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Meeting of the Minds

Though Miles Davis has been dead for 16 years, painter Bruni Sablan still maintains close ties with the trumpeter. As it happens, she has connections to quite a few jazz iconsósome here, others in the hereafter.

Jazziz, August 2002

When night falls and the spirits arrive, Bruni Sablan cocks an ear and bids them welcome, each in their turn. They come one by one to her Campbell, California, studio and Gallery, and Bruni never knows who will be next. It could be any one of a great many souls who have passed through this world and into the next. But most nights over the past 18 years, itís been a jazz cat.

Sometimes itís Monk. Other times Dizzy. Still others, Louie. For whoever turns up, Bruni will likely drop whatever sheís doing and commemorate the visit by painting a striking portrait of the visitor.

To date, there are more than 1,300 finished portraits in Bruniís Jazz Masters Series by BRUNI, a project the painter began in 1984, about a year after a musician in the San Francisco Bay area introduced her to the local jazz scene. The first paintingóa mural comprising many of the local musicians whom she had sketched during the previous yearówas exhibited one evening at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. "I went, and there were all these wonderful, great musicians there that I love," Bruni recalls during a recent telephone interview. "And everybody loved the mural so much that it gave me a direction. The next thing I knew, I was doing the series."

And thatís about when the spirits began to arrive. Today, she forthrightly proclaims, "Iím a psychic. And I get messages. I know thatís gonna blow everybodyís mind. I donít care anymore. I get reached, OK?" But when the messages first began to arrive, nearly two decades ago, Bruni was shaken by their force and the simple fact of their sudden arrival. She responded by consulting a well-known psychic. The woman came to Bruniís studio, heard her story, considered the available facts, and declared, "Bruni, youíre a transmedium!" Humbly, the painter accepted her curse, even as she accepted her destiny. The portraits poured forth then, vital and richly colored.

Her subjects arenít always deceased. The Jazz Masters Series includes portraits of Flora Purim, Sonny Rollins, Christian McBride, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Maynard Ferguson, and a host of other certifiably living artists. And she doesnít necessarily limit herself to jazz musicians, as portraits of Prince, Madonna, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Cher attest. Nonetheless, the majority of subjects in her series are noted jazz musicians whoíve passed from this world. They hold a special place in Bruniís heart. "I come to know them better when they are on the other side," she says, which at least partly explains her ability to paint her deceased subjects so evocatively and with such deep feeling. "I have the ability to capture the soul of the person, she adds, which would seem to explain the rest. "Itís a gift."

Spirits who visit repeatedly are often painted many times over. To date, for instance, sheís completed more than 30 portraits of Armstrong alone. Sheís done 25 of Charlie Parker, 20 of Dizzy Gillespie, 16 of Gerry Mulligan, 19 of Duke Ellington ó one of which hangs in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution ó and another 30 of John Coltrane.

Her greatest muse and most persistent visitor, however, has long been Miles Davis, the late trumpeter who Bruni has now rendered in oil some 235 times. She had already painted Davisí portrait several times before meeting him in the flesh for the first and only time, in 1989, shortly after he performed at the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga, California. As Bruni recalls, she sketched Davis several times during the course of his performance. Afterward, she was preparing to vacate the concert grounds, waiting for her friend and de facto manager, Mark Gray, to bring the car around. When Gray pulled up, he stepped out from behind the wheel and gazed into the distance at a slowly oncoming limousine. "I think thatís him in that limo," he ventured. At that point, Bruni says, "I took my book and ran. I almost threw myself on his car. I said, ĎStop! Stop! Iím an artist.í And they stopped. I was surprised.

"The window went down and Miles and I talked a little bit. He looked at my stuff. I was completely speechless. I didnít know what to say. And then he came out of the car for about a minute or so. He wasnít standing very well. He was kind of weak. He had shades on, and I asked if I could see his eyes. I mean I knew what his eyes looked like from photographs, but I wanted to make that contact. He said, ĎYeah, OK.í And he took off his shades. It was a really beautiful moment. Indescribable. There was a message in his eyes. There was something beautiful there."

Thirteen years after that encounter and 11 years after Davis succumbed to the combined effects of pneumonia and a stroke, Bruni claims to have a "deep relationship" with the trumpeterís spirit or, as she says at one point, "his essence." Indeed, she discusses Davis as if he were some crotchety but lovable neighbor who lives next door to her house in Campbell, California, the small town near San Jose where Bruni lives with her ailing mother, Clo Parello, and her twenty-something daughter Kristina. "Iíll tell you something really, really cute," she relates, almost impishly. "Miles likes me to listen to Brazilian music. When Iím painting him, I hear this thing in my head that says, ĎI donít want any shitty bebop! Donít put those motherfuckers on or I wonít come across!í"

Bruni laughs loud and hard at this fine example of Davisí enduring obstinacy. And, really, it is kind of funny ó the specter of Miles, reaching from across The Great Divide, from some other plane of existence, the Prince of Darkness slipping into the role of interstellar DJ, fussing over the tunes that some allegedly psychic painter in Northern California plays in her studio in the middle of the night. "Maybe Iím nuts," the painter figures, "but thatís what comes to my head. And I go, ĎOK, Miles, OK, OK, I know what you want. And he loves Jo„o Gilberto because I end up putting him on all the time when Iím painting Miles. He loves Jo„o Gilberto and he loves Brazilian music. And," she adds with a great knowing flourish, "he loves soul."

Soul music?

"God, yes! James Brown, Aretha Franklin, you name it. Hot soul. Rhythmic soul."

Howís he feel about Bob Dylan?

"No!" she shrieks, laughing. "Oh, no, no, no. No. Ö No. As a matter of fact, I painted Bob Dylan once and I heard Miles say, "I ainít gonna be around her right now. And, really, for a few weeks, he was gone."

When the laughter ends, Bruni sighs and gathers her thoughts. "I donít care what anybody thinks," she says finally, seemingly at ease with and happily resigned to the curious particulars of her present state of existence in this vast and utterly inscrutable universe. "Iím a painter. Iím entitled to my nuttiness."

(For the record: Bruni Sablan was born in S„o Paulo, Brazil, though sheíll not say when. Sometime near the middle of the last century seems a safe bet. She is "half Sicilian, half Lebanese." She speaks fluent Portuguese, Spanish, and English, and understands Italian. Sheís been married and divorced twice. Publicly, since the mid-1980s, sheís been known simply as BRUNI, in all caps. Her first portrait of Miles Davis was three feet by four feet. It was purchased by Willie T. Ribbs, who holds the distinction of being the first and, thus far, only black driver to race in the Indianapolis 500. For more information on BRUNI and The Jazz Masters Series by BRUNI, go to www.brunijazzart.com )

Copyright © 2002 David Pulizzi

 

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