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    Honey Dijon Steps Up From Dance Music’s Underground

    The D.J. and producer has been a force in house music for over two decades. Tapped by Beyoncé and Madonna, and releasing her own LP, her career is kicking into another gear.Honey Dijon is easy to talk to — if you can get in touch with her. Nearly 25 years into a career as a D.J. and electronic music producer, she is seemingly everywhere at once. During just one November week that included Manchester, England (where she played the 10,000-capacity venue Depot Mayfield); London; New York (where she was honored at the L.G.B.T.Q.-focused Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art); her hometown Chicago; and Berlin, where she lives — at least for the moment.In a penthouse suite in a Lower East Side hotel, Dijon (legal name: Honey Redmond) took a rare moment to pause and reflect, while unsurprisingly multitasking, getting her hair and makeup done for a photo shoot in a white terry cloth robe. “I’d rather be exhausted from work than looking for it,” she said, pausing perhaps for effect.During her early days in nightlife, Dijon scraped by on $150 gigs. In 2022 alone, she estimates she’s played 180 shows between club nights, festivals, fashion events and “private corporate things” — almost a full return to prepandemic levels, when she was spinning some 200 times a year.This summer, she contributed to “Finally Enough Love,” the remix album from Madonna, who has called Dijon “my favorite D.J. in the whole world.” She curated the opening club night of Grace Jones’‌s Meltdown festival‌ in June‌, which brought artists including Sippin’ T and Josey Rebelle to London’s Southbank Centre. And she was a writer and producer on Beyoncé’s acclaimed “Renaissance,” receiving her first Grammy nomination this month as an album of the year contributor. Three days later, she released “Black Girl Magic,” her own collection of vocal-laden pure house songs.House music, known for its steady four-four thump and electronic essence, was born in Chicago — specifically at the Warehouse club, where Frankie Knuckles spun a mélange of dance music, including American and European disco, from 1977 to 1982. Soon after, some local producers attempted to replicate the suave and heavily orchestrated sounds of disco with drum machines and synthesizers. Eventually, house evolved into lusher forms while maintaining its insistent pulse.Dijon is a fastidious house-music griot, a musical historian who will not let anyone forget the form’s Black and queer roots, even as subgenres like EDM and tech house have strayed far from its origins. “Past, present, and future exist on a continuum,” she said. “And it’s just reintroducing things into now.”DIJON LIKES TO say that she was born in Chicago but grew up in New York, where she moved in the late ’90s. (She does not, however, like to say her age, calling the question “really sexist and horribly boring.”) As she does in her music, Dijon seeds her speech with references: During our two conversations, she quoted Laverne Cox, Marc Jacobs, Quincy Jones and Pepper LaBeija, best known for her wisdom-spouting turn in the 1990 ballroom documentary “Paris Is Burning.”In New York, she said, she found her people. From early on she was “a very effeminate child,” she said, in a video interview from her hotel room in Manchester, before her Depot Mayfield gig. She withstood bullying and assumed she was gay “because I was attracted to men and I really didn’t have any mirrors of affirmation of trans femme energy.”Clubland did not just provide a community and information — it was a lifeline. Dijon said that as a trans woman of color, she couldn’t just go and get a job with benefits, as her mother had encouraged: “So clubbing at that time was really a great place for you to make a quote-unquote honest living.”The trans women she met working in nightlife took her under their wing, filling her in on how to obtain black-market hormones and what doctors to see. “I’m Frankenstein,” Dijon said. “There’s a lot of different countries in this body.”Music was ever-present, she noted — even in utero: “I think that was really where I fell in love with the vibration of sound and music.” During our interview in New York, Dijon revealed that she sneaked into the legendary Chicago house nightclub the Music Box when she was 13.