(This essay with interviews first appeared in Jazz Gráfico, the companion catalogue to an exhibit in April 1999 at the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern in Valencia, Spain. It is copyright 1998, 2003 Angelynn Grant – please do not copy without prior consent. For any questions or comments, please send an email to info at angelynngrant dot com. You can also read the unedited transcript of my interview with Jim Flora.)
When jazz lovers pull a record out, just the sight of the cover starts the music playing in their heads: the hard bop soul beat of Donald Byrd’s The Cat Walk (Blue Note), the sensuous yet whimsical bounce in Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (Contemporary) or the profound beauty of Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse). A jazz lover who collects records knows the thrill of an original Blue Note found at a low price and the pain of one just out of reach at too high a price. And a jazz lover and collector who’s also a lover of design is even more in danger of the urge to acquire, hold, admire and listen to these gems.
Although several books in the past fifteen years have celebrated the rich visual history to be found in album cover design, and specifically on jazz album covers, the context is usually design and photography. Even in this context, few books and articles have rigorously looked at these designs from a formal view by analyzing typography, layout and concept and by placing the covers within the broader realm of graphic design history or even art history. In 1949, the Museum of Modern Art in New York did include Alex Steinweiss’s Boogie Woogie and Bob Jones’s Mood Ellington in its exhibit Modern Art in Your Life, an exhibit “designed to show that the appearance and shape of countless objects of our everyday environment are related to, or derived from, modern painting and sculpture, and that modern art is an intrinsic part of modern living.”
Now, within the esteemed walls of the IVAM, this exhibit will enhance the historical context of jazz cover design and invite, one hopes, further criticism and serious evaluation. The scope of the exhibit, from the 1940s to the ’60s, is too vast to be adequately addressed in this essay. Instead, featured here is a glimpse at the insights of two very different, yet equally outstanding pioneers in this field, James Flora and Burt Goldblatt. But first a brief overview is helpful.
The 78 album was a cumbersome object and its original purpose for music lovers was purely organizational: single discs purchased at the store were brought home and placed in the sleeves of the minimally decorated albums. Or customers bought pre-packaged albums devoted to certain musicians, composers or types of music. In the 1930s, the industry referred to these albums as “tombstones” for their somber tones of brown, grey or tan with gold embossed lettering. With the end of the depression in the United States, albums, like other consumer goods, began to sell more and this lead to a new phase in advertising and marketing. The larger labels, Columbia, Decca and RCA Victor, started putting artwork on the covers, at first just on selected ones and gradually, when it became evident that the decorated covers sold better, on all of them. Package design in general was changing as the “supermarket” model for stores became popular. In these new stores, the customer browsed and selected the items, rather than handing the salesman a list of things which he then retrieved from behind the counter. As with old fashioned cod liver oil bottle labels, the “tombstone” was a last holdover from Victorian design. According to Jim Flora, “At that time, record shops were undergoing great change. Instead of filing albums on shelves with only the back bones showing, dealers were being urged to completely rearrange their shops so as to display the newly decorated albums face out. A new concept. The covers functioned as posters and the more intriguing the design the better the sales.”
This new era of designed albums began in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Alex Steinweiss was hired by Columbia, and his apprenticeship with European designer Joseph Binder had prepared him to revolutionize the just emerging field. Shortly after his arrival, he hired Jim Flora, who in turn hired Bob Jones, all three of them young and solidly well-versed in modern art and design. These men as well as their coevals at the other labels, like David Stone Martin at Asch, brought a new sensibility, especially with jazz and pop covers: stylized and abstracted, sometimes surreal, with vivid colors and dramatic artwork. This “Americanization” of ’20s European poster design was inevitable, not just because of these designers’ backgrounds, but because of the constraints of production. Steinweiss said, “The covers of the forties and early fifties were more often illustration-based. Designers were limited to two, three or sometimes four colors which had to be pre-separated. Offset lithography and the ability to use fine half-tones and the four-color process became common only much later….[We had] what we call line-letterpress, in other words, there were very few half-tones, very few shaded areas, everything was kind of flat, and the color is fresh.”
The new cover art had a profound effect on sales. (Despite the fact that Bob Jones recently said, “Nobody ever went out and bought an album because of the cover.”) And designing covers became highly desirable work, attracting fine artists as well as designers. As Bob Jones said, “Album covers were a way of making a decent living with the widest opportunity of expression.” This was still a time when owning a record collection was considered a sign of sophistication and designing a cover was prestigious even to fine artists. “There was a certain amount of glamour to the music industry….It was record jackets and pharmaceutical product packaging that were the two most desirable design jobs.”
