Tony Dagradi is an internationally recognized jazz performer, artist, composer, author and educator. He has appeared with Ellis Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Carla Bley, Nat Adderley, Mose Allison, Professor Longhair, Astral Project, and many others. In his work with altered books, he utilizes antiquarian texts, vintage encyclopedias, technical manuals, modern books and graphic novels. The results of his methods allow the contents and imagery of long outdated material to be viewed in a manner that is both exciting and thought-provoking. Dagradi has participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions around the country and has been featured at both the Contemporary Arts Center and the Ogden Museum in New Orleans. He is currently represented exclusively by Jonathan Ferrara Gallery.
Artist Statement: My decades-long career in contemporary jazz directly informs my work as a visual artist. Music, for me, has always had a visual component, with the diverse elements of music suggesting colors, shapes and textures. The juxtaposition of abstract shapes which come together as I work on a book, is very much how I perceive the interplay of melody, harmony and rhythm.
Since 2015, I have been exploring the visual possibilities of altered books. Choosing from antiquarian texts, vintage encyclopedias, technical manuals, modern books and graphic novels, I carefully cut through one page at a time rearranging existing images to create a three-dimensional collage.
Improvisation is also key to my approach in both genres. Within a jazz ensemble, each player is responsible for an individual part which must support and inspire the other musicians. In the heat of the moment, unexpected phrases or motivic ideas can affect surprising new directions for the collective ensemble.
Similarly, the tension and harmony which naturally occur as I uncover each new image unfailingly impacts the whole and often shifts the form and concept of an emerging composition. While cutting through each book page by page to expose selected subject matter is primarily a subtractive process, I often choose to reserve images for later use. This too is comparable to the open-ended conversation on the bandstand and provides me with control over the development of each piece.
I especially enjoy working with vintage books and encyclopedias. The eclectic photos and illustrations represent material that is long out of date, yet offer a fascinating window into our past. Ultimately, I hope to provide a perspective on the transitory nature of what earlier generations understood to be factual and offer insight into the way ever-evolving media has shaped contemporary perspectives.
Q&A with Tony Dagradi
Q: Amid a growing list of challenges our society faces today (the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, climate change, gun violence, etc.), how has your artwork been influenced or affected?
A: For so many artists and musicians, the quarantine and isolation that ensued with the pandemic severely affected all aspects of simply making a living. Initially, for every performing musician, all gigs were canceled in the present with nothing in the foreseeable future. Similarly, in the art world, galleries closed and exhibitions were canceled. Probably the worst thing about all the shutdowns was there were no answers as to when anything would be able to start again. Many of my friends who relied on the gig economy became desolate and desperate. Fortunately for me, my teaching duties at Loyola University quickly mutated into Zoom classes and lessons. While this was very unsatisfying from an artistic perspective, the fact that I was still able to teach and keep the bills paid, and definitely made my experience bearable.
Aside from the frustrating Zoom experience, teaching from home and barely leaving the house provided a lot more free time to work on personal projects. I enjoyed the extra practice time and worked on a lot of new music. In the early period of isolation I also produced the trilogy Sanctuary 1, 2 & 3 — my largest work yet. The three Sanctuary panels were created by overlapping and fusing five volumes each from a vintage encyclopedia set. These panels then became the “blank canvases” for me to develop collages using images extracted from a single edition of Birds Of The World (Austin-Singer). It took me nearly three months of steady effort to complete, [which is] time that I would not have had available to me. At that point, at least I had a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Everyone, no matter their beliefs or philosophies, is affected by racial injustice, climate change, gun violence, political disparity and culture wars. The fierce clash of divergent viewpoints in our country oftentimes becomes disheartening. When will changes that make an actual difference ever be implemented? It is up to all conscious people to try to emphasize and promote real education. I’ve taught at a Jesuit university for over 30 years. The key principles of a Jesuit education are Critical Thinking and Social Justice. To think critically, of course, means to objectively look at the facts and come to a reasonable and appropriate conclusion/solution. For me, social justice means “do unto others as you would have done unto you” [or] helping those who need it without prejudice.
A primary responsibility of all artists is to share their understanding of beauty and the cosmos with audiences. For me, this can be very deliberate and focused or it can be embedded as a fundamental part of everything that is produced.
Q: How has your process for submitting artwork to calls for entry on CaFÉ changed, if any? Is there anything that came out of the pandemic that has now become the norm for you?
A: I’m not sure if my process has changed so much as my comfort level with the process. When I first began submitting using the CaFÉ forum, I had questions about how everything worked. With time it all became more familiar and routine. It’s nice to have pieces already uploaded to my profile; however, more often than not, for each new entry, I upload my newest pieces. Those are always the ones I’m most excited about. I am very grateful for the CaFÉ listings and feel that they offer everyone an essential connection with what is happening and available in the arts around the country and the world.
Q: What are your hopes or goals for the future as we emerge from the pandemic?
A: In the last few months, music venues have begun to open and galleries are once again scheduling exhibitions. The general public is collectively breathing a sigh of relief to finally feel somewhat normal, enjoying music, art, movies and restaurants. I hope we are on the way to a full recovery, but at the same time, I am somewhat skeptical. It was always disturbing to me why some folks were so resistant to masking and taking basic steps to protect themselves and others. That attitude consistently held back our collective recovery.
This spring, I have been slowly accepting engagements at various local venues. I was delighted to play once again at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as well as several other regional music festivals. Three of my book collages were accepted to the International Art Of The Book Exhibition (June 27-November 1) sponsored by the Rochester Library. And, I have a solo show scheduled at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery (June 20-August 27). I feel very lucky to be working and artistically engaged as a performing musician and visual artist.