Museum Hours
Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

A “Vibration I Can See”: Jazz in Leo Valledor’s Art

Objective: To understand how Leo Valledor drew inspiration from jazz music.

Portrait of Leo Valledor.

Common Core State Standards 

6.VA:Re7.2. Analyze ways that visual components and cultural associations suggested by images influence ideas, emotions, and actions.

Prof.VA:Re8. Interpret an artwork or collection of works, supported by relevant and sufficient evidence found in the work and its various contexts.

7.VA:Cn11. Analyze how response to art is influenced by understanding the time and place in which it was created, the available resources, and cultural uses.

Prof.VA:Cn11. Describe how knowledge of culture, traditions, and history may influence personal responses to art.

MU: Cn10.0.E.HSI. Demonstrate how interests, knowledge, and skills relate to personal choices and intent when creating, performing, and responding to music.

W.6-8.7. Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.


  • Devices with internet access (or color printouts of art images and downloads of jazz pieces for student research)
  • Journals or sheets of paper for note-taking and reflection
  • Pen/pencil


1. Introduce the lesson; here is a possible opening (5 min.):

Growing up in the Fillmore district in the 1940s and 1950s, Leo Valledor was immersed in the “epicenter of jazz on the West Coast, and its soundtrack provided a respite. . . . This early immersion in jazz would shape his obsession with the kinship between music and color, as he referred to ‘harmonic ideas’ as the basis for his visual explorations” (Abad 2019). As a young artist, Valledor “had ideas for record jacket designs and things connected with music” (Leo Valledor quoted by Bourdan 2012, 22–23), and his first exhibition was called Compositions: Jazzus Series. A musician himself (he played the saxophone), Valledor created artworks that were carefully constructed yet had the unpredictable, improvisational qualities of free jazz. In this lesson, we’ll learn how certain jazz artists inspired Valledor’s paintings.

2. Give background on free jazz (15 min.):

  • Ask students what they already know about jazz — does anyone play in a jazz band? Do they listen to jazz? What associations come to mind when they think about jazz?
  • To give a basic overview of free jazz, the jazz that was popular during Valledor’s youth, use talking points from

3. Project and read out loud the following quote from Valledor:

“That’s an idea I have about the complimentary colors, and the rest is intuitive. I mix the colors the way I want to see it. But it has to do with the complimentary color of [a] warm color vs. a cool color because it is the only way you can create this kind of vibration which I can see between the colors. It’s like placing two certain notes of sound together and you get a tone.” (Leo Valledor quoted by Bourdan 2012, 22)

Ask students what connections they see between this quote and the tenets of free jazz (10 min.).

4. Divide students into five groups, with each group getting one of the painting/musician pairs below. In their groups, have students first look at their assigned painting and jot down what they notice about it — colors, shapes, lines, associations that come to mind. Then have students listen to their provided music piece while looking at their assigned painting a second time. Again, students should jot down what they notice — can they make any connections between the painting and the music? (15 min.)

5. Assign homework (5 min.): Have students draw from their class-notes to journal-write on the following questions:

  • Critic Peter Frank says that Valledor’s paintings “seek a musical feel” (Frank 2012, 4). Do you agree with this statement with regard to your assigned painting? Why or why not?
  • In your painting, do you see any examples of how Valledor used a “warm color vs. a cool color” to create a “kind of vibration which [you] can see between the colors. It’s like placing two certain notes of sound together and you get a tone”? If so, where?
  • How does listening to the related jazz piece help you to see the painting differently?
  • Do you feel Valledor successfully captured the feeling of the music that inspired him?

6. Next class period: Share out.

a. First, have students share their journal-writes in their small groups from the day before. Give these groups time to prepare short three-minute presentations on their assigned painting/musical piece. In their presentations, they should explain how their painting conveys the feeling of the music they listened to — how does the placement of colors and shapes create a mood? (20 min.)
b. Be prepared to project each painting on the screen/board and play a snippet of the paired music.
c. Each group presents to the class on their painting/music. (25 min.)

7. Wrap up (5 min.): Have individual students volunteer: which painting stood out to them as the most “musical” and why?

Possible Extensions for Grades 9–12:

1. Whose Blues was part of Valledor’s Black and Blue Series, which also included another painting inspired by Sonny Rollins, Sonny’s Side. Compare the Abstract Expressionism of Sonny’s Side to the Hard-Edge style of The Bridge (To Sonny Rollins). How do they both evoke Rollins’s music?

2. To learn more about the Abstract Expressionists who influenced Valledor’s early work, research the painters Paul Klee, Arshile Gorky, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin.

3. Valledor also admired the Beat poets who congregated at the Six Gallery, where he held his first show. Research the Beats and their rebellious, experimental poems. What connections can you make between these poems and Valledor’s art?

Download the teacher packet from sidebar above for complete instructions.

For more lessons based on Leo Valledor, visit the artist’s teacher packet.