Q&A with artist Lewis Achenbach, a fixture in Chicago's jazz scene, shares through his formal Jazz Occurrence Project

"I think Jazz is a non-term. Like the term Love, which inherently encapsulates the best and worst of us. Can Jazz be a state of mind? I guess in a popular culture way, it can. Jazz being freedom of expression and lessons of the past, together in a mindset of understanding."

Lewis Achenbach: Jazz Occurrence

Chicago artist Lewis Achenbach is a fixture in Chicago's jazz rooms and festivals, where he works to do the impossible: capture the elusive artform of jazz in visual form. Chronicling in thoroughly personal terms the city's ever-expanding jazz landscape, Achenbach’s images are vibrant with color, punctuated with long lines, and surging with energy. Lewis comes from a background in traditional animation in NYC, behavioral health in Pennsylvania, decorative painting and arts advocacy in Chicago. Formally painting music and musicians since 2012. His Jazz Occurrence project pairs the sonic arts and the visual arts. Lewis founded this project to get closer to the music, and produce events where he has the freedom to paint within the sounds of the concert. Lewis has published two books of his own artworks; Hear This Book and the first Jazz Occurrence Coloring book. He has been involved in many Chicago festivals as a featured artist, including the Hyde Park Jazz Fest and the Made In Chicago Festival in Poznan, Poland. This June, Lewis began the first West Chicago Arts Festival.

Lewis Achenbach / Photo © by Dan Kasberger

Lewis Achenbach is pioneering new realities by practicing the discipline of documenting live performances, specifically creative music, jazz, contemporary classical, ambient and experimental endeavors. Lewis creates on-site, in-venue artworks that capture the frequency in the room. This practice has put Achenbach on a path of spiritual discovery that he shares through his formal Jazz Occurrence Project. A JazzO (for short) is a marriage of the sonic arts and visual arts, when the audience is invited into a site specific happening of artistic creation (the band plays and Lewis paints the music). Acrylics on canvas, pastels on wood cradle and projected digital are his media/medium. Lewis moved to NYC at 18, worked for Michael Sporn Animation Studios after graduating from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, moved to the Chicago Suburbs and has been creating live arts since 2012. A drummer once said, “you paint like I play”.

Interview by Michael Limnios                          Artworks © by Lewis Achenbach

How has the Jazz music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I would say that my views of the world have directly led me to Jazz music and culture. That being a universal view of an all-inclusive, culturally blended living experience. Or did World Music allow me to appreciate Jazz culture and the African importance in American culture? I would have to ask my much younger self.

As for the journeys I have taken, my involvement in Jazz Culture has directed guided these journeys. The Jazz Institute of Chicago made it possible for me to exhibit and perform in Poznan, Poland (a formative experience), as one example.

How do you describe and what characterize your artwork? Where does your creative drive come from?

Trying to capture music in visual form is delightfully impossible. And documenting the ephemeral nature of live music is even more ridiculous. Like a child reaching for a balloon that has eluded a grasp. So, my work is immediate, created like a graffiti artist on the run (at the same time trying to emulate the old masters).

My creative drive comes from trying to understand our reality and our human condition. I’m also chasing that out-of-body experience of really being in the moment with the music, as it reaches my spine and lifts me.

"My fears for the term Jazz are that people lose respect for the pain of the term’s origin. Jazz and Blues are survival techniques for a displaced and subjugated people. At the same time, Jazz/Blues music is beautiful in its ability to tell the story in a way that we all can understand (if we choose to experience that teaching knowledge)." (Photo: Artwork © by Lewis Achenbach)

How started the thought of Jazz Occurrence? What is the hardest part and what do you love most about the act of?

Vibraphone player, Preyas Roy, invited me to live paint a creative music performance, after we had talked for an hour after an art exhibition in West Chicago. I knew of only one great live painter, and that was NY-based musicWitness Jeff Schlanger (a good friend). I called Jeff and asked for his permission to do his thing (documenting live music) out in Chicago. He gave his blessing and even participated in the first Jazz Occurrence Art Exhibition (my curated group show) back in 2014. So, the notion of starting a live painting performance series has been around as long as I’ve known musicWitness Jeff Schlanger (1990s) by his example at Vision Festivals.

The hardest part is making a living selling artwork. What I love most about this discipline, is the fellowship with the music and it’s inconceivable origin (Creator).

