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For decades, this 1960’s oil painting by Davis Quinn hung in the study of my summer neighbor, Allan Perry, a grandfather figure to me. He had known Louis Armstrong (as well as Duke Ellington), and he regaled my late-teenage self with jazz stories, including those about road trips where he’d roll joints for trombonist Pee Wee Hunt and other friends in the Casa Loma Orchestra. He’d sometimes get teary (I found such sentimentality awkward but easily bearable), and then he’d have me spin some LPs and we’d be swingin’ again.
Not much is known about Davis Quinn, but some biographical information can be obtained from a 12-page monograph titled “Swing Street Revisited”: The Paintings of Davis Quinn. He had been an executive of Chubb & Son, a significant Wall Street insurance firm, as well as an amateur painter and banjo player. He played in jazz bands during high school and at Cornell University, where he studied art, and furthered his studies at the Art Students League of New York. As far as I can tell, he only recorded on one album: A Night at Jimmy Ryan’s, led by clarinetist Tony Parenti; perhaps for the best, he takes no solos and primarily disappears into the background.
Shortly after Quinn’s retirement from the insurance industry in 1965, he started making small portraits of musicians that became a permanent part of the New York jazz club Jimmy Ryan’s, and in 1969 he published an article in American Artist that discussed the nature of his jazz-inspired portraits. “An interest in traditional (Dixieland) jazz,” he explained, “catalyzed my efforts in painting to do studies of ‘name’ greats in this fascinating if minor field. As jazz is a hard-hitting, intense, and highly creative music, I try to catch the action in the picture, the facial expression of hard playing, plus correct fingering and drawing of the instrument being played.” After a fairly pedantic discussion of his painting process — probably a direct request by the publication’s editors — Quinn concludes with a humble and heartfelt summary:
Painting is my avocation; the story of my work is a story of short cuts because of limited time. Although I had some formal education in art, I like to think of myself as self-taught, having learned more and better from books and from studying the works of those painters whom I consider talented and from endless visits to galleries and museums. If I have learned anything, it is that there is much more to learn. But this does not slow my efforts to try to catch, in these quick “paint-sketches,” some of the beauty and struggle and greatness of the men who have given us this wonderful music.
Both Allan Perry and Davis Quinn died in 1984, and the summer after Allan passed, his wife, Ruth, gave me the framed painting. “This was part of your world with Allan,” she said, “not mine.” And because I’m looking more deeply than ever before at the canvas, I find myself drawn to the liquid, raised pupils that seem to be seeing sound. I admire the texturing of the white background that travels through his face and functions in a more sophisticated way than my young self ever acknowledged. I like very much how the tips of Armstrong’s fingers bend just enough to suggest a forthcoming phrase.
More than any individual feature, however, the portrait as a whole brings me back to that study on Cape Cod, with Allan luxuriously marooned in his lounge chair, sipping on something sweet and getting misty over tales from the big band era. As I’ve grown older, his sentimentality has become mine. - Sacha Feinstein