Jim Flora: The unedited 1990 interview

Below is the unedited transcript from my interview with the great cover artist Jim Flora. You can read the edited version in my finished chapter “The Golden Age of Jazz Covers” from Jazz Gráfico.

Jim Flora was immensely kind and generous. On the day we met, he was in a black turtleneck with his hair in a white duck’s ass ’do – a true hip cat. I admire him as a fellow jazz lover, as a brilliantly imaginative artist, and, most of all, as a person. I look back fondly on all of my conversations with him and I cherish his letters (with their decorated envelopes) as well as the printer proofs (“flats”) and sketches he gave to me. If you want to see some of his work and read more about him, be sure to check out the online Jim Flora Gallery.

(Note: This interview is copyright 1990, 2016 Angelynn Grant. Please do not copy without prior consent. For any questions or comments, please send an email or go to the Contact page.)

Jim Flora Interview – Thanksgiving weekend, 1990

Angelynn Grant (angelynngrant.com)

[There are a lot of CDs in his studio of various kinds: Basie, Monk, Ruth Brown, a newer record by Ruby Braff and Scott Hamilton, also one by Gene Harris. We listen to Basie and he grooves.]

Who was on Mambo for Cats?
Prez Prado. I love mambo music. I use to drive my son crazy.

[sailing]
I sailed all along the East coast.

[jazz playing in background?] Did you make that wooden boat?
No, I bought that from a little kid alongside the road in Gaspé peninsula. It was bare, but for years I kept looking at it, just bare wood, and one day I said, “I’m going to paint it.” I put myself in this kid’s shoes and said, “How would I paint it?” It had gotten so grimy and miserable looking, I just couldn’t stand it. I have another one somewhere.

[vegetarian, except for Thanksgiving and special occasions]

Were you born in Cincinnati?
Bellefonataine, a little town up in the middle of Ohio.

Is your last name Italian?
Italian, but I’m only about one fourteenth. My father’s grandfather was Italian and come over here. His son married a Scottish-Irish woman. So my father was one half Scottish-Irish and one half Italian. He married a woman who was one half English and one half French. In my father’s house, they never spoke Italian. His father died young and of course his mother was Scottish-Irish and didn’t know much Italian.

I figured if you came from Ohio, you were a real blend.
In the biography in the Encyclopedia of Children’s Books, there’s a photo of my father and you can see he was very Italian-looking. Interestingly enough, when I go to Italy, I feel very comfortable and at home, except that people say, “With your name, why don’t you speak the language?” I studied it for years, didn’t do me any good. You really have to be there and use it almost daily to get it to stick.

Did you draw a lot as a kid?
Oh, always, yeah. I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist, I just drew.

You went to the Art Institute of Chicago?
Yes, the art academy associated with the museum. But, a very strange thing, I always drew pictures and they used to lend me to the high school to draw pictures for the high school paper. And I was in the 8th grade. And I guess the principal really thought I was going to do something someday, because I was a pretty bright kid then. I didn’t start going downhill until high school; as soon as I met girls, my grades went to pieces. A phrenologist came to town and evidently he gave her a free pass and she took me there. And I remember being in this hotel room and this phrenologist feeling my head! And then he said to her, “This boy’s gonna be a commercial artist.” And I didn’t know what a commercial artist was. Never heard the term before.

When did you start listening to jazz, at home or when you went off to college?
I went off to Urbana University; I was going to be an architect. And I won a scholarship to the Boston Architectural League. Went to Boston, and the only job I could find was as a bus boy. This was in 1933, the depths of the Depression. And I had to work my way through all seven years of college. And I still couldn’t find a job except as this busboy and I had to work morning, noon and night. And I couldn’t get to class. So, finally, they said to me, three or four weeks after school began, “We can’t hold it open for you any longer.” I had to go home with my tail between my legs. What a defeat!
[the scholarship only covered tuition]

So did you go back to Urbana?
No, I’d finished two years there and worked for a year to save the tuition to Art Academy of Cincinnati which was $400 at that time. This year it is $5600.

When did you listen to jazz, when you got to Boston or when you got to Urbana?
I started listening to jazz in high school. In those days, from thee timee you were a sophomore on, the social thing to do was get a steady date and go dancing. There were dancehalls all around the place. And, you didn’t have to wait until 18 to learn to drive. We learned to drive by the time we were 15, 16. I drove for a real estate agent one summer, when I was 16. I was his chauffer. Anyway, we would go anywhere to dance and during the winter, we would rent local halls in Bellefontaine and there was an orchestra called the Bluebird Serenaders you could rent for 3, 5 dollars a night. $5 a man. This was the late ’20s, early ’30s.

What kind of music?
It was very good. It wasn’t “Mickey Mouse.” In the Midwest, we had dancebands that came through all the time and they were mostly like Red Nichols and Bix Beiderbecke. Of course, Bix Beiderbecke recorded less than 100 miles away from Bellefontaine, in Indiana. His label, Gennett Records, was in Hammond, Indiana, which was about 75-80 miles from Bellefontaine. So that was the tradition there. The Bluebird Serenaders probably sounded, as much as they could, like that because they probably listened to those records. I have an interesting little story to tell you about listening to records: Xante Chavinsky [?] , he was a student and taught at the Bauhaus. Well, I got to know him reasonably well in the ’40s and ’50s. And he was telling me about the Bauhaus days; they had a dance band and Xante played the piano. And he said they tried to sound exactly like the Louis Armstrong records. They had an order in for every new Armstrong record. And when they got it over there they would practice that tune until they sounded exactly like the record. But they never could get the piano to sound that way. And one time, he was experimenting, and he found out that, if you put a thumbtack in every hammer in the piano, the piano sounded exactly like Lil Hardin. And whenever they would go out on a gig, he would take thumbtacks and put them in all the 88 hammers! Isn’t that crazy?!