What are the lines that connect: Visual Art & Music? How does the live music affect your mood and inspiration?

I used to think of Visual Art and Music as being on the banks on opposite sides of a moving river. And trying to traverse these waters was the creative process, finding the connection. But now that I’ve been in the waters for 10 years, I know that visual art and music are the same. They come from the same source. They just hit your rudimentary senses in slightly different ways. And some people respond differently to visual art and/or music. So, showing people that art and music are married in a wonderful relationship, is a thrill. Doing this, is a passion, which affects my mood greatly. As one lives with purpose.

As for inspiration, music is the inspiration, the motivation, the spark. And concurrently, silence (pauses in music) is inspiration. Silence is just as important as full sound. Just like a blank canvas does not need me to be pure. So, when I paint, I must paint with intent and respect of the silence of that blank canvas.

"Trying to capture music in visual form is delightfully impossible. And documenting the ephemeral nature of live music is even more ridiculous. Like a child reaching for a balloon that has eluded a grasp. So, my work is immediate, created like a graffiti artist on the run (at the same time trying to emulate the old masters)." (Photo: Artwork © by Lewis Achenbach)

Which live drawing have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

The most significant experiences with live music + live art are the ones when I feel like I know where the music is going. Especially in improvised music. I can feel the future of the music, like a member of the ensemble. It is like a super-power. There is original bliss there.

I remember working with Saalik Ziyad at an Oswego Fine Arts Jazz Occurrence. This was one of Saalik’s Loop Sessions (improvised and composed), live on stage. I was working on a large-scale canvas in from of the band (Fred Jackson Jr and Jonathan Woods). I just knew where Saalik was coming from and this felt old, like original peoples old, yet new in its treatment. One foot in the past, one foot in the future, to be present and creating in a free environment.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Jazz of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Considering our post-pandemic world, I miss the fellowship of the ‘hang’ before and after a gig. I’m not the most social of creatures, but the build-up and cool-down from a live performance is quite unique. But ‘jazz of the past’ as a phrase? I believe ‘jazz’ is an organic construct, that connects the music of then and now, but does not limit it to any time frame. Jazz, of course, is also an Anglo coined term to put parameters on African sourced music. I came to jazz through World Music and my experiences with free artists like Pharoah Sanders.

My fears for the term Jazz are that people lose respect for the pain of the term’s origin. Jazz and Blues are survival techniques for a displaced and subjugated people. At the same time, Jazz/Blues music is beautiful in its ability to tell the story in a way that we all can understand (if we choose to experience that teaching knowledge).

Do you consider the Jazz a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Referencing the above question, I think Jazz is a non-term. Like the term Love, which inherently encapsulates the best and worst of us. Can Jazz be a state of mind? I guess in a popular culture way, it can. Jazz being freedom of expression and lessons of the past, together in a mindset of understanding.

"I used to think of Visual Art and Music as being on the banks on opposite sides of a moving river. And trying to traverse these waters was the creative process, finding the connection. But now that I’ve been in the waters for 10 years, I know that visual art and music are the same. They come from the same source. They just hit your rudimentary senses in slightly different ways. And some people respond differently to visual art and/or music. So, showing people that art and music are married in a wonderful relationship, is a thrill. Doing this, is a passion, which affects my mood greatly. As one lives with purpose." (Lewis Achenbach & Wadada Leo Smith / Photo © by Michael Jackson)

What is the impact of Jazz music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want to affect people?

I want people to hear their own story in the experience of a Jazz Occurrence. I want people to commiserate with others, and foster compassion for all of humanity, past/present/future. In response, I want folks to create art and ask each other, ‘do you feel the same as me?’, ‘did we not just experience something together?’. I believe in the ‘take away’ of a Jazz Occurrence. I would hope that people would want to be like the great prophets and help those that need help, because their minds have been opened up.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

First answer, would be to hang out with Louis Armstrong as a young man.

Second answer, would be apprenticing under Rembrandt van Rijn (although only a day would be frustrating). Third answer, Max Beckmann.

But honestly, I’d like to hang out with my Grandmother, Lottie Baney Achenbach, and Grandfather, Lewis Achenbach Sr. for another day. There’s a source of who I am right there. Hard work and self-worth.

Lewis Achenbach - Home

(Photo: Artwork © by Lewis Achenbach)

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