Bowie, Bach and Bebop: How Music Inspired Basquiat

On Thursday, the exhibition “Basquiat: Boom for Real” opened at the Barbican Center in London. The first major retrospective of his work in Britain, it is a kind of homecoming for Basquiat’s art: In 1984, the first institutional show of his work opened at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and then traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. In a satisfying closing of a circle, a large drawing that Basquiat made in London for the institute’s exhibition, but that ended up not being shown there, will go on display at the Barbican.

“Boom for Real” focuses on the artist’s relationship to music, text, film and television. But it is jazz — the musical style that made up the bulk of Basquiat’s huge record collection — that looms largest as a source of personal inspiration to him and as a subject matter.


“King Zulu” (1986) represents the trumpeters Bix Beiderbecke, Bunk Johnson and Howard McGhee, and a face inspired by Louis Armstrong disguised as a Zulu king at Mardi Gras in 1949.

The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Basquiat made frequent references in his work to the musicians he most admired. He paid homage to Parker, whose nickname was Bird, in paintings such as “Bird on Money,” “Charles the First” and “CPRKR.” “Max Roach” was a nod to the vision and style of the jazz drummer of that name.

And in “King Zulu,” a masterly painting inspired by the history of early jazz that occupies a prominent place at the Barbican, Basquiat summoned the memory of the trumpeters Bix Beiderbecke, Bunk Johnson and Howard McGhee. In the center of the painting’s intense blue background, a face in minstrel makeup stares out, the image culled from a photograph of Louis Armstrong disguised as a Zulu king at Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1949.

Basquiat was especially devoted to bebop, the restlessly inventive genre typified by the likes of Parker, Davis, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. Basquiat’s love of bebop fueled his art, said Eleanor Nairne, co-curator of “Boom for Real.”


The exhibition at the Barbican in London is the first major British retrospective of Basquiat’s work.

Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

“Bebop was quite an intellectual…

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