Were the bands that came through town mostly white bands?
We got black bands; we got McKinney’s Cottonpickers. Most of them were white. Ace Hodkins [?] , the Bluebird Serenaders. At Indian Lake, about 12 miles away, they got a lot of the “Mickey Mouse” bands. Jan Garber. You could up there without a date. The girls would be there on one side, the boys on the other, and for a nickel you could get a roll of tickets. And this is how we learned the agony of rejection. You’d say, “Boy, I like that girl, I’m going to ask her to dance. And you would straighten your tie and go over there and say, “You’d like to dance?” And she’d say, “No.” [laughs] You’d slink back about 3 inches from the floor. You remember those days. We were scared to death of girls. We knew then that girls were more powerful than men.

Did you draw anything to do with the musicians back then, or do you think the jazz influenced any of the drawing you did as a high school kid?
No, I don’t remember that. I drew mostly boats. Always did ships and boats and pirate ships. I remember pirate ships in my youth. And once, when I was 12 or 13, sometime in there, I would go to the library and get out a yachting magazine and draw the boats out of there. And I would answer the ads for yachts for sale and they would send me pictures. I wrote to one Cleveland firm and asked for a picture of a 75 foot yacht and I would draw that. And a few weeks later a salesman appeared and asked to speak to Mr. Flora. And my mother said, “Well, he’s at work.” “Well, he wrote and asked us about buying a yacht. I brought more specific things to show him.” She said, “Well, you’re talking about my son. He’s only 12 years old.” [laughs]

Did you get in trouble for that?
No, I didn’t. But I remember it. My mother must have said, “Oh, the trouble you caused that poor man.”

Which style of drawing did you have then? You must not have been exposed to modern art at that point.
My gosh, in Bellefontaine there was none. You never saw any art in Bellefontaine except chromolithographs. And even in the library, they had almost nothing. I don’t remember being exposed to any art at all until I went to Urbana University; they had a library and there were lot of things there. And then, of course, when I got to Cincinnati, everything was there. And, of course, the first thing you have to do is become a rebel and do everything your own way.

What sort of artists caught your eye right away? Were you very influenced by the Cubists?
The Cincinnati Museum was on the trail and got the exhibits that traveled around. One that I remember that absolutely knock me over was a Picasso drawing exhibit. It was a period when he was drawing stars and connecting stars. It was strange period, I’ve never books of it since then. But I took off on that. Of course, they had Mexican things there and Diego Rivera was big then.

I also noticed a similarity to Covarrubias in your work. That “big-headed” muralist style (large heads, small bodies, eyes-popping out) seemed to be popular then in the Depression.
Right. You hit it. Mostly pre-Columbian influenced, I think.

Also, the paintings of Corbusier have big heads, big faces and big hands, and I saw a connection. At the time Corbusier painted these, Picasso had moved on to the Guernica stage.
Well, you hit me almost exactly right. You mentioned Paul Klee and Mexican and other artists, and they all were big influences on me.

If one looks at some of Légèr paintings from the ’50s, one sees a continuum. It’s not that you were in that style, it’s more you were part of that company of artists. Your covers were so different, unique from the other drawing-based covers.
People today couldn’t do what we did then. There’s too much history of album covers and how they should be done. And everybody gets an oar in. Those days, almost anything we did got accepted. Because it was within 2 or 3 years after they started decorated album covers. No one knew what they were doing.

Alex Steinweiss was a real pioneer then. He seemed to work in a European-influenced (for example, Cassandre) poster style. Although it does seem as though he fell on an appropriate cover indirectly, because it seemed he was trying to put the Cassandre-like style on covers and yet the Europeans were at the same time being so influenced by American jazz music.
Well, now, Alex was a student of a European poster man, not as famous as Cassandre. And Alex was about the same age as me, so he naturally brought his skill that he had been taught to work. But it didn’t translate well into jazz.

You mentioned that he wasn’t much of a pop or jazz music fan.
No, he was a classical music lover. And I think that was one of the reasons I was hired, because I was the jazz man. And eventually I did both. Alex had an ego, boundless. I mean he knew he was God’s gift to art. And it takes an ego to break through things like he did. This is a strange thing: he also had a heart of gold. He gave me all the help when I got there. I was trained as a painter; I didn’t know much of anything about printing and I couldn’t figure out how you got type into artwork and a mechanical. Alex had to teach me the whole thing. He was surprised I didn’t know.

And in the end you created most of your own type, your own letterforms, anyway.
Yes.

You didn’t use set type too much.
Well I had had a press, the Little Man Press, and I used to cut a lot of type into wood, I did a lot of wood engravings, and it gave me that feeling. But Alex was, not a mentor, but he was a very good friend. He gave unstintingly without any jealousy. It was marvelous.

