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Everyone was amazed when Bruce was introduced to [Sonny] Rollins, and he started playing his famous version of “God Bless the Child.” It was an inspiring moment.”

Four Portraits of Gary Burton Bruce Gillespie

Four Portraits of Gary Burton, by Bruce Gillespie

The exhibition up now in the Arts Council office gallery: Visual Riffs: Reinterpreting Jazz Masters has an interesting story.

The exhibit features, among other artists, the work of Bruce Gillespie, an artist with Downs Syndrome. The exhibit is co-organized by Sam Goldenberg, who met Bruce in the 1970s while working at the special education facility: Danbury Regional Center. In Sam’s words:

One of my students was a young man with Down Syndrome, Bruce Gillespie, who loved to draw. Any free time that he had, he would spend drawing all sorts of things – his classroom, nature, people, even monsters and ghosts.

“At about the same time, I became co-President of Creative Concerts, a volunteer organization whose goal was to produce quality jazz concerts in New Haven and give all the proceeds to special education groups. Our first concert was a solo piano performance by the great Keith Jarrett that we presented at Yale’s Sprague Hall.  Our agreement with Jarrett was that he would ask for no fee –but that 100 special education students would attend the event with complimentary tickets.

Bruce was in the audience that night of the Jarrett concert.  In addition to that, I had Bruce do a drawing of Jarrett. I showed Bruce some photos of Jarrett, and played his solo piano music. Bruce drew a great rendition of Jarrett wearing a tuxedo that we used for our poster.

The following year, when we booked the great Sonny Rollins to play for us, I followed a similar process with Bruce. I gave him some photos of Rollins, played some of his calypso music – and Bruce went to work on the drawing using magic markers. This time his drawing was quite different – he placed Rollins outside with the sun shining. Rollins seemed to be a force as large as nature. I thought it was perfect. We sent the drawing to Rollins, who loved it. He asked if he could meet Bruce at the sound check for the concert. Everyone was amazed when Bruce was introduced to Rollins, and he started playing his famous version of “God Bless the Child.” It was an inspiring moment.

Bruce had evolved to become an individual whose talent exceeded the limitations of his disability. Unfortunately for us, Bruce’s family moved to Florida and I lost contact with Bruce.

Years… even decades went by.   I had given up hope of ever making contact with Bruce again. Then this year, I received word that a friend had visited a daycare center for adults in Danbury, and there was artwork all over the walls that could only have been done by Bruce. Sure enough, his family had moved back to the northeast, and this is where Bruce spent his days. I was not surprised when staff told me that the only thing that Bruce wanted to do was draw.

When I visited Bruce, I walked in to find Bruce at a table drawing. It had been 35 years, but here he was still doing what he loved to do more than anything else. As fate would have it, our organization had a concert at Sprague Hall this past fall featuring the renowned Colombian jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. After contacting his family, we arranged for Bruce to attend this concert.

And Bruce’s story is far from over. We are planning on presenting a concert next fall with the great Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, and we have hopes of having Bruce do a drawing for the event.

I met with Debbie Hesse at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and we discussed presenting an art exhibit of Bruce’s work. We also thought it would be a great idea to have student artists who are attending Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) contribute to the exhibition.

Contact was made with Johanna Bresnick and she had 2 of her art classes listen to jazz music and draw their impressions of the music.”

Thanks Bruce, Sam and all who contributed to the exhibit. Come visit and see for yourself.

The Arts Council of Greater New Haven presents Visual Riffs: Reinterpreting Jazz Masters in the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery, 70 Audubon Street, 2 FL, New Haven. The exhibit runs from March 6-April 17, 2015, Monday-Friday 9-5.