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Jazz Forum: A Club and an Art Venue with History

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March 4, 2020

by Lisa Genn – 

This place is full of objects that we love. They represent all the love this place is filled with,” Ellen Prior said, smiling broadly, during a recent interview at the Jazz Forum. Vibrant, colorful art adorns the gray walls—walls specially painted a color that would be dark enough for jazz and neutral enough to maximally show off the paintings—as well as fascinating furniture and art objects. There are some striking pieces like the warrior on horseback by the entrance, the winged statue majestically overlooking the main room, and the Walk/Don’t Walk sign that was apparently picked up by a friend of Prior and her husband, jazz artist and producer, Mark Morganelli, who had been out drinking by Columbia University in the 1980’s, when the city was phasing out the old signs and replacing them with the new digital models.

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Prior said the Jazz Forum space had been built in 1910 and was originally a barn to one of the large neighboring estates. The space they occupy today as their apartment, immediately above the jazz club was originally a hayloft. At some point, the club space was used as a wholesale bakery for 20 years, and then it had a new incarnation as a fancy antique warehouse for another 10. When Prior and Morganelli first looked at the space five years ago, it was filled to the brim with antiques, but they each saw its full potential in their own unique ways.

“Mark wanted the club,” Prior said, “And I wanted the walls. They were going to be mine, and I was going to be a gallerista.”

In June, Prior and Morganelli will be celebrating their three-year anniversary in the space, and each of their dreams has come true. The Jazz Forum is a thriving club, bringing world-class musicians to an audience hungry and excited to hear them. And Prior brings the walls to life with a new exhibit every four to five months. Her first exhibit hit the walls in April 2015, before the jazz club had even opened, as part of the RiverArts studio tour—an organization Prior has been closely involved with as a board member of many years. It had been her dream for RiverArts to include Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, and so it was especially meaningful for her to feature art that became part of their first studio tour to include her new home community. Since then, she has found artists to exhibit through her connection with RiverArts and getting to know local artists around their new home, as well as discovering new talents on the internet. Prior met an artist she has since featured numerous times—Jane Kang Lawrence—at the Women’s March. Lawrence told Prior she was an art teacher and then sheepishly admitted that she did, in fact, create her own paintings, paintings Prior subsequently fell in love with.

During the week between exhibits, Prior does the hanging over pizza and wine. “It’s like a puzzle,” she said. “I don’t follow any of the conventions, and I don’t ask. I’ve been hanging art in my house a long time. Mark would give me advice, but this was my baby.”

The works on exhibit at the Jazz Forum are always for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to benefit the Jazz Forum Arts non-profit and the majority going to the artist.

The three artists currently being exhibited are Gerald Cannon, Adam Schultz, and Alexis Wheeler.

“I love color. Lots and lots of color. I want art to have a precious quality and color is the medium for that to me,” Schultz wrote about his vividly colored paintings of vertical stripes. “It’s really intuitive,” Wheeler said about her color palette. For Cannon, “the colors are all improvisation. There are some I know how to make, but I mix colors and I start with a color and add another color to it, and sometimes I add something that shouldn’t really work, but it does. In acrylic, you can do that – mix all the colors without turning them into mud.”

All three artists shared a process in which the evolution of their pieces guided their work to a greater or lesser extent. “Making art for me is a combination of ideas and experiences. Ideas come to me at moments and then the development is a process in which they come to life. Sometimes those ideas evolve and change as I tinker with the concepts and materials, and often time new works and directions come from that development,” Schultz said.

The artists also shared their reflections on the connection between their art and music. “I do listen to music often when I work,” Schultz wrote. “It frees my mind up to more of a creative pathway of thinking rather than alone to thoughts of worry. It is liberating, which is enjoyable. I see my work as a perfect complement to jazz.”

Cannon, a professional bassist, was the only artist of the three who never listens to music while he paints. “For years, I kept my painting a secret,” he said “because I didn’t want musicians saying ‘oh you are a painter like Miles Davis.’ But keeping them separate kind of separated the process, because it’s all art, and it’s all presenting my art to the world whether it’s music or visual. The minute I let go of all of that thinking, that’s when my music really changed and matured, when I embraced born of them as an art form. I love them both.”

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