You were trained as a painter down in Cincinnati. After you graduated, did you become more of an illustrator in order to get work?
Yes. I married and I knew I had to make a living. I didn’t know how to do it otherwise other than to get commercial work. I was an assistant to a mural painter, Karl Zimmerman. We painted murals all over Cincinnati. In churches. People like to climb up our scaffolds and have lunch with us. The master I painted with, he would ask good customers by to have lunch with us. One of them was the Executive Vice President of Procter and Gamble. They had to climb up 60 feet, up the scaffold into the dome to have lunch with us.

What kinds of things were you painting? The “Workers Unite” sort of thing?
Oh no. Strictly religious. Zimmerman was sort of an impressionist painter of the local scene. Very good, painted broad strokes. I liked him very much. He was a mentor. He was my first year composition teacher. About 3 years later I became his assistant and he told me that I was the worst student he’d ever had. He told me he had pondered for months, “Should I tell Jim to go back to Bellefontaine and become a barber or something?” [laughs] He talked it over with his wife and she said, “Give him a chance.” I worked very hard, I was indefatigable. And I worked my way through school there by working on the railroad at night. So I worked from 5 to 1 on the railroad and went to school from 9 ’til 4. I got about 3 or 4 hours sleep, except on the weekends I’d sleep around the clock. Just by pure diligence, he got me a scholarship and kept me on and 3 years later, I’d caught up with everyone else and he made me his assistant. But I was just terrible at composition and I really hadn’t thought about being an artist until I had flunked out of being an architect.

What kind of paintings were you making then, while you were in school?
I got into viewing, in sort of a designing way but in 3 dimensions, cats because I love cats. I sold a lot of cats.

Like on Mambo for Cats?
No, design-y, but in a realistic way. Persians and exotic cats. Then, at the end of my time there, I got into doing looser things, robberies and street scenes of the ghetto, things like that. A little bit of everything.

Did you listen to jazz while you painted?
I always listened to jazz. In 1938, a young writer, a kid with the highest I.Q. that had ever gone into the University of Cincinnati, came to the art school and he wanted to create a sort of a magazine and he was looking for an art director. I happened to see him at the door. And he wanted to know where he could find someone. We started talking. I said, “I’d like to do it.” Well, we made a magazine. We bought a press, some type, we sold subscriptions and made a magazine. All ourselves. Printed it, cut the wood, sold the subscriptions.

So that was your first commercial art experience.
That was it. I learned to calculate type. Because we only had enough type to set the first and last pages of the book. Then we’d break that down and set the second and the next to the last pages. So we had to meet in the middle. [laughs] If we didn’t meet, I filled it up with pictures. If it met, I didn’t.

What kind of a magazine was it?
Because we were printing it ourselves, we printed it in sections. It wasn’t a bound magazine of 48 pages. We’d make 8 page inserts and we would sell them separately. And then we made boxes and we put all of them in a box and we sell a complete magazine as all these little pieces in a box.

What was the magazine about?
Well, it was called The Little Man Press, and we had Bob Lowry, who was the editor, he wrote a lot of things. And he wrote persuasive letters to a lot of writers around the country. We got stuff from William Saroyan, Jesse Stuart, poets, we even got a letter of approbation from Thomas Mann. We didn’t have a large circulation, but we sold it to Gotham Bookmart in New York City, I remember. This is 1938, in my last year of art school.

[shows a copy] The style is very childlike. A lot look like woodcuts.
Those are either linoleum or woodcuts.

These are wild! But it’s all very beautiful, the letterpress.
It was just the two of us.

This figure looks like a flying saucer.
It’s a church bell.

Fantastic. These remind me of the work of cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty?
I know his father, I went to school with him in Cincinnati. I’m sure he must have seen this, his father was a subscriber.

There’s an ad in here for the Harvard Advocate.
We traded ads. We traded ads with everybody.

These are great.
I would take woodblocks out and carve them while the press waited. We had a student in my class who was naturally gifted. He’d come to school an hour early.

This illustration has the methods of Rockwell Kent with the style and subject matter of Jim Flora.
I gave all of these blocks to Bob Jones who has The Glad Hand Press in Stamford and he now owns the repository. Every once in awhile he put out a little brochure about that.

Do you play an instrument?
No, I tried to. I studied the piano, the clarinet, the saxophone. I had no talent at all. I studied the piano with a very good teacher and he finally gave up on me and I gave up too. I’m a listener.

Some of these illustrations are reminiscent of Ernst Kirchner, or another German Expressionist. I was wondering if you were influenced by the German Expressionists.
I was influenced by almost everybody.

What made you want to go into architecture?
In high school, an art teacher may have influenced me. She said, “You ought to be an architect. I’ll help you. I think I can get you scholarships.” I think in those days, my direction was probably coming from outside: feedback from teachers, mentors.

Did you ever think you might design boats?
No. I’d always drawn boats, but I never thought of making a living from art until I came from flunking out of architecture and I thought, “What should I do?” And I guess I may have gone back and talked to the teachers at Urbana University and they said, “Why don’t you try art or something like that.” So that’s when I went to Cincinnati. And the only job I could get there was working on the railroad. [laughs] Out in the yard, 10 below zero, it was a gruesome time. But in those days you could do everything.