“When I talk about all of the things that I’ve gone through as a trans person, and as a queer person, and as an underground D.J., to be able to occupy these spaces with these artists, it’s still mind-blowing for me,” Dijon said.Myles Loftin for The New York TimesShe’s been a professional D.J. since 1998, consistently waving the banner for classic-sounding house even when it wasn’t in vogue. (This year, house music itself has been having a moment in pop, with Drake dropping a predominantly house-oriented album called “Honestly, Nevermind” ‌and Beyoncé releasing “Renaissance” about a month later.) A turning point came when Dijon accepted her first residency in 2008, at the now-shuttered venue Hiro in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district.Another major shift came 10 years later, ‌after her set recorded at Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival for the massively popular dance music broadcasting platform Boiler Room was uploaded to YouTube‌, where it now has nearly 10 million views‌. It’s an impassioned performance, in which Dijon remixes a cappella vocals from Stevie Wonder and the “I Have a Dream” speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the fly, her body perpetually vibrating to her endlessly pounding beats.“Beyoncé has Sasha Fierce, Honey Redmond has Honey Dijon,” she said of her musical persona.“She is performing these pieces of music,” said Nita Aviance, one half of the New York D.J. and production duo the Carry Nation, who recalled working alongside Dijon as far back as 2006. “She embodies the whole of everything that she’s playing.”Since 2019, Dijon has had her own Honey ____ Dijon clothing line for Comme des Garçons; much of the apparel has been printed with explicit references to disco and house, effectively creating merch for genres that never had much of it. For Dijon, clothing is a tool to communicate subculture. “It’s celebrating art by people of color that created culture and art from nothing,” she explained.Alyssa Nitchun, the executive director of the Leslie-Lohman museum, which honored Dijon at a gala in November, called her a “queer visionary.”“Every facet of her life is acting and moving forward new possibilities for living,” Nitchun said. “Queer people since the beginning of time, have been organizing, loving and living in ways that I think the whole world has a lot to learn from. And, you know, Honey is a woman for our time.”Dijon’s work ethic is rivaled only by her capacity for reference, and as a curator and broadcaster of existing sounds, these two skills are often one and the same. “Black Girl Magic,” her second album, was inspired by the 1989 debut full-length from the Chicago house auteur Lil Louis, “From the Mind of Lil Louis,” and the New York house producer Danny Tenaglia’s 1998 album, “Tourism.” Its cover depicts a 3-D digital sculpture of a nude Dijon, which she worked on with the artist Jam Sutton. It’s partly a reference to Grace Jones’s 1981 release “Nightclubbing,” but also a statement of self-determination: “I have a beautiful Black body, and I wanted to celebrate this,” she said, adding an expletive.“Magic” is rich in callbacks to the past, with egalitarian messaging at the heart of its invitations to the dance floor. Dijon worked on the album alongside the veteran producers Luke Solomon and Chris Penny. The three bonded about five years ago over their love of what Penny called “golden-era house,” which he places around ’88 to ’95. Solomon said he met Dijon in the early ’90s when he was D.J.ing at a friend’s house in Chicago, where Dijon danced in a plastic tube.Penny described their working relationship as “co-piloting a vision” that comes from Dijon. Summarizing the division of labor, Penny called Solomon, who programmed the beats, the “captain.” Penny’s work on the other musical elements, like keyboards, makes him “co-captain.” And Dijon? “She’s the ship,” Penny said. Dijon is responsible for conceptualizing, pulling in references, driving the grand vision, and working on the selection of guest vocalists. The album’s contributors include the rapper Eve (who sings on “In the Club”), the Chicago producer Mike Dunn (who adds vocals to “Work”) and the flamboyant Compton-based M.C. Channel Tres.“There’s not one way to be a producer or musician or singer or an artist,” Dijon said. “And so, I think we need to demystify what that looks like.” Likewise, she said, collaborating with two straight white men on the project shouldn’t diminish its house bona fides: “We need to stop limiting people on their gender identity or race.”AFTER MOVING BODIES underground for nearly two decades, Dijon’s work has entered the light of the mainstream. She hooked up with Madonna via Ricardo Gomes, who briefly managed Dijon’s touring before taking a role as Madonna’s documentarian/photographer. Dijon learned that Madonna was interested in a remix from her, then went rogue and picked “I Don’t Search I Find,” a throwback to the queen of pop’s early ’90s work with Shep Pettibone. Dijon dropped her remix, a collaboration with Sebastian Manuel, at a Pride party in 2019, and a video of the moment made its way to Madonna.