By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Janet Kuemmerlein has been interested in jazz even longer than she has been making art. Growing up in Detroit, she had to take two buses to reach her arts-focused high school downtown. While there, members of the Modern Jazz Quartet might stop by and ask to borrow instruments from the school. She also made sure to take in concerts by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Stan Kenton … well, you get the picture.
After high school, Kuemmerlein was invited to study at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Upon graduation she moved to Chicago, where she met her husband. Work assignments finally landed the couple and their four children in Kansas City, Mo. in 1960.
Kuemmerlien started in painting and sculpture. When she found the chemicals toxic around young children she moved to fabric. Her fabric works are on display across the country in government and office buildings, libraries and hotels, churches and synagogues.
Jazz and art didn’t intersect until Kuemmerlien was asked to contribute to the Johnson County Community College art auction in 2000. Her painting of Miles Davis was purchased by a local attorney and later given to the American Jazz Museum. Last month, Kuemmerlien unveiled her latest project, a series of 11 portraits commissioned by the AJM for their Women in Jazz celebration.
The paintings are on display in the gallery off the museum lobby from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays, until the end of May. There is no charge to view the exhibit.
Kuemmerlien was kind enough to take The Daily Record on a tour of the exhibit and speak about each piece.
Oleta Adams – “We actually talked on the phone quite a bit beforehand because she was out of town so much. I wanted to showcase her hands because they’re such an expressive part of her performance. She and her husband are delightful people. God she is funny. She’s just adorable.”
Karrin Allyson – “I made this from a concert photo. When I told her I was doing this she said ‘don’t paint any lines (on my face),’ but she doesn’t have any. She’s too young. She was in town recently, but I don’t know if she’s seen this or not.”
Queen Bey – “Queen lives in California now, but when we were putting the exhibit together the museum told me she absolutely had to be in it. They supplied me with some photos and this is what I came up with. Although she isn’t in Kansas City any more, Queen Bey has been around for a long time and was an important figure to our jazz and blues scene.”
Deborah Brown – “Deborah spends a lot of time in Japan and Amsterdam. It was tricky to schedule the photo shoot, but we finally found a time and she came into my studio. She’s just a wonderful woman. I wanted the large circle in the background to reflect her career in Japan.”
Pearl Thurston Brown – “I did this partly from a photo she gave me, and partly from a photo session in her home. She’s as beautiful as she ever was. Although the painting portrays her at a younger age, she’d make a great portrait today as well.”
Carol Comer – “Carol is a personal friend of mine. I took her face from one photo, then went to her house and took a bunch of photos of her hands. I made up the trumpet player. Carol teaches many of the other vocalists in this series.”
Angela Hagenbach – “This is the first one I did. I got photos of her at Jardine’s one night before her set. I was so excited, because I got terrific pictures, except she’s so tall and I’m so short I would accidentally cut the top of her head off. She’s just a beautiful women – and great singer, too.”
Lisa Henry – “This is one of the first ones I made. Again, I went to her house to take pictures. I knew she loved red roses, so I made those the background, then took photos of her at the Blue Room. She has such feel and phrasing. I think she’s a wonderful artist.”
Marilyn Maye – “I painted this from photos Marilyn sent me and from album covers. Marilyn lives in New York, but she’s certainly a Kansas City legend. I tried to capture her longevity with the painting. She’s such a dynamo. Johnny Carson referred to her as a singer’s singer. She was his favorite singer.”
Julie Turner – “I went to her house and photographed her. I used actual jewels to give textual interest to the painting and to have a little fun.”
Wild Women of Kansas City – “I met with Geneva Price before I did any of the paintings, because she was working on an oral history of women jazz artists. For the painting, I used several group photos and then created a composite. I picked the best poses from each photo.”