After you did the murals, what was your next commercial art experience.
Well, as I was saying, this Proctor and Gamble Vice President came up and had lunch with us. A couple of years later, I was married and out of school and I had a studio in the corner of a furniture warehouse. I realized I had to get some clients, so the first one I went to was this man. He was very gracious. We talked for awhile, he took me by the sleeve and led me over to the promotion department, they had their in-house art department there. He said, “I want you to look at Jim’s work and if you find it usable, give him something to do. Let’s see what he can do.” So they did and I began to do work for Procter and Gamble. Dull, terrible work. For point-of-sale things, I would draw people washing diapers, things like that. And then they got me hooked up with an insurance company, I did a lot of work for them. Mostly promotion brochures.

You did the illustrations?
Yes, just the illustrations. I worked for the designers. I did a portfolio of woodcuts of New Orleans for this insurance company. They were having a convention down there, they thought they were so hot, they ran them in their magazine announcing the thing, and then they made a portfolio out of them. And every once in awhile, I run across someone who will say, “I have your New Orleans portfolio.” Evidently, they got onto the market and people bought them in bookstores. They were my idea of what New Orleans looked like even though I’d never been there. [laughs]

Did you go home at night and paint? Did you ever wonder if you could just make a living being a fine artist, selling your paintings?
My wife and I, she was the best painter in her class (she was two years younger). Over the years she was quite successful. She had her work in galleries all over. A dealer who had a place in Palm Beach and a place in New England somewhere, asked her one time, “I think I could sell a whole series on St. Francis if you would do it.” And this inspired her. She went off and read all she could on St. Francis and she produced the most beautiful series of small paintings of St. Francis, with birds on his finger, giving his clothes to the poor. I thought, “Oh gosh, I hope these don’t sell. I wish I could buy them myself.” But the dealer sold them all. I have a few things of hers left.

But you didn’t mind going on as an illustrator? You didn’t feel this compromised you as an artist?
Oh yes, I did. I would have much preferred been an artist. After I got to Columbia Records and saw the whole yeasty thing that was out there, the world of design and illustration, I was quite happy and went at it like a bulldog after a pussycat. Finally, at Columbia Records, I got promoted up to the point where I was doing no artwork, it was mostly going to meetings, writing memos, balancing books. I said, “To hell with it, this is no life for me.” So we picked up two kids, rented the house we had here and went to Mexico. We painted. And we sold paintings down there. We came back with more money than when we went down. We could have stayed there, but I thought I was too young and I wanted to come back and try my luck in New York. They said then, and they say now, “Boy, if you can make it in New York, there ain’t nothing you can’t do.” I had to come back. So, we came back, but I told Columbia Records I wasn’t coming back to work. I started freelancing, and I have been ever since.

You freelanced for RCA?
Yes. The art director for RCA in the ’50s was Bob Jones. And I had hired Bob Jones for Columbia just after the war, and he became my art director there. And he left Columbia Records, and I left Columbia Records and a few years later he pops up as art director at RCA. He called me up and said, “Can you do this and that record cover.”

[mentioning AIGA article by Paula Scher on the Record Industry] This article is more about politics than it is about music, design or art. Here you are mentioned in passing.
Alex Steinweiss invented the record jacket, just the sleeve, which we called “the tombstone” and we got rid of it as soon as possible. But he wasn’t with the company then. He was doing freelance for them. When LP records were invented, they gave me, I think, 6 months and 4 people and said, “Secretly we were going to launch the LP records. You have got to get to all the sales promotion stuff ready in this style, plus what’s going to happen at the convention,” you know, visually. So, I had this entire staff and we could go down and rent hotel rooms in Bridgeport and sit around and work on copy, art, whatnot. It was one of the best times in my life. Man, we worked like dogs, but we all worked as a team. Finally there was six of us working there, so close that we understood every thought that the other one had. We got it all done in time. It was all a let down after that.

Did you use the style that is on Bix + Tram and Kid Ory at the convention? Cut-out letterforms?
Not as wild, no. We had a backdrop. The Vice President of Sales gave each point on the excellence of LP records and why every dealer should them, et cetera. We had a play: we had writers write a script and hire actors. That’s where I met Gary Merrill who later married Bette Davis. He was a starving, young actor then. We had the casting director of CBS give us the cast of the play and Gary was one of them. We all went to Atlantic City together to set up the convention, rehearse the play. I got to know Gary very well. He was a marvelous guy. We were there a few days, we became fast friends. Of course, I never saw him after that. [laughs]

What was the first album you did for Columbia? Bix + Tram, Kid Ory, Gene Krupa?
They all came together. They released them one a month. Which one came first, I don’t know. As soon as I got there, right away, the job was to do that. Because Alex had done Boogie Woogie Piano. He was doing both pop and classical and was overwhelmed.

You had written to them that you didn’t like the way the jazz reissues looked and sent them your ideas. Did you send sketches of album covers?
No, I remember it wasn’t so much the covers, it was the promotion. How to promote them to people; they weren’t reaching jazz people.

What did you say they should do?
I thought they should put out a special little folder for the record shop of the jazz records they had. Not bury them with a other things. And I sent them little mock-ups of how I thought this should be presented, using the releases that they were making.

So did they get to see your drawing style in these mock-ups?
Oh yes, I illustrated them and they looked a lot like The Little Man leaflets. For instance, on the little strip ad, I sent them several ads on how they should do this.

So, when they did hire you, did you carry these ideas out, a brochure with these sort of ads?
Oh, yes. They said, “Here’s all the stuff. Go do it.” That was my meat.