“You have to create opportunities — you can’t wait for someone to give it to you,” Dijon said simply.Dijon at the decks at Moogfest 2018. She estimated that she spins nearly 200 dates a year.Jeremy M. Lange for The New York TimesWhen word came from Beyoncé’s company, Parkwood, that she was interested in making a dance album, Dijon recalled being “gagged” that the pop superstar turned to her as a primary source of Chicago house. Dijon, Penny and Solomon ultimately teamed up on two tracks that ended up on “Renaissance”: “Cozy” and “Alien Superstar.” Dijon said she sent Beyoncé a playlist of “iconic New York tracks” for potential reference (including a Kevin Aviance song that is sampled on “Pure/Honey”) and some literature on vogueing ball culture.Working on the songs involved months of back-and-forth with Beyoncé’s team, as the songs were tweaked and adjusted. Dijon and Co. had no idea which of the 20 or so pieces they’d been laboring over would end up on “Renaissance” until its track list dropped the week before the album’s release.Dijon finally met Beyoncé twice after the production work wrapped; in Paris, she spun at the Club Renaissance party celebrating the album’s release. While she described contributing to one of the year’s defining releases as “a good day at the office” she also said the experience was life changing.“When I talk about all of the things that I’ve gone through as a trans person, and as a queer person, and as an underground D.J., to be able to occupy these spaces with these artists, it’s still mind-blowing for me,” she said. She added, “And I’ve gotten to do it through my love of house music.”And her days of scrambling for $150 gigs are well in the past. “I’m good,” she said. “I can go to Cartier if I want to. Twice in one day.” More

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    Bursting Into Dance: Gentlemen, Assume the Superhero Stance!

    “Spirited,” a revisionist “Christmas Carol,” leads with tap, thanks to the choreographer Chloé Arnold and her team, Ava Bernstine-Mitchell and Martha Nichols.The trailer for “Spirited” arrives feet first. Two silhouetted bodies trade syncopated riffs in a lively tap showdown. “It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas,” the title cards announce, before the dancers are revealed to be the film’s stars: Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.“How did you know all that?” Ferrell’s character exclaims, panting slightly, as the dancing concludes. “I didn’t! I was just following you!” Reynolds’ character shoots back. “Tap is new for me. It’s a very expressive medium.”It’s rare, these days, for a major motion picture to lead with dance. But the dancing in “Spirited” — a revisionist take on “A Christmas Carol,” in theaters Nov. 11 (and streaming Nov. 18 on Apple TV+) — is more than holiday window dressing. A self-aware musical in the vein of “Spamalot” and “Schmigadoon!,” “Spirited” aims to charm musical theater skeptics by poking gentle fun at the genre’s oddities. The film’s elaborately choreographed production numbers offer a new way for Ferrell and Reynolds, neither of whom had previous dance experience, to explore the winkingly self-referential humor they’re known for as actors. They are constantly bursting into dance, and constantly cracking jokes about how strange it is for people to burst into dance.That they’re often in tap shoes can be credited to Chloé Arnold, the extraordinary tap dancer who led the film’s choreographic team. The director and co-writer Sean Anders fell for Arnold’s work after watching videos of her Syncopated Ladies ensemble online. They featured “some of the most intense, badass tap dancing I’d ever seen,” Anders said in an email. “I knew she was the secret weapon I was looking for.”To help manage an ensemble cast that featured several dozen dancers, Arnold brought in two associate choreographers, Ava Bernstine-Mitchell and Martha Nichols, entertainment-industry standouts with backgrounds in an array of dance styles. Together, they created pull-out-all-the-stops numbers of ebullient variety: If a crew of tappers is dancing atop tables, aerialists might be spinning in hoops above them while a ballet group whips through a pirouette sequence on the floor below.Tap it out: Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in “Spirited.”Claire Folger/Apple TV+They also helped coach the top-billed actors, working for several months with Ferrell, Reynolds and their co-star and fellow dance newbie Octavia Spencer. “I’ve already asked this incredible choreography team to be best friends,” Reynolds wrote on Instagram during filming. “Just filed the paperwork and I’m excited for our new life together.”The resulting film brims with dance. Nearly every extra is a dancer, even in nonmusical scenes — look for the three choreographers in bit parts — and dance spills over into the film’s marketing. “Tap! In the trailer!” Arnold said. “When I saw that, I cried.”The significance of a trio of Black women leading a creative department on a big-budget movie has not been lost on Arnold, Bernstine-Mitchell and Nichols, all of whom are making their choreographic feature film debuts.