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Not too cool for Cooley

Blues and rock collection is a gallery and history museum rolled into one


The sixth floor of Cooley Law School in downtown Lansing is a strange place to bump into sweating bluesmen, grimacing rockers and tunnels of psychedelic phantasmagoria.

Roll over, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and tell Chief Justice John Marshall the news.

For 30 years, an obsessive Cooley professor has built up a staggering collection of posters, photographs, original art and odd objects that jump across the history of blues and rock ‘n roll, from the heyday of Chuck Berry to the rise of Bruce Springsteen and beyond.

Piece by piece, from art fairs, auctions and private sales, Joe Kimble has assembled a local and national history exhibit and art gallery unique in the state.

There are over 135 pieces on the walls so far, with 10 more in the framing shop.

“I sometimes think maybe I need an intervention,” Kimble said sheepishly.

On Tuesday, he’ll open the collection up to free public tours. The tours will also launch Kimble’s latest venture, a children’s book called “Mr. Loudmouth Learns His Lesson.” (See page 10.)

In the legal world, Kimble is nationally known for his mojo writing hand. He’s gotten several awards for two books advocating the use of plain language in legal writing. In England, he was given the medieval-sounding title of “Plain English Champion.” He helped draft the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence.

But his moonlight love is for the blues, as plain and direct a form of address you can find in the English language.

“I’ve never really thought about that connection, but I love blues lyrics,” he said. “’I don’t want no woman that wants every downtown man she meets.’ There’s a directness and authenticity to blues lyrics that has appealed to me from the beginning.”

Kimble grew up in Linden, a small town about 50 miles from Flint.

“Growing up in the ‘50s, rock and roll just hit me like a truck,” he said.

At 13, his parents took him to a Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan show in Flint. The headliners were Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The voodoo bluesman Screamin’ Jay Hawkins emerged from a coffin to start the show.

He was hooked for life. “I just loved it, right up through the Beatles, the Stones, Joe Cocker, the Who and all the rest,” he said.

In the 1960s, big rock stars like Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and John Lennon openly acknowledged their debt to African- American blues. Kimble was a law student at just the right place to dig into the roots of the music, the University of Michigan.

Several of the prize pieces in the collection are original posters from the fabled 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972 Ann Arbor Jazz & Blues festivals, with astonishing lineups — Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Freddie King, Luther Allison, Dr. John, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and many more in 1969 alone.

The giants of blues still walked the Earth and basked in the love of the rockers and their fans. New and old American art forms made sweet love while they could. In world of graphics, psychedelic swirls and bold colors joined with ancient symbols and totems, pushing concert posters into the realm of art.

Afro-futurist Sun Ra and master of swing Count Basie shared a bill with Ray Charles and Lou Reed in 1973.

One of the festival posters is a weighty, cosmic masterpiece by Gary Grimshaw, prized rock poster artist who did seminal work for Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and San Francisco’s Fillmore East.

Kimble has many of the works framed in museum glass. A gigantic, ornate poster for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” concerts, one of the latest and greatest all-star rock ‘n roll revues, gets its own wall niche, the same way a Vermeer or Rembrandt would at the National Gallery.

Many of the posters are signed and some have inscriptions. (Dr. John wrote “Keep on schoolin’, no foolin,’” — plain language if ever there was any.) A poster for the film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is signed by the Funk Brothers, the backing group in most Motown recordings. Some members of the ensemble have died since Kimble got their signatures.

There are several pieces signed by Chuck Berry, who died in March of this year.

While much of the work in Kimble’s cache has national importance, a trove of beautiful work by Lansing-area artists is a local history exhibit all by itself.

“We have some real gems in Lansing,” he said.

There’s a “Dennis Preston wall” featuring the spaghetti-spun portraiture of Lansing’s own rock poster guru, from early 1970s posters to more recent work.

One of the Preston posters touts Muddy Waters’ gig at the Stables, a fabled club across from Coral Gables in East Lansing that lasted from 1971 to 1975 and hosted nearly every jazz and blues giant who was still around.

“I went to that concert,” Kimble said, adding he remembered “was just sitting there, having a beer. I could have had that signed but I didn’t want to bother him.”

A gorgeous poster from the 1970s by Preston advertises a Lansing concert by Leon Russell, Edgar Winter, Rare Earth and more.

The poster, like many in the collection, has a date but not a year on it. Who expected them to be saved and collected half a century on?

Some of the posters Kimble snagged decades ago now sell in five figures on auction sites.

The trove of local art includes Julian van Dyke’s caricature, in the Al Hirschfeld mold, of Lansing’s own Root Doctor band and another van Dyke piece depicts the MSU Professors of Jazz.

There is exquisite original art by roughhewn eccentric Bruce Thayer, stylish Barb Hranilovich and collage master Brian Whitfield, most of them created for Lansing Jazzfest and Bluesfest posters.

A fascinating wall sequence begins with Hranilovich’s original work, with a real objects such as a metal washer embedded in wax and paint, next to a flat print of the work and the finished poster.

Kimble has assembled work from artists from around the country as well. The famous psychedelic prints of The Beatles by Richard Avedon and lots of other Beatles images fill up one corner of the sixth floor.

Some of the artists resort to unusual media to capture the spirit of the music. Just outside Kimble’s office is a 10-foot-tall guitar made of real rocks heavy, man. Kimble bought the one-off, Korg-ish Stratocaster at the Ann Arbor Art Festival.

“It was an engineering feat to get it up here,” he said.

Several works by Tami Curtis Ellis of New Orleans are painted on window screens with blues lyrics scrawled on the frame. In Ellis’ portrait of Trombone Shorty, a real trombone slide zooms up and out of the frame.

Will Armstrong’s bold prints emphasize the regional flavors of the blues by using maps for a backdrop, with Muddy Waters superimposed on a map of Chicago.

A striking array of portraits by Mississippi photographer and artist H.C. Porter depicts Delta bluesmen in stark, sharp black and white.

In one of the photos, Mississippi guitarist Vasti Jackson is thrusting his axe at the viewer so fiercely the image looks like 3-D.

Kimble loved the photograph so much he added a color print, by the same artist, that plunges the photo in a supersaturated bath of colors and effects.

Kimble’s sprawling collection is a source of amusement to his colleagues. As we looked at the art on the day after Thanksgiving, another Cooley professor, Gary Bauer, padded down the hall with a cup of coffee to see what was up.

Bauer said the art is an aid to navigation on the labyrinthine floor.

“I tell my students I’m next to the juke box,” he said, referring to a three-dimensional collage near his office door. “The art is awesome, isn’t it? Students hang out here, even though they are afraid of professors.” (There is also a very generous candy dish.)

Bauer turned to Kimble. “Don’t move it anywhere else,” he warned.

Tour of blues/ rock art collection

Book signing 4:15 p.m., 6:15 p.m. Tues., Dec. 5 WMU Cooley Center 300 S. Capitol Ave. Lansing


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