As the ’40s and ’50s progressed, so did the evolution of the album cover. In 1948, Columbia Records asked Steinweiss to design a jacket for the new 12″ long-playing record, the LP. He invented the wrap-pack, pieces of paper on which the design was printed and which were then pasted onto board backing. This new format, the LP, increased the amount of music a record buyer got with each disc and this in turn helped increase the popularity of this form of entertainment. Also, the revitalized post-World War II economy with its accompanying renewed consumerism insured that, along with a car and a Hoover vacuum cleaner, each home boasted a record player. And so the record industry took off. Designers at larger labels struggled to keep up with the number of jackets coming across theirs desks in one day. In the mid ’50s, improvements in both photographic film and offset printing, as well as the change from big bands to individual jazz stars, gave rise to the photo-based cover design. The ’50s also saw the rise of true “auteurs” of jazz cover design, like Reid Miles and William Claxton.
Reid Miles went to work for John Hermansader in 1952, where his first assignment was Blue Note covers. When he left Hermansader’s studio in ’54, he took this client with him and he continued designing for Blue Note until the late ’60s. During those years he defined a style that many came to associate with New York hard bop. Blue Note was unusual as a label in offering its musicians a few days of paid rehearsal before the recording session. That level of care was noticed by every jazz ear, and Reid Miles’s crisp covers seemed well-suited to the sound. These covers, with their whitespace like the oxford shirts of the hard boppers and the black and white photos like stills from a B movie (appropriate when considering the mob-owned jazz clubs), told the world about a certain New York style. Ironically, Miles was the rare standout cover designer who professed no love for the music (Steinweiss was another). In the mid-fifties, Swiss graphic design was very influential in American design; the modernist aesthetic was in full swing. Miles’s covers evoked the grid and celebrated the letterform; they juxtaposed type, photograph, mark and whitespace in a clean yet vibrant syncopation. He used Francis Wolff’s photos to great advantage, whether in full-bleed or postage-stamp size. He combined set type with handwriting (Andy Warhol’s mother’s) in his designs for Prestige as well as for Blue Note, for example, on Thelonious Monk with Sonny Rollins and Frank Foster and The Story of Moondog. The use of a breezy, feminine penmanship was common in ’50s advertising and bookjackets, and was often employed by designers like Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. Miles’s use of Julia Warhola’s script elevates these covers to the highly fashionable profile evoked by sophisticated Madison Avenue at that time.
On the other coast, UCLA student, jazz lover and photographer William Claxton met new label owner Richard Bock at a club one night, and began a career that established the look of West Coast jazz and the West Coast swinger. As a counterbalance to the black and white/smoke-filled club/film noir feel of the covers of New York and Chicago based labels, California labels like Pacific Jazz and Contemporary used four-color photos and a more open, daylight atmosphere. When black and white performance photos were used for Pacific Jazz covers, they were combined with the warm tones of red, yellow and orange-brown in bars, frames and type.
Claxton, like Burt Goldblatt, was at home with jazz musicians, always on hand to photograph recording sessions and club gigs. He was comfortable enough with them to ask the musicians to pose on a carousel or on a beach. “The musicians knew me and trusted me. I was close to them. At one late-night recording session, RCA Victor’s A&R man, Jack Lewis, turned to Shorty Rogers, the composer of a just-recorded Pete Jolly Trio side, and asked him the name of the tune. Shorty shook his head, then looked up at me with my camera in hand, smiled, and said, ‘Hey man, how ’bout Clickin’ with Clax.’” In a similar way, Bud Powell named a tune for Goldblatt, and Chris Connor scatted new lyrics in his honor. Covers designers like these were so critical to the whole process of making a record that they sometimes even decided on the title. Claxton titled Chet Baker and Crew (Pacific Jazz) after having successfully posed them on a yacht. “Visiting Easterner, Sonny Rollins, wanted to wear a cowboy hat on his cover, so I took him to the Mojave Desert, added a six-shooter and created Sonny Rollins Way Out West.” Goldblatt titled one of Lester Young’s albums on Verve, on the cover of which he placed his gleeful photo of Young and Roy Eldridge sharing a joke: “That was the last thing Prez did in the studio. It was very sad that it was the last thing, so I said, “Let’s title it Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’.”