The Louis Armstrong Hot 5 was also a reissues because, obviously, it had been recorded earlier.
All of them [Bix + Tram, Gene Krupa, Kid Ory] were. George Avakian and John Hammond worked on those, George mainly, I think. These recordings had been out of print about 15 years, 20 years. Let’s see. This would be the early ’40s, 15 years. The Louis Armstrong things were made in the middle ’20s, late ’20s. And I was doing these covers in ’42, ’43.

The Hot 5 cover is fairly rare. Same for the Lord Buckley you designed later on RCA. I also found Edith Sitwell’s Facade you did for Columbia; it has very intricate lettering.
Yes, I did that. I did a booklet and a cover that didn’t come out very well, I thought.

There is some resemblance to your ’40s Columbia style in the ’50s work at UPA, the animation house, and in the film titles of Saul Bass, for example, the lettering in Bonjour, Tristesse, or the cut-out shapes in North by Northwest, The Man With the Golden Arm. Of course, one can see cut-out letterforms and shapes in the jazz inspired art of Stuart Davis.
I knew Stuart. When I first came East, a friend of mine who was a photo-agent who lived in the Village introduced me to Stuart Davis. We became good friends.

He was older than you.
He was in his late ’50s, early ’60s. At that time I was about 35. We used to go into town once in awhile and take him out to dinner. Stuart lived in a small apartment and his studio was about 2/3 as big as his dining room. Everything was jammed in there. And he still had, he showed it to me, for 2 years, he made a still life: rubber glove, egg, egg beater, I’ve forgotten what. He painted this, starting out in a sort of realistic way until it finally became abstract. And that’s how he arrived at his style. Painting, same thing: reducing it each time. He nailed these things to this little table. His wife worked at MOMA and she supplied all the money, he wasn’t selling well at all. He, by the way, was a great jazz hound, I used to take him jazz records. He taught George Wettling, the famous Dixieland drummer, how to paint and George, in turn taught him how to drum. Stuart never made much money until his wife finally wrangled a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952 and immediately he became rich. A few months later, I went to see him and he had a big studio on the West Side of Central Park in the studio building, a big barn of a place. I went in and here in this huge studio, over in a corner, he had everything about in the same position as before, the rest of the space just had paintings stacked against the wall. [laughs] He always had the television going with the sound off. He had music on. He liked mostly Dixieland.

What kind of jazz did you listen to while you worked?
I went along with the times. When bop came in, 1947, I got six tickets and took six Columbia Records people and took them to hear Dizzy and Charlie Parker who had come into Bridgeport to play in the theater. And I held it against them ever since: three of them got up and left. They just thought it was terrible.

Did you listen to jazz while you did your children’s books?
Well, I listen to jazz almost all the time. I find that if I listen to classical music, I get too involved and I have to focus on that. But you can listen to jazz because it fills your fibers, I mean it doesn’t occupy your mind, it occupies your blood vessels. I finally found the absolutely perfect record [to work to], and I put it on a cassette and on some days, I’ll put that on and I’ll play it over and over all day. Because it’s so perfect, I never get tired of it. And I know the structure of everyone of those damn tunes, I know every man, how he’s going to play. It’s Count Basie’s Basie Jam, with J.J. Johnson, Sweets Edison, Lockjaw Davis, Zoot Sims and the best damn drummer I’ve ever heard in my life, Louis Bellson. The best drummer of all time, he was perfect in this.

Did you get to meet very many jazz musicians?
Quite a few. Columbia, later on, didn’t do too many jazz things. Their A&R department was mostly swing and dance music and show business. I remember I would take to the head of Pop A&R — a dumb idiot, who knew pop music of the “Mickey Mouse” kind — I remember taking the first record that Erroll Garner made — I happened to be an Erroll Garner fan — I took these things that were made out of mud by a New York store. Anyway, I took them to him in his office and said, “You’ve got to listen to these. This man is comer.” He listens to them, says, “No, no way.”

What’s the sort of “Mickey Mouse” music he preferred?
Abe Lyman. However, he did get Frank Sinatra. He got Jack Benny for CBS and CBS was so grateful, they gave him an apartment in the Gotham Hotel. He was a wheeler and dealer, but he was not a musical man, he was a person man.

But later, at RCA, you got to do more jazz records.
Yes, Bob [Jones] liked my things. Because when I started freelancing, it was very difficult to do my style of things. I had to modify things quite a lot. By that time, I had children, a house, a mortgage. And I had to diversify; I did children’s books. I did get in to do a computer magazine, and they let me swing on the cover. They let me go and do my thing.

What other musicians did you meet?
I met Louis Armstrong. I got to know Benny Goodman very well.

Did he see comment on the covers you designed for him? Did he like them?
Oh yes. Benny got so angry at the A&R people at Columbia Records, that he wouldn’t talk to them, this was just before he left and went to RCA. So they would send me down with the covers and things. I would go and have lunch with Benny and I always got along with him. He was an oddball, not a very likable man, but I still think one of the great ones as a swing man.

He was an oddball?
Yes. He really was an oddball. I’ll tell you a story that George Simon told me about Benny Goodman. Lived out in North Stamford and he had a big practice room out away from the house so he could get quartets and get his musicians up there and they would practice for concerts. And, once, he had a quartet out there with a female singer. They were going over and over the program and finally the woman said, “Benny, it’s getting very cold in here. Do you notice that?” Benny said, “No, I hadn’t.” But then, he says, “Yes, it is.” So he left and they thought, “Oh, he’s going out to turn up the heat.” A few minutes later, he came in with a sweater on. [laughs] Now that’s not the average man.