“In the art of dance and the art of tap in particular, Black women have almost never had a position of leadership, proper recognition or proper compensation,” Arnold said. “There are so many times when, you know, your spirit is challenged. So for this creative group to bring us in, and not try to silence our voices, that trust was so beautiful.”Arnold, Bernstine-Mitchell and Nichols gathered on Zoom to talk about to talk about the dancing in “Spirited,” diversity in musical theater and choreographing for the stars. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.This is the first time the three of you have worked together. What was the chemistry like?CHLOÉ ARNOLD Ava and I both come from the school of Debbie Allen, and we’ve worked together in TV a lot, on James Corden’s show. We have a very symbiotic work flow, so I knew she had to be part of this. And Martha and I know each other from teaching at [the dance convention and competition] New York City Dance Alliance — whenever I had a free moment, I’d take her class.AVA BERNSTINE-MITCHELL Our three personalities are the perfect balance. Chloé wants to move fast, she jumps first and thinks later. Martha moves very slow, like a scientist, she wants to look carefully at every piece. And I’m the organizer, trying to keep everybody on track.There were a lot of dancers to keep track of. How did you approach casting?ARNOLD That was wild, because it was during the pandemic, so we had to do it virtually. And we had 1,000 submissions. 1,000! Unreal. We had Zoom callbacks for 400, and then deliberated and got it down to an initial core 30 — later that went up to 90. We called upon our old friends, people we trusted. And we met new friends.I’m very thankful that I was able to bring all of the Syncopated Ladies into the movie. Because they’re a backbone for me. Having your people with you, that’s one of the best gifts of life.MARTHA NICHOLS Watching Chloé and her heavy hitters — Pam Yasutake, Anissa Lee, Gisele [Silva], Maud [Arnold, Chloé’s sister], the whole crew — to see tap done at such a high level on a film, with this many individuals, was super, super special. Because when you have something as specialized as tap, it’s much more common for the number of participants to shrink. And in this, it didn’t shrink. It was magnified.Chloé, were you brought in because the team wanted a tap movie? Or did it become a tap movie because you were brought in?ARNOLD It definitely wasn’t a tap movie to start! [laughter] It was going to be, like, Will and Ryan would do a little tap number, we’ll have a bit of dance here and a bit of dance there. But it ended up being eight or nine full-throttle dance numbers.And you know, having this big-movie budget, we kept asking for more. “Could you build a two-story scaffold that we could tap on?” “Can we cover the floor with water?” And Sean would always say, “Let’s go!”The choreographers on the “Spirited” set.Claire Folger/Apple TV +Of course, dancers want more dance everywhere. But why was dance important to this particular project?BERNSTINE-MITCHELL What’s great about the script is that dancers, our role in the movie was very integral. We weren’t “added happiness.” We were part of the storytelling.A lot of dancers ended up with speaking parts too, right?ARNOLD All the dancers were allowed to audition for acting roles, which is really special and really unusual.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL And all of the dancers got to name their characters — like, with a name that shows up in the credits. We all had a purpose for being in this world.The film tries to strike a balance between earnestness and we’re-in-on-the-joke nods to the audience. How do you do that in dance?BERNSTINE-MITCHELL I think that’s something dance can actually do pretty naturally.ARNOLD If you take it seriously, but it’s absurd, it works. And Will and Ryan are obviously great at being silly, but they were also like, “All right, if we’re not supposed to look silly, and we do, you’re going to tell us, right?” There was a lot of trust there.How do you teach actors — who happen to be big stars — to dance?NICHOLS It was about speaking to them in a way that bridged the gap between dance and the physical vocabulary that they already have, to make it seem less daunting. Like, we don’t need to say “stand in jazz second position” to Ryan Reynolds. Superhero stance! He knows what that is.