At some point at the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, the photo-based cover that featured the session leader started to give way to alternative photos and illustrations intended to grab the buyer’s attention. Jazz albums had to compete with rock and roll and a new pop culture. Female models graced the covers of West Coast LPs like Bob Cooper’s Coop! (Contemporary), as well as greasy soul jazz like Lou Donaldson’s Good Gracious (Blue Note) or even the relatively straight hard bop of Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ (Blue Note). Claxton writes, “[Around 1957] was a period when all the record companies decided that, with so much competition in the recording market, a jazz musician-personality and his music were perhaps not enough to insure sales, so the thinking was to put sexy and pretty women on the covers. So, Pacific Jazz did it too.” Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Blue Note owners Lion and Wolff thought it was important to feature the faces of the jazz musicians on the covers, faces seldom seen outside New York or even outside Harlem. But, according to Ruth Lion, “they got a lot of flak from distributors across the country who felt a pretty girl would have been better.” As the ’60s wore on, the great age of jazz cover design came to an end as the rock and pop visual aesthetic took over and marketing departments determined what would sell.
A full range of typographic solutions are found in this exhibit: handcrafted letterforms, letterpress woodtype, classic serif typefaces, lyrical script fonts and the bold sans serifs of Swiss Modernism. The argument over text placement stayed constant: would text placed at the top be more accessible and thus aid marketing? Neil Fujita, former art director at Columbia, claimed to be the one who first dictated that the type be placed in the top third of the cover. On Reid Miles’s first credited cover design on Blue Note, Miles Davis, Volumes 1 and 2, the broadly indulgent whitespace at the top brought complaints from Blue Note that shoppers would have to pull them out of the bin in order to read the type. “But that was the point!” said the designer. But Bob Jones summed it up best: “All of us that are really interested in typography have strong feelings about it. You develop your style, and the best design in the world is meaningless if you cannot read what you should read.“
The constraints of cover design helped inspire the designers. Whether it was the limits of printing or purely budgetary, it was the challenge of creating within boundaries that these designers most recall when asked to look back. Steinweiss said, “I always tried to limit myself. I wanted to work within limitations, which I think is good, discipline is good, makes a better design sometimes, when you use an economy of means.” Even when the four color process offered greater freedom, some held back. Reid Miles said, “Even when everyone started doing full color, I said, ‘Keep it this way, it has more impact.’” And, “It didn’t mean you had to have full color — two colors didn’t hurt that product at all. The few full color covers I did were not as strong as the ones with black and white and red.“
There are as many graphic design styles and movements represented in this exhibition as are found across any design area or product, for example, magazine design or package design. They all inherited the effects of the Russian Constructivists, the Bauhaus and French poster design. These designers and photographers were exposed to the art of the time, from Stuart Davis to William deKooning to Walker Evans. Jazz music inspired so many fine artists and for these early cover designers the choice of visual expression was wide open. Bob Jones said, “The fact that I could go from a poster-y kind of an eye with an oversized teardrop to an actual painting, figural illustration, stylized background, with a very plastic feeling, to an almost juvenile cartoon of an old railroad engine, an abstraction and so on. Where you can you get any more of a range than this field offered?“
Jazz musicians in the ’40s and ’50s were rarely seen in the movies or on TV. Even for those who could see the greats of jazz perform firsthand, but especially for those who never got that chance, the jazz album cover gave a visual to go with the audio of jazz. The album designs defined to a great extent how fans perceived jazz to look. They are important not just in jazz history, but in our visual history as well.
Resources used in this essay:
William Claxton and Hitoshi Namekata, Jazz West Coast: Artwork of Pacific Jazz Records (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 1992).
Robert Goldwater and René d’Harnoncourt, “Modern Art in Your Life,” The Museum of Modern Art, 17, No. 1 (1949).
Scott Gutterman, “From City Slick to Country Camp,” Print, 45, No. 1 (January/February 1991).
Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham, California Cool (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992).
Graham Marsh, Felix Cromey and Glyn Callingham, Blue Note: The Album Cover Art (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991).
Paula Scher, “Rashomon in the Record Business,” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, 7, No. 4 (1990).
Martina Schmitz, “Facing the Music,” Print, 40, No. 2 (March/April 1986).