You met Gene Krupa. [story from letter]
This was after a concert he gave, in his dressing room. His back was covered with the most horrible boils. Gosh, the agony this man went through in a performance. And here he was out there, smiling as if this is the greatest thing in the world.

Did he appreciate your cover design for him?
I don’t think I ever talked to him about that. And I never got any kickbacks from any of those covers. Except, Gene Kelly — during the war, I had almost no artists [working at Columbia], I was working nights trying to do all the things. And Gene Kelly did a children’s album and I didn’t have time to do it. So I gave it to an artist. And he turned in the most horrible thing. There was no way of saving it, and the record was already publicized and we had to use it. And Gene Kelly called me into New York, and he took me out to lunch and he paid the bill, but he raked me over the coals. And I really deserved it. I was in charge. That’s the only feedback I ever had.

You sent me a Benny Goodman cover as well as a sketch. They are very different. Is that the sketch for that cover?
No, no. This is a different thing. I uncovered this and I don’t remember this being made.

The style in the sketch looks like your earlier work for Columbia.
No, it is RCA. I can’t remember if the sketch came before this cover. I probably had to do something that was different than the sketch and made the cover. But I don’t remember.

In some respects the sketch looks like your “Columbia style” and the printed cover looks like your “RCA style.” The Columbia style was more abstracted. However, there are some exceptions to this, for example Shorty Rogers Courts the Count is a blend of both styles.
I guess we all work in cycles.

In the RCA covers, the little figures, for example in the Sauter-Finegan cover and the Lord Buckley, Redskin Romp, resemble characters in your children’s books.
When I came back from Mexico in 1952, and got into freelancing in New York, I quickly found out that I had then could find no market for things like this [the older Columbia style], art directors didn’t want it. I had to start modifying it in order to get work. So I started things like that and I got work.

The older things were more abstract.
They were just the wildest things I could come up with.

Mambo for Cats for RCA ended up pretty wild. It sticks out from the other covers of your RCA period.
Well, again, that was for Bob Jones, and he could appreciate that and use it. Up until about 1957, within 6 months, they switched from artwork to photographs. And all the cover artists started to scurry. And that’s when I had to diversify some more.

And ironically, a lot of those photographs were not even taken by professional photographers, but by producers, engineer, label owners.
A recording engineer for Columbia. He had a Leica, he shot every Columbia artist.

[referring to little cartoon inside the gatefold of the Nick Travis The Panic is On] You did this little cartoon?
Yes. But the layout was done by Bob Jones and his assistant.

[referring to the Burl Ives cover] This is from the same time you were designing the Kid Ory cover, but the style is a bit different.
Well Burl Ives is a sort of a country/folk singer and it didn’t lend itself to a jazzy treatment. Burl Ives was a troublemaker. His wife handled his affairs and if you forgot some da-da-da, she was on the phone to the president of Columbia. I don’t know whether we had to do this over again or what.

[referring to the Jimmy Driftwood cover on RCA] This looks like a woodcut.
I think I did that on scratchboard. And Bob Jones has the artwork for that in a frame in his house, I think.

I don’t have a great many jazz records designed by you with me here.
Well, I sent you everything I had 2 [flats] of. Except for Liberian Suite, which I only had one of, but decided you better have it. I have a cellar of absolute junk.

[referring to Shorty Rogers Courts the Count]
I really enjoyed doing those things.

There are so many wonderful details, right down to the feet on the piano. On the Pete Jolly, there’s an extra foot on the back of the piano! The Pete Jolly Duo, Pete Jolly Trio and Collaboration seem to be very similar.
They were all done about the same time.

There are little stylized “shockwaves” around the figures in the two Pete Jolly covers.
Yes. I don’t know why I did that.

You would go to the recording session or get the first pressings of the record?
A lot of the times you would get the first pressing, but for RCA, most of the time you didn’t get anything. They would call me on the phone and say, “Would you do a Pete Jolly record?” I may not have that record, but I would have another of Pete Jolly’s and I would play that [while I worked].

Sometimes it seems as though you will make a verbal/visual pun, for example, a woodcut look for Jimmy Driftwood.
Oh, I hadn’t noticed that. That would have been unconscious. [laughs]

For Redskin Romp, you made a verbal/visual connection to the saxophone player. On Lord Buckley, you made a jive talking Roman. For Inside Sauter-Finegan, you have the figures literally opened up.
That’s an editorial thing. I made most of my living doing editorial work for magazines and I learned to tie into the story. I suppose it carried over.

There are so many little details in your cover designs that the viewer looks for these special surprise touches. In Concert Jazz by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, the background looks at first glance to just be a blue pattern, but on close inspection, there are all sorts of figures, people in the “concert boxes” doing the craziest things, similar to the naked people on your ship paintings you’re doing now [1990]. In Alex Kallao Trio’s An Evening at the Embers, there’s this car driving up to the nightclub.
Karl Zimmerman used to say, “The mark of the true artist is to know when to stop on a piece of artwork.” He said, “You never know when to stop!” [laughs]

On the sketch for Till Eulenspiegel there are lots of many things going, and the final cover does also, but there are variations. Yet both are great.
Yes, I don’t remember why I had to do two of them.

On the final design, the main figure actually became more abstracted.
Yes, that’s true. Well maybe that sketch got rejected.

