The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

FIVE
Sam Middleton: The Painter as Improvising Soloist

Interview by Graham Lock

Sam Middleton was born in Harlem in 1927 and grew up near the Savoy Ballroom. In his teens he joined the merchant marine, traveled the globe, and later lived briefly in Mexico, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark before settling in the Netherlands, which has been his home since 1962. A self-taught artist, he has specialized in collage for most of his working life and has often taken music, especially jazz and blues, as his theme. He has also worked in the theatre and ballet, designing costumes and décor, and has painted for both book and record covers.

An associate of many other expatriate African American artists, including James Baldwin, Harvey Cropper, Ted Joans, Nina Simone, and Walter Williams, not to mention innumerable touring jazz musicians, he also became a close friend of the novelist John A. Williams (Night Song, The Man Who Cried I Am, Clifford’s Blues), who has written frequently on Middleton’s work for exhibition catalogues.1

I interviewed Sam Middleton in his studio in Schagen, the Netherlands, in February 2004.

SM: I grew up in Harlem and during my youth it was the hottest spot in New York. In the ’20s and ’30s the music was everywhere; all the cafés had a Wurlitzer or a jukebox or live musicians. In the ghettos there were rent parties. You always had a piano player like James P. Johnson or Fats Waller—his son Ed grew up with me. Music was a part of moving and breathing. Everybody knew somebody who played. It broke up in the ’40s with the beginning of the Second World War, because half of the musicians went to the army or got conscripted. But the music generated in Harlem also wound up, in thinner variations, up and down Broadway, where you had people like Gershwin and Cole Porter. So the music was a big part of my life.

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