Martina Schmitz, Album Cover: Geschichte und Ästhetik einer Schallplattenverpackung in den USA nach 1940 (Munich: Scaneg, 1987).
James Flora was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1914. Around 1940, after studying at Urbana University and the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he worked as a freelance graphic designer in Cincinnati and as an assistant to muralist Carl Zimmerman. An avid jazz fan, Flora believed Columbia Records could do a better job of promoting their reissued jazz 78s. He sent sketches of brochures along with some drawings to Alex Steinweiss. Flora’s drawing style was a mélange of cubism and Matisse/Miró/Klee influences; his figures recall those of Mexican painter/muralist Miguel Covarrubias, their level of activity recalls Hieronymus Bosch. He cited other Mexican artists as influences: Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and Tamayo as well as primitive pre-Columbian art. His style contrasts with Steinweiss’s posterly, Cassandre-influenced style, although both men showed the evidence of backgrounds steeped in European design. Steinweiss liked what he saw, hired Flora and eventually assigned him the pop covers, which included the much desired jazz series.
Flora’s covers stand out from other early designs; they are distinctive and original in approach and subject matter. Their energy aptly translates the excitement and improvisation of twenties jazz, swing and bebop. He was in the enviable position of getting test pressings for upcoming records from the factory, which was conveniently located next to Columbia headquarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He also attended recording sessions, sketchbook in hand. Flora remembered one session in the mid-forties where Gene Krupa, whose frenetic drum-playing produced great quantities of sweat, had to remove his shirt and have ointment rubbed on his sore-covered back. An exhausting showman, Krupa, the most famous drummer of the swing era, was a grinning (and, perhaps, grimacing) gum-chewing big band frontman, with a flamboyant style of wide arm swings and gestures. Flora captured this motion in a percussive, multi-limb, multi-drum portrait on Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (1947). The image, playful typography and eye-popping colors have a visual jazz and syncopation that capture Krupa’s (and Flora’s) wild style.
In an August 1990 letter, Flora wrote, “When I came to Columbia in February 1942 it was a small company entirely contained in two buildings in Bridgeport. One contained all of the executive offices except for A&R and the recording studios which occupied a multi-storied building on 7th Avenue in New York City. Next door to our offices in Bridgeport was the factory, the only facility at that time.
“Since the company was so small and closely knit, design and marketing decisions were easy to get. I could walk a cover or promotion design through all of the okays I needed in half an hour….It was a very yeasty time and since nobody really knew what would work and what wouldn’t, many far-out ideas were accepted, tried and kept or discarded. I remember submitting a sketch for a new small format magazine called CODA. It was aimed at dealers, reviewers, distributors, etc., announcing the new monthly releases of classical and semi-classicals.
“The idea was accepted, was a howling success and became a collectors’ item among designers. Since it was my idea I had to do it. There was never time in the office so I did it at home for two or three years without compensation. I didn’t mind. It was so exhilarating to get your stuff into print. Later on, when I began to freelance in NYC, it opened a lot of doors for me. Almost all art directors, it seemed, also collected records.“
When Steinweiss left, Flora became art director of Columbia. He hired Bob Jones, who soon succeeded him when Flora became advertising manager and then sales promotion manager. His job became less and less involved with design, more with administration, and he left, taking over a year to paint and live in Mexico with his first wife Jane, also an artist, and their children. Returning to New York City, he freelanced in many areas of design. Bob Jones, now art director for RCA Victor, used Flora’s talents on several jazz covers. His style had evolved from the painterly/posterly to the illustrative, still kinetic and multi-leveled, but now populated with tiny iconic elements, each cover a pictographic storybook. A glance at his sketchbook from this period reveals the numerous sketches for each cover; redrawing, refining, abstracting, and yet each sketch itself a happy world of quizzical characters.
At this time, Flora also published many delightful children’s books, including The Fabulous Firework Family (1955), The Day the Cow Sneezed (1957) and Leopold, the See-through Crumbpicker (1961). He was also art director for the magazine Park East, and did work for many others including Look, Life, Holiday and The New York Times Magazine. He illustrated scientific and economic articles and he created illustrated maps. He also freelanced for United Productions of America, the animators who created Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo, and in 1961 he produced the first animated versions of one of his children’s books. In 1980, Flora began devoting his time to painting steamships, grandly intricate paintings at times whimsical and with almost mischievous details.