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL Ryan wasn’t able to touch his toes at the beginning, but we got him there.ARNOLD That was a milestone day! Their willingness to be beginners, as these masters of their craft, was great.They were also really good at disarming everyone on set. Will started his rehearsal period right around National Tap Dance Day, which, you know, he hadn’t known there was such a thing as National Tap Dance Day, but as soon as he found out, he was walking around going, “Hey, guys, happy National Tap Dance Day!” “Did you know it’s National Tap Dance Day?” [laughter]When Octavia Spencer first met us over FaceTime, she cried. Because she didn’t know we were going to be Black women. She was like, “I’m so proud of you. I know I’m in good hands.” That’s a beautiful thing to feel — knowing we’ve got to lead her through this journey, that we’re starting from a place where she already sees us, she’s already connected.How did your perspectives as Black women shape the film?ARNOLD I think that you won’t see, generally speaking, a lot of African dance influence in traditional musical theater. But that’s the crux of my movement, my natural movement, coming out of the land of tap dance, which has the African influence in it.BERNSTINE-MITCHELL The way we heard the music was very different than how I think other people would hear the music. We found funk in all the songs.NICHOLS There’s always a pocket.ARNOLD And we created a cast that is diverse in every way, shape and form — the cast we want to see in musical theater in the future. Because growing up, our reality was not seeing that. So in this film you’re going to see dancers from ages, I think, 7 to 74. You’re going to see people from all types of cultures. You’re going to see all different body types in all their glory. And I hope that unlocks more possibilities, more ways to expand how films present work and how they hire. More

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    Portraits of Serena and Venus Williams, Ava DuVernay Coming to the Smithsonian

    Serena and Venus Williams and Ava DuVernay, and the artists who portrayed them, talk about their choices, which will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery.Three strikingly personal and introspective new portraits of three famous women — the tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams and the filmmaker Ava DuVernay — go on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Nov. 10 as part of the institution’s Portrait of a Nation Award.The award, recognizing individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the United States, includes the gallery’s acquisition of the new portraits of these groundbreaking Black women and the other honorees this year — the chef José Andrés, the music executive Clive Davis, the president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, and the children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman. (For Edelman, the gallery’s curators acquired a photograph by Ruven Afanador from 2013.) Each of the other honorees worked with the curators to select the artist to represent them, and the works will remain on view in the exhibition “Portrait of a Nation” until Oct. 22, 2023.This award program, begun in 2015 and honoring people every two years, is an effort “to grow our collection in a way that truly recognizes the diversity of the country,” said the director, Kim Sajet, “working with dynamic contemporary artists who are pushing the boundaries of what portraiture can be.”The Williams sisters and DuVernay each chose to collaborate with a rising Black artist on the new commissions (as did Andrés, selecting Kadir Nelson; Davis worked with DavidHockney and Fauci with Hugo Crosthwaite). DuVernay took the opportunity to support Kenturah Davis, an artist she knows and collects. Serena Williams had followed the career of Toyin Ojih Odutola and selected her from a shortlist under consideration. Venus Williams was more exploratory, meeting with multiple artists culled by the gallery’s curatorial team and her own research and picking Robert Pruitt from some two dozen possibilities.Here is how those three portraits came together.From left, Robert Pruitt, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Kenturah Davis.From left: Brandon C. Luckain; Beth Wilkinson; via Kenturah DavisVenus Williams and Robert