Gantt, James Britton, 1911-1984
- Existence: August 29, 1911 - August 21, 1984
James Britton Gantt, an artist, student of Thomas Hart Benton, jazz critic, and ad man, was born August 29, 1911, in Lawrence, Kansas. He was the grandson of Judge James Britton Gantt, Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court whom he was named after. Gantt’s parents divorced early in his childhood, and he was sent to live with his mother’s family. After his mother contracted tuberculosis, he lived with various family members in Denver, Kansas City, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and ultimately with his father in Texas. James ran away from his father’s home as a teenager and traveled around the western United States working as a farmhand, cattle herder, dishwasher, circus performer, and movie stuntman for several years before returning to Texas. During his travels he was introduced to jazz music, which became a lifelong passion.
James Gantt was admitted to the Dallas Art Institute in 1933 where he met Olin Travis who helped him apply for a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI). Gantt studied under Ross Brought and Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City. Benton and Gantt became friends bonding over their rural backgrounds and love of jazz music. When Benton was fired from KCAI in 1939, Gantt joined a group of alumni in his defense.
James Gantt met Hattie Moore while studying at KCAI and the two were married on December 12, 1936. The couple had three daughters Britt, Briane and Toni. During the 1930s-1940s, he exhibited artwork in the Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition held in Kansas City. After studying at the Art Institute, Gantt painted murals for the Works Progress Administration around Kansas City. He participated in the 1939 World’s Fair and several local art exhibitions. In the mid-1940s, the Gantts moved away from Missouri and lived in Wichita, Kansas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Memphis, Tennessee. James Gantt worked in corporate jobs including executive assistant and sales associate. He also drew illustrations for magazines. James Gantt amassed a large collection of jazz records and during the 1940s, he had a local Kansas City radio program to play selections from the collection. It was canceled after he learned the station had refused to host a black band. Gantt regularly contributed illustrations for the jazz magazine Swing Time.
James Gantt died in Milwaukee on August 21, 1984. Posthumously, his artwork was featured in the exhibit “Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton” at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1993 and in a 2008 retrospective organized by the Frank Riehlman Fine Art gallery in New York City. His work can be found in collections across the country.