Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Will Calhoun working the drum kit.
It would be inaccurate to call the opening of Will Calhoun’s first collaborative visual art show at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education gallery a homecoming because the Bronx native never really left. Nevertheless, the reception and performance had that sort of feel, as it drew family members, friends, and even former schoolmates to the South Bronx location on Friday April 22nd.
Calhoun, known to many as the drummer for the resurgent rock band Living Colour, has fashioned a solid career for himself as a jazz bandleader (with an eagerly anticipated album of Elvin Jones songs on Motéma Records due this summer) and side projects ranging from Jungle Funk with vocalist Vinx and Living Colour bandmate Doug Wimbish to his collaboration with fellow Living Colour bandmate Vernon Reid as part of the latter’s Power Trio.
Calhoun has long had an interest in visual art, however, and said that he began exploring photography about ten years ago. Indeed, his Native Lands CD came packaged with a DVD documenting a decade of his travels.
All of the above has happened while the busy family man (his teenage son is a regular presence at New York area shows) has spent a fair amount of his time in between projects doing research on the African continent and its musical musical traditions — many of which are incorporated into his work in one way or another.
Given that history, the trip to a seemingly unlikely spot on the sixth floor gallery perched atop a Bronx school makes sense. Christine Licata, Casita Maria’s Performing and Visual Arts Director, said that they came to know Calhoun through his music over a series of Latin Jazz concerts presented in the area by the Blitz collective, featuring Calhoun and acclaimed pianist Arturo O’Farrill. Showing Calhoun’s visual art was a perfect fit for the gallery, given his Bronx roots, musical connections, the organization’s goals, and the connection with the attached school. Licata referred to art as a “tool to open up the way youth see the world.”
The process of creating the pieces in the current show came from a collaboration with the Los Angeles-based SceneFour visual art team, which has done similar collaborations with several other musicians. After recording videos of him drumming with lighted sticks, the resulting canvases were created from his actual movements. “What you see” on the canvases, said Calhoun, “is a map of me playing.” He also suggested that the project adds a different way of seeing himself as an artist. He’s used to capturing the audio of his work, but seeing and interpreting the movements offers a fresh look at his artistry and way to appreciate the physicality of drumming.

The result is 11 limited edition pieces that convert the sense of rhythm, motion, color, and excitement that Calhoun’s music creates. Ethel, for instance, is generated from Calhoun’s movements playing the wave drum and is inspired buy his sister, who dances ballet and African dance. The piece emphasizes vertical, rather than horizontal movements, and the swirling lines tracing his hand movements suggest the movements of a dancer. Calhoun revealed that it’s one of the more popular pieces.
My Own Free Will, on the other hand, has Calhoun seated at the drum kit, working his magic and was meant to convey the total improvisation both rhythmically and visually. Calhoun’s face and silhouette are visible in the center of the canvas, his calm visage in contrast to the swirling blue lines from his drumsticks. The title is a play on both his first name and the idea of an artist’s freedom of expression and the risks involved in creativity and pushing the boundaries of your work. To be successful as an artist, “you can’t be afraid to fail”, said Calhoun, and “you can’t be afraid to make mistakes”. The canvas effectively conveys the tension between the competing demands of an artist: the quest for hitting the right note or getting the pleasing balance of visuals and pushing the boundaries of how far out one can go before failing.
My Own Free Will. Will Calhoun/SceneFour. Hank Williams Photo
In Sundance, vibrant swirl of yellow on the white background is punctuated by bold splashes of contrasting orange and black highlights in the center of the piece. It conveys the feeling suggested in the title of brightness, light, and sunshine with a playful quality.
Sundance. Will Calhoun/SceneFour. Joyce Jones Photo
Calhoun demonstrated part of his end of the composition process in a solo performance of three pieces that evening. He introduced one song with the promise of playing “a little bit of Bronx music for y’all”, a pledge faithfully delivered with a rendition of hip hop-inspired break beats. Another piece, clearly inspired by his North and West African travels began with seamless alternation between drumsticks and brushes. A stint on the wave drum and synthesizer transformed Calhoun into a multidisciplinary DJ, the resulting beats recorded as the base for his accompaniment on the drum kit. A final piece had Calhoun switch to the special drumsticks with embedded LED lights, resulting in a Technicolor and sonic whirlwind.

When asked how it felt to have his first show open in the Bronx, Calhoun replied that “it feels amazing because that’s where I’m from”. “What you’re seeing is my life’s work”.

For a deeper dive into Calhoun, see Joyce Jones’s 2013 interview with him on the Suga’ in My Bowl show.
AZA is on display until July 21, 2016 at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. Will Calhoun’s next effort as a leader is a a tribute to drummer Elvin Jones, scheduled for a summer 2016 release. Calhoun will be appearing at New York’s Blue Note jazz club as a guest with pianist McCoy Tyner on Tuesday April 26. He’ll also be at City Winery on June 1st and 8th for acoustic sets with Living Colour as part of their world tour for their new release, SHADE, tentatively scheduled for fall 2016.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.