Neiman Foundation donates painting to Smithsonian

April 1, 2015

LeRoy Neiman Foundation Donates the

Big Band to the National Museum of American History



For ten years, after Neiman completed his mural-sized tribute to jazz greats, Big Band, the painting hung in his New York City studio, seen only by visitors to the artist and, after his death in 2012, to the LeRoy Neiman Foundation.


On March 31, 2015, the National Museum of American History formally accessed the work to its collections and unveiled to the public the nine-by-thirteen foot painting, which will remain on long term exhibition at the museum near the entrance on Constitution Avenue.


Dated 2005, the year of its completion, the painting presents jazz masters from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Wynton Marsalis, as if they were sharing the stage as part of a big band. Big Band has all the hallmarks of LeRoy’s distinctive style – vivid colors, action in both the people shown in the painting and LeRoy’s brush strokes.


Even before he became famous for his paintings of sports, entertainment, celebrities, and politicians, Neiman hung out in jazz clubs. In the ‘50s, he sat backstage at a club in Chicago and sketched Louis Armstrong, bandana atop his head, as he was taking five between sets. Later, he became fast friends with Frank Sinatra and other brilliant musicians who contributed to the history of jazz, one of the world’s great art forms that was born in America.


In a brief documentary about The Big Band, he said, “I was hanging around the South Side, around the Loop, these little jazz lots catching these hot guys of the day. I didn’t know I was doing immortals, I didn’t know I was doing these great, great musicians. I knew they were guys, good guys.   I liked the way they lived, I liked their attitude.”


The musicians depicted are Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Jerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Glen Miller, Charles Mingus, JJ Johnson, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Gene Krupa.


Neiman had established a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution beginning in 2005, when he donated his archives to its Archives of American Art. The relationship developed further in subsequent years, when he worked with Jazz Appreciation Month – an event overseen by the National Museum of American History – in celebration of jazz as an original American art form. Jazz Appreciation Month used his portraits showing Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and Dave Brubeck to illustrate posters and other materials that promoted Jazz Appreciation Month.


Big Band will be installed near the museum’s Constitution Avenue doors at the entrance of the newly renamed LeRoy Neiman Jazz Café.


Also in 2015, on the eve of April’s Jazz Appreciation Month, the museum will launch the celebration with a special announcement of the LeRoy Neiman Foundation’s donation of a $2.5 million endowment towards the expansion of jazz programming during the annual celebration.