PruittThe idea of Venus Williams dropping by for a visit was surreal to Pruitt, born in Houston and based in the Bronx. He typically hires models for his large-scale figurative portraits, informed by comic book graphics and symbolic objects, which explore Black experiences and mythologies. “She came to my studio and was so down to earth,” Pruitt said. They immediately bonded over his huge comic book collection on display.The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special SectionBigger and Better: While the Covid-19 pandemic forced museums to close for months, cut staff and reduce expenses, several of them have nevertheless moved forward on ambitious renovations or new buildings.A Tribute to Black Artists: Four museums across the country are featuring exhibitions this fall that recognize the work of African and African American artists, signaling a change in attitude — and priorities.New and Old: In California, museums are celebrating and embracing Latino and Chicano art and artists. And the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum is working to engage visitors about the realities of climate change.A Cultural Correction: After removing all references to Columbus from its collections the Denver Art Museum has embraced a new exhibition on Latin American art.More From the Special Section: Museums, galleries and auction houses are opening their doors wider than ever to new artists, new concepts and new traditions.After being selected, Pruitt visited Williams in Florida armed with a massive photo download. “I wanted to get a sense of what kind of images of herself she likes and she was very clear, picking a photo she had taken of herself in the mirror,” Pruitt said.He used that as the compositional reference to build out his double-figured portrait of her — with Williams in one instance facing the viewer and encircled by a celestial halo of kinetic white beads (referencing her beaded hair in motion on the court as a young girl). A mirrored Williams, shown from behind and in profile, wears a tennis skirt made of raffia and the Wimbledon trophy dish refashioned as a collared chestplate apropos for a warrior superhero.Williams gave Pruitt information about her family and her relationship to tennis history that he has embedded, such as studding the swirling beads with the birthstones of her siblings. “It was really interesting to work with another voice involved in the process,” he said, a first for him.Pruitt sees “a fertile space of reflection” between his two Venuses. “My hope,” he said, “is that the duality of the portrait gives us this sense of a person looking back at themselves, considering where they came from and where they’re going.”Ava DuVernay and Kenturah DavisKenturah Davis’s portrait of Ava DuVernay. “I wanted to push myself in a different direction than I’m used to seeing myself,” DuVernay said.National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian InstitutionKenturah Davis takes language as a departure point, using rubber stamps of letters spelling out personal texts meaningful to her portrait subjects to draw their images. This process mesmerized DuVernay when she first met Davis several years ago.When the two women, based in Los Angeles, met up to discuss the portrait, Davis suggested using a blur technique she has recently introduced. “I was really interested in making a figure in motion and thought it paired well given Ava’s relationship with motion pictures,” Davis said. DuVernay was hesitant initially, she said, but “I wanted Kenturah to feel free.” And, she added, “I wanted to push myself in a different direction than I’m used to seeing myself.”They collaborated on a photo shoot, where Davis used a long exposure to capture the turning of DuVernay’s face from front to side view in a single elongated image. Then, Davis translated the photographic information onto a larger-than-life-size drawing, rendering DuVernay’s double-faced image pixel by pixel using rubber stamps dipped in ink spelling out a message of encouragement that DuVernay received from her father shortly before he died.“It’s a kind of embodiment, that she’s made up of these words,” said Davis. DuVernay likes that the message is only legible in pieces up close, like “a secret inside of the work.”DuVernay described being startled, in a good way, when she saw the result. “I’ve never seen anything like that of myself — that large, that personal,” she said. “There’s a spirit moving between the two countenances that feels revelatory.”Serena Williams and Toyin Ojih Odutola“I wanted to show her physique but also show her relaxed,” Ojih Odutola said of her portrait of Serena Williams.National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution“What I am interested in as an artist is what is often overlooked, what people might not notice about a subject,” said Toyin Ojih Odutola, the Nigerian-born, New York-based artist known for her life-size figurative drawings exploring identity and rendered in charcoal, pastel, ballpoint pen and pencil. With Serena Williams, among the most photographed people in the world and often framed as fierce or glamorous, what was missing in representations was her sense of joy, Ojih Odutola felt.