What about this sketch for The Incredible Flutist?
That sketch went through. I can’t remember whether it went through like that to cover or whether I had to do another one.

For RCA, then, you did some classical covers too. But you preferred jazz and so Bob Jones would send those to you?
Yes, once in awhile he would call me. I worked fast. You have to learn to be a fireman when you’re a freelancer, as you know, people need things done and you’ve got to come in and help them or you don’t get the gravy. You would drop everything and help them out.

You went to hear a lot of jazz?
In art school, first thing I did was, in those days you could do it, I got a job as an usher at Symphony Hall, an usher at the Cox Theater, usher at the auditorium where they had all the piano recitals and the quartets and whatnot. Plus every symphony concert, every opera, every recital. All the things that came to town. You would usher for an hour and a half and then you got a free seat. Now you can’t do that, ushers belong to a union. But I could usher everywhere.

[Discussion of the Celebrity Club in Providence, RI in the early ’50s]
I used to go to Boston once a month when I worked for this computer magazine. We used to go to this club, I don’t remember the name of it, and they had a house group, organ, drummer and bass and then they would invite people to come in and play with this group. And it was unfailingly great. This trio knew every chord of everything that everyone had ever done, so they could fit right in probably even without a rehearsal. The crowd was mostly black.
Yesterday, I thought I’d go look through some sketchbooks to see if I could find some sketches of another album or two that I did.

Albums didn’t look like much before Alex Steinweiss and you got involved.
Oh, they were terrible things. Brown with gold stamping.

Or reproduced paintings with faux frames around them.
Oh yes. That was the very beginning of it. The big thing when I was there [Columbia], was to get the dealer to pull these albums out, because they were decorated, and show them face-out. Because they were just showing the spines. In those days, you could always listen to records before buying them.

Did you ever do posters for jazz concerts?
I don’t remember ever having done that; wish I had. I would have loved that.

I remember you said you used take your sketchbook into the recording studio and sketch. That was at Columbia?
Yes, I remember going to a Duke Ellington recording session and sketching. Duke was always a very affable, wonderful man. He would come over and check on me and say, “Oh that wasn’t a very good profile. I’ll give you a full face.” [laughs] He was always very self-conscious about his looks. I went there with an art director from Collier’s Magazine once and we sat around sketching. He would pass around and give us the old eye. He wanted to be sure we were getting the right thing. [laughs]

Did it make you self-conscious?
No, not particularly. You know, you go to art school, you get accustomed to people looking over your shoulder. Now, I notice people are different. Back then, they really didn’t interrupt you too much. Now, they crowd around, jostle you, say, “What’s that?” You can’t just go out and sit down and draw from nature. I didn’t too much of that anyway. I’m going to Mexico in January for a month and I think I’ll get back to doing some sketching. I’m going to take some other things down. Changing your style is tough. It doesn’t come out well at first, and you try it, keep trying it.

[referring to Henry Moore]
I knew Henry Moore, too. Not intimately. I went to Stan Hayter’s Atelier 17. During the war, all the artists from France and England, what-not, came over here. And every once in awhile, you would look up from the table where you were etching and see one of them. One night, I looked up and here was Henry Moore sitting right next to me, working on a series of plates he was making for a magazine. I talked to him. At that point, he was only well known by other artists. He had done those underground sketches. This was probably the last year or just after the war. Those were his first claim to fame. The sculpture wasn’t what was known then.

What did you do at that atelier?
Etchings. I loved etching. Mostly Stanley Hayter worked abstractly, so you were encouraged to work abstractly. But I didn’t and I’ve never been able to work abstractly. I’ve been able to abstract down to a certain level, but I can go no further. So, I always keep some anthropomorphic shape or something I can relate to.

Well, even some of Mondrian’s paintings are really just abstracted down from trees. Someone suggested that his Broadway Boogie Woogie was just an abstraction of the street grid of New York City at night.
To me they are the music that’s in there. It’s like reading music. It affects your eyes like the music affects your muscles.

[Discussion of synaethesia in visual artists] Do ever “see” the music?
I think what it does to me is that it releases my inhibitions. It covers them over, gradually I’m listening to music and my spirit gets free and I work without thinking. Which is how you really create, without thinking. I remember in art school, “Will I ever be able to do artwork without thinking about it?” One day, I was doing it, it was flowing out. Music helps me, jazz music in particular, helps me flow. Just in the background it releases my inhibitions and I can swing a little bit, try this, try that.

[Discussion of visual metaphors] In The Day the Cow Sneezed you had the animals go into the oddest shapes, which were really visual metaphors. And perhaps music frees you to create metaphors. Once one lets go of “the knee bone’s connected to the shin bone” then there’s no reason why the knee bond can’t be connected to the ear!
Yes. It releases your imagination. There’s no reason why light can’t come out of your ear. When I say I’m trying to change my style, I mean I’m trying to do things that give me pleasure. When you get tired of doing things, you begin to repeat yourself.

[Discussion of using scratchboard] It’s like carving out of black. Because the counterspace is black, it becomes form.
Yes. Since I’m more of a graphic person than a painter, I guess I appreciate the use of black than painters do. That’s why I’m not really a painter.

[looking at the ship paintings] You had a rounder style there, now it seems you’re going back to a flatter style.
Yes. I’m feeling my way around. I’m sort of returning back to where I was. Where it leads, I don’t know.

Did you study primitive art?
Oh my gosh yes, I studied it all.

