Jazz and Minwax: How an Artpace resident came to enshrine an unsung musical legend

Devon Dikeou’s exhibit at Artpace, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, features a room paneled with wood, the smell of newly applied Minwax stain still lingers in the air. On one wall are photographs of small brass plaques, engraved with the names of notable jazz musicians like Louie Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Lee Morgan. On another wall is a huge photograph of a similar plaque. The name reads “Sonny Simmons.” A man’s voice is heard coming from speakers on the floor, talking about music and the players who make it. It’s Simmons. A cardboard box sits in the middle of the floor filled with CDs, free for the taking. The recording is “The Sonny Simmons Quintet Performs the Music of Charlie Parker,” produced by Artpace and Dikeou’s zingmagazine.

Sonny Simmons is a player’s player. As a sideman on alto he played with Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus in the ’50s and ’60s. His later work with Prince Lasha took bebop lines into free jazz, extended with complex harmonic structures pioneered by John Coltrane. Among musicians, Simmons is legendary as both composer and horn player, a master on saxophone and English horn. Born in 1933, his command of line and pitch is still perfect, his sound distills everything you ever wanted to hear. The Current asked Dikeou, who is now based in Austin, how she came to create her exhibit. Here’s her response, culled from a long conversation:

“The exhibition at Artpace is something I had been working on for a long time. My art really talks about the audience, and the artwork and the context that it is showing in, whether it is the street, a museum or a gallery, or the laboratory, as they call Artpace. The piece I had been doing, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, I had done because I had been making a bunch of photographs of different things that are meant to commemorate different people, and I came across a hotel in Buenos Aires that had a number of doors leading to bedrooms dedicated to different individuals. Some like Louie Armstrong were obvious, but others like Joe Henderson could have been a million different people, but he is also a great jazz man.

“There were 55 names, and though many important jazz names were of course missing, I thought it would only be appropriate if Sonny’s name were there. Through the magic of technology I created a plaque for Sonny. Then one day years ago Sonny knocked on the doors of zingmagazine in New York, it is part of my art practice as well, I am publisher and editor there. I had known him for about ten or fifteen years. He said, ‘I have a great idea, I would love to do a CD, Sonny Simmons plays Charlie Parker.’ Zingmagazine does make music CDs, but we had spent our CD budget on the previous issue, Issue 21.

“I showed him the project I had done with the pictures on the computer, and as he watched all the names I said if we did the project it would be so great because I would put Sonny Simmons on the front side of the CD and Charlie Parker on the backside. So we had this project between the two of us a long time ago. It was just a wonderful luck kind of thing that I was chosen for the Artpace residency. When I do a residency I always start with a number of ideas. It’s like throwing six balls up in the air and seeing which one is right for the space. I decided the Sonny project would be best.

“For the design of the exhibit I was inspired by all of the minimalist things that have always been a big part of Texas, Donald Judd in particular, his piece where he panels a whole room and that’s the only thing in the art. And so it was taking inspirations from not just Sonny, but also my inspirations from around my visual world, from somebody like Judd, to in my aural world somebody like Sonny, and trying to bring them together.

“The free CDs is a reference to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, the speakers in the space to The Chords and Christian Marclay, and all the different, great artists who have been at Artpace and are just inspiring people.

“We are hopeful to bring in Sonny and do a concert, perhaps on the rooftop or someplace like Chris Park. We have yet to work out the details, but it would be fantastic!”


Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys


12-5pm Wed-Sun

445 N Main
(210) 212-4900


Exhibit open until May 22


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