Sadly, this lively, generous, brilliant and kind man passed away on July 9, 1998 at 84 years old. What follows is a relaxed interview from November 1990, held in Jim Flora’s home and studio, with jazz playing in the background.
[There are a lot of CDs in his studio of various musicians: Basie, Monk, Ruth Brown, a newer record by Ruby Braff and Scott Hamilton and also one by Gene Harris. We listen to Basie and he grooves.]
AG: Did you draw a lot as a kid?
JF: Oh, always, yes. I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist, I just drew.
AG: You went to the Art Institute of Chicago?
JF: Yes, the art academy associated with the museum. But, a very strange thing: I always drew pictures and [in grammar school,] they used to lend me to the high school to draw pictures for the high school paper. I was in the eighth 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 going to be a commercial artist.” And I didn’t know what a commercial artist was. Never heard the term before.
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!
AG: When did you listen to jazz, when you got to Boston or when you got to Urbana?
JF: I started listening to jazz in high school. In those days, from the time you were a sophomore on, the social thing to do was get a steady date and go dancing. There were dance halls all around the place. During the winter, we would rent local halls in Bellefontaine and there was an orchestra called the Bluebird Serenaders you could rent for $5 a man. This was the late ’20s, early ’30s.
AG: What kind of music?
JF: It was very good. It wasn’t “Mickey Mouse.” In the Midwest, we had dance bands 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?!
AG: Were the bands that came through town mostly white bands?
JF: We got black bands; we got McKinney’s Cottonpickers. Most of them were white. Ace Hodkins, the Bluebird Serenaders.
In art school, first thing I did was I got a job as an usher at Symphony Hall and as an usher at the Cox Theater, 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.
AG: Do you think the jazz influenced any of the drawing you did then?
JF: 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 when I was twelve or thirteen, 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 twelve years old!“
AG: Which style of drawing did you have then? You must not have been exposed to modern art at that point.
JF: 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 lots 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. [laughs]
AG: What sort of artists caught your eye right away? Were you very influenced by the Cubists?
JF: The Cincinnati Museum was on the trail and got the exhibits that traveled around. One that I remember that absolutely knocked 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 seen books of it since then. But I took off on that. Of course, they had Mexican things there and Diego Rivera was big then.
AG: 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.
JF: Right. You hit it. Mostly pre-Columbian influenced, I think. You mentioned Paul Klee and Mexican and other artists, and they all were big influences on me.
AG: You were trained as a painter in Cincinnati. After you graduated, did you become more of an illustrator in order to get work?
JF: 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, Carl Zimmerman. We painted murals all over Cincinnati. In churches. People liked to climb up our scaffolds and have lunch with us. One of them was the Executive Vice President of Procter & Gamble. He had to climb up 60 feet, up the scaffold into the dome to have lunch with us.
AG: What kinds of things were you painting? The “Workers Unite” sort of thing?
JF: 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 three 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 five to one o’clock on the railroad and went to school from nine ’til four. I got about three or four 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, three 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.
AG: What kind of paintings were you making then, while you were in school?
JF: I got into viewing, in sort of a design-y way but in three dimensions, cats. Because I love cats. I sold a lot of cats.
AG: Like on “Mambo for Cats”?
JF: 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.
AG: Did you listen to jazz while you painted?
JF: I always listened to jazz. In 1938, a young writer [Robert Lowry], a kid with the highest IQ 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. [“The Little Man Press”]
AG: So that was your first commercial art experience.
JF: 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.
Because we were printing it ourselves, we printed it in sections. It wasn’t a bound magazine of 48 pages. We’d make eight page inserts and we would sell them separately. And then we made boxes and we put all of them in a box and we’d sell a complete magazine as all these little pieces in a box.
AG: What was the magazine about?
JF: Bob Lowry 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.
AG: After you worked on the murals, what was your next commercial art experience.
JF: Well, as I was saying, this Proctor & 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 promotions department, they had their inhouse 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 & 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.
AG: You did the illustrations?
JF: 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 the illustrations were so hot that 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]
AG: But you didn’t mind being an illustrator? You didn’t feel this compromised you as an artist?
JF: Oh yes, I did. I would have much preferred having been a fine 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. But I told Columbia Records I wasn’t coming back to work. I started freelancing, and I have been ever since.
AG: Albums didn’t look like much before Alex Steinweiss and you got involved.
