Chicago's midcentury 'jazz witch' featured in 'Supernatural America' show Gertrude Abercrombie was a bohemian midcentury painter whose surrealist paintings, newly coveted by collectors, are now touring museums as part of the show "Supernatural America."

A midcentury 'jazz witch' artist finds a fandom in the future

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1045976256/1050379890" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

Just in time for Halloween adjacency, we have a story about a real witch who was friends with some of the most famous jazz artists of her time.

Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE STUDS TERKEL PROGRAM")

GERTRUDE ABERCROMBIE: Is this on?

STUDS TERKEL: Yeah.

ABERCROMBIE: Oh. Oh.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In 1977, a witch was the guest on Studs Terkel's radio show on WFMT in Chicago. He teased his friend Gertrude Abercrombie for wearing pointy hats, casting spells and befriending black cats.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE STUDS TERKEL PROGRAM")

TERKEL: (Laughter).

ABERCROMBIE: No, I'm a witch. Oh, that's true.

TERKEL: That's what I meant, yeah.

ABERCROMBIE: Well, no, I've been called a witch many times.

ULABY: Gertrude Abercrombie lived in a ramshackle house in a bohemian neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, says Robert Cozzolino. He grew up there.

ROBERT COZZOLINO: And she would say it was haunted with poltergeists and all sorts of other kinds of spirits.

ULABY: A magnet, Cozzolino says, for other creative spirits in the Jim Crow era.

COZZOLINO: Her house was one of the places that Black musicians knew to go as a safe house. And they would often perform or stay with her beyond their gigs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER AND DIZZY GILLESPIE'S "LEAP FROG")

ULABY: Abercrombie, a white woman, was close with Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE STUDS TERKEL PROGRAM")

ABERCROMBIE: Oh, Charlie Parker was very difficult, except just before he died.

ULABY: She inspired a song by Richie Powell called "Gertrude's Bounce."

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHIE POWELL'S "GERTUDE'S BOUNCE")

ULABY: Supposedly, says Robert Cozzolino, she walked just the way the rhythm sounds. Gertrude Abercrombie was tall, solid, sardonic and a painter who returned to the same mystical motifs.

COZZOLINO: Owls, cats, the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE STUDS TERKEL PROGRAM")

ABERCROMBIE: Kind of spooky - (laughter) spooky.

TERKEL: (Laughter) Well, I'm...

ULABY: Gertrude Abercrombie died in 1977. She was 68 years old and had struggled with alcoholism. Her work is part of a show touring U.S. museums now called "Supernatural America." It's currently at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. Robert Cozzolino, the curator, says after years of neglect, Gertrude Abercrombie was rediscovered in 2018, when a New York gallery called Karma put on a retrospective.

COZZOLINO: It was her first exhibition in New York since the 1950s. And people lost their minds. When Gertrude Abercrombies come to auction now, they're insane.

ULABY: A few years ago, you could have bought a Gertrude Abercrombie painting for only a couple thousand dollars. Now it's more like hundreds of thousands. Her dark and haunted landscapes dotted with dead trees and half moons feel like a kind of conjuring. Dizzy Gillespie said, in their own way, her paintings were jazz.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.