“I thought about her being a mother, a sister, a daughter, and how funny she is,” Ojih Odutola said. In a first exploratory Zoom conversation, the artist asked about depicting her laughing, Ojih Odutola said. “Serena loved that.”Ojih Odutola traveled to Williams’s home in Florida to take reference photos, from which she would construct a composite. “Serena looked at them on the day and liked it, but kind of left it to me,” Ojih Odutola said.Ultimately, the artist decided to go with her gut, presenting Williams with a wide rapturous smile and resting her head on her hand, almost becoming enveloped by vibrant green foliage encroaching from behind.“I wanted to show her physique but also show her relaxed,” Ojih Odutola said. “I wanted to show her as a beautiful Black woman.” She finished the portrait before Williams announced she would step away from tennis after the recent U.S. Open, giving the image another layer of meaning.“This year had been a season of change and evolution for me,” Williams said in an email. “Toyin’s perspective as an artist is unparalleled and to be able to say Toyin Ojih Odutola painted my portrait feels surreal.” More

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    ‘Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues’ Review: In His Own Words

    Personal tapes and letters bring fresh insights into the jazz great as a musician and a Black man.In Louis Armstrong’s study in the Queens home he shared with his fourth wife, Lucille, bookshelves were filled with reel-to-reel recordings he made as a sort of audio diary. Those tapes and his letters — read by the rapper Nas — lay the foundation for the director Sacha Jenkins’s documentary “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”By foregrounding the gravel, grace and salty frankness of Armstrong’s voice, and mining an archival mother lode of audio and video interviews and clips, Jenkins delivers a bountiful portrait of one of the 20th century’s superstars — on Armstrong’s own terms.As welcome as this is, the documentary’s most affecting attribute may be a reckoning by several Black male artists with what Armstrong means to them. After all, his broad smile, his cameo roles in Hollywood films, his seeming muteness on racial issues had some critics, many of them younger, discounting him for his complicity, his “Uncle Tomming,” as fellow New Orleanian Wynton Marsalis put it early in the film, confessing to how he once felt about Armstrong. With the aid of Marsalis, Miles Davis, the poet Amiri Baraka (via audio clips) and the actor Ossie Davis, Jenkins recontextualizes the man.In a tribute from the “With Ossie & Ruby” television show, Davis shares an epiphany he had when he and Armstrong were on set for ‌the 1966 movie “A Man Called Adam.” During a break, he happened on Armstrong lost in a moment of somber repose, one that quickly gave way to his trademark grin. In that swing, Davis discovered a new kinship: “What I saw in that look shook me. It was my father, my uncle, myself down through the generations.”There is no paucity of expert witnesses who never had doubts about Armstrong’s depth, starting with Lucille Armstrong (whose story about their first house is a keeper). They also include the jazz historian Dan Morgenstern, who wrote the introduction to the centennial edition of Armstrong’s memoir “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” and the composer Leonard Bernstein, who describes the melodies Armstrong plied as “looking for a lost note.” The poetry in that phrase seems to underscore Armstrong’s lineage as a descendant of the African Diaspora.Among the film’s ample pleasures is the only known footage of Armstrong in the recording studio. His head tilted back while scatting, he holds a handkerchief to mop his forehead. The film is a trove of Armstrong’s love of music and his labor. And because so many of those who lend their insights are now departed, it has the feel of a mausoleum worthy of a humble yet celebratory “Saints Go Marching In” second line.Louis Armstrong’s Black & BluesRated R for Satchmo’s salty language. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters and available on Apple TV+. More