting a CD within liner notes tell that the music was directly inspired by Robert Johnson. It was totally a fake. Those guys played hardcore metal - in addition a style I can listen to - without an ounce of blues ingredients its DNA could reveal!

But that’s the eternal debate between “classical” and “modern”.

Which incident and meets of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Maybe - surely? - I’m wrong but I don’t think I’m eventually putting part of myself in my own artwork, I mean part of my affect or psyche being used in the creative process of my painting. I ‘m deeply involved in it, through the use of my sensibility, but not to express something personal. So, if I want to capture scenes, they must be built around real figures and situations. I have in my mind a collection of “scenes” related to the blues story I want to realize. But don’t worry; there is no one about me!

Jean - Claude Legros' web home

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