Did you work in ceramics?
Yes, I did work in ceramics a bit. I went to a ceramic class and did a whole series based on Leopold, the See Through Crumbpicker I wrote this in the mid-sixties.

Had they been bedtime stories for your children?
A lot of them were, but when my kids got too old, I just made them up. [laughs]

[looking at sketchbook; sketches for all covers] These sketches for An Evening at Embers looks so much more subdued than the final cover.
I must of had a hard time with it.

It seems as though you just put your pencil down and go.

Here are sketches of fly-fishing.
I used to do a lot of work for Sport’s Illustrated.

This early sketch of Collaboration has the two heads melded together, sort of like you did in other covers.
There’s a local amateur theater group and I do all of their posters. And they let me do whatever I want. I get to do some wild posters I wouldn’t normally get to do.

Some of these figures in these sketches are very Arp-like. This is a great sketchbook.
Some of these records, you had a lot of time. Some of them you had to do in a hurry, because they came through special. That’s when Bob would call me on the phone and say, “I got to have so-and-so.” Of course, I knew most of the music and didn’t have to do much research. I just got one of the records out and play it.

Did you know Lord Buckley? Ever see him?
I heard him once down in the Village, but I have a very faint memory of it.

You are a fan of the music and do listen to it. Some cover designers weren’t, and aren’t, necessarily fans of the music and the musicians.
I never got into doing any rock things. They never called me and I was completely out of it anyway.

[referring to a composition] This is in india ink?
Black poster paint or black acrylic.

You prefer acrylics or oils?
Oils are too slow for me. I like to have a half dozen canvasses going, but when I start to move, I want to finish it and oil frustrates me.
Somewhere here I have a ship [painting] I’ve called Ghost of Dubuffet.

Yes, I can see the influence of Dubuffet in your work.
Yes, I love Dubuffet.

These remind me of the hidden picture puzzles in Highlights Magazine for children.
Here’s my one and only tribute of Hieronymus Bosch. I took all these elements out of Bosch and put them in an ocean liner.

Is that a particular ocean liner?
Yes. That’s the Barengaria. All of my ocean liners are absolutely accurate, but I may flip them around. Of course, it didn’t sell, nobody wants a thing like that. [laughs] I had a lot of fun doing it. I’m fortunate to be in the position where I can do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to. At the end of life of doing what everyone else wanted me to, now, for the past 10 years, I’ve been doing what I want to do. I hope I have another 10 or 15 years.

It seems natural that you would do some animation. I see some similarities to Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing.
I used to do a lot of storyboards for UPA. They had an office in New York and I did lot of storyboards for their commercials. Steve Bosustow, the founder of UPA, asked me to come out to California and work. By this time I had a house and four kids. And, boy, I wanted to, but I decided against it. I guess did right because 3 years later, he was bankrupt. Gene Deitch was the art director there, he worked on Gerald McBoing Boing. He was a dear friend of mine. He started with the studio and when it went bankrupt, he got a job with the State Animation Board of Czechoslovakia. He’s done fabulously well. He’s made 2 movies out of my books, one for CBS.

Did you know the art director of CBS television in the fifties, Bill Golden?
Bill Golden! God, I loved that man, a very dear friend of mine. I knew him of course when I worked at Columbia Records; CBS owned Columbia Records. I got to know him very well. He was a Mozart fan and I would send records to him. I would send him everything in the Mozart catalogue. That further endeared me to him, but, we naturally liked each other. When I came back from Mexico and started to freelance, the first thing I did was go to Bill Golden. I had a portfolio of things. I said, “I want to start freelance. Where should I go, Bill.” And he picked up the phone and he called Leo Lionni at Fortune, and said, “Leo, I’ve got a guy over here I want you to meet.” Leo said, “Bring him over right away.” Bill put on his overcoat and marched me over from CBS on Madison Avenue to Rockefeller Center and up to see Leo. Leo looked at my things and Bill said, “Give him a job right now.” Leo gave me a cover. The first job I had when I started to freelance was a cover of Fortune! [May 1952] [laughs] So now I had a sample I could take around [to get more freelance work].

Leo Lionni also did children’s books. Did you get the idea then?
Oh no. I came by the idea of doing children’s books purely by accident. In 1954, I was taking my artwork around, I was still trying to build up clientele. I went to see the art director of Harcourt Brace, thought I might get some book jackets. He looked at all my things and said, “Wait a minute.” He went and got the children’s editor. I had never thought of going to the children’s editor. I told her, I just got back from Mexico. She said, “My gosh, I’ve been looking for somebody to write a book about Latin America because we’ve got so many kids from Latin America in school these days. Can you write one for me?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not a writer. I’ve never written a book in my life.” She says, “Give it a try. And you can illustrate it too.” So I did one called The Fabulous Firework Family. I sent her the script and she said, “Okay, you’re in.” So it’s was purely accidental. The only way I could do this, however, because I was not a writer, I made a storyboard out of it. I get it in my head, so I can see it, like looking at a cartoon, and then I’d make a storyboard. Then I would describe my storyboard and that’s how I would make my story. She said, “I don’t want to see any illustrations. I know you can draw. I want you to think of a teacher standing in front a class of 28 rambunctious kids. And your story she’s going to read to them has got to keep them subdued until the bitter end. So I never sent her any drawings, I always sent her a “script,” just the story. She accepted it. I wrote about 2 or 3 for every one that got accepted.

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