JF: Oh, they were terrible things. Brown with gold stamping. The big thing when I was at Columbia, was to get the dealer to pull these albums out, once 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.
AG: You had written to Columbia that you didn’t like the way the jazz reissues looked and sent them your ideas. Did you send sketches of album covers?
JF: 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. I thought they should put out a special little folder for the record shop about the jazz records they had. Not bury them with other things. And I sent them little mock-ups of how I thought this should be presented, using the releases that they were making. I illustrated them and they looked a lot like “The Little Man” leaflets.
AG: Alex Steinweiss was a real pioneer then. He seemed to work in a European-influenced poster style, like Cassandre’s.
JF: Alex was a student of a European poster man [Joseph Binder], not as famous as Cassandre. And Alex was about the same age as me, so he naturally brought the skills that he had been taught to work. But it didn’t translate well into jazz. 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.
AG: And in the end you created most of your own type, your own letterforms, anyway. You didn’t use set type too much.
JF: Well, at The Little Man Press 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. Later, he invented the record jacket, just the sleeve. But he wasn’t with the company then. He was doing freelance for them. When LP records were invented, they gave me, I think, six months and four people and said, “Secretly, we are 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 letdown after that.
AG: Did you use the style that is on “Bix + Tram” and “Kid Ory” at the convention? Cut-out letterforms?
JF: 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, etc. 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]
AG: What was the first album you did for Columbia? Bix + Tram, Kid Ory, Gene Krupa?
JF: 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.
AG: Your covers were so different, unique from the other drawing-based covers.
JF: 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 two or three years after they started decorated album covers. No one knew what they were doing.
AG: The “Louis Armstrong Hot 5” was also a reissue because, obviously, it had been recorded earlier.
JF: All of them were. George Avakian and John Hammond worked on those, George mainly, I think. These recordings had been out of print about fifteen, twenty years.
AG: Did you know the art director of CBS television in the fifties, Bill Golden?
JF: 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 freelancing. 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.
AG: Leo Lionni also did children’s books. Did you get the idea then?
JF: 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 two or three for every one that got accepted.
AG: You freelanced for RCA?
JF: 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.“
AG: There is some resemblance between your work and the ’50s work at UPA, the animation house. I see some similarities to Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing.
JF: 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 I did right because three 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 two movies out of my books, one for CBS.
AG: There are also similarities between your work and the film titles of Saul Bass. And one can also see cut-out letterforms and shapes in the jazz-inspired art of Stuart Davis.
JF: 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.
AG: He was older than you.
JF: 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 two thirds as big as his diningroom. Everything was jammed in there. And he still had this thing, he showed it to me: for two 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 the 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, crammed in, and 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.
AG: What kind of jazz did you listen to while you worked?
JF: I went along with the times. When bop came in, 1947, I got six tickets and took six Columbia Records people to hear Dizzy and Charlie Parker who had come into Bridgeport to play in the theater. The three of them got up and left. They just thought it was terrible. And I held it against them ever since.
AG: Did you listen to jazz while you did your children’s books?
JF: 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 every one of those damn tunes, I know every man, how he’s going to play. It’s Count Basie’s “Basie Jam” [on Pablo], 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 and he was perfect in this.
AG: Did you get to meet very many jazz musicians?
JF: 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 the head of Pop A&R, a dumb idiot, who only knew pop music of the “Mickey Mouse” kind. I remember taking him 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 said, “You’ve got to listen to these. This man is a comer.” He listens to them, says, “No, no way.“
AG: What’s the sort of “Mickey Mouse” music he preferred?
JF: 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.
AG: But later, at RCA, you got to do more jazz records.
JF: Yes, Bob Jones liked my things. When I started freelancing, it was very difficult to do my style of things. I had to modify quite a lot. By that time, I had children, a house, a mortgage.
AG: What other musicians did you meet?
JF: I met Louis Armstrong. I got to know Benny Goodman very well.
AG: Did he comment on the covers you designed for him? Did he like them?
JF: Oh yes. Once, 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.
AG: He was an oddball?
JF: Yes. He really was an oddball. I’ll tell you a story that George Simon told me about Benny Goodman. He had a big practice room out away from his house so he could 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. Didn’t you notice?” Benny said, “No, I hadn’t.” But then, he says, “Yes, it is cold.” 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.
AG: Did you know Lord Buckley? Ever see him?
JF: I heard him once down in the Village, but I have a very faint memory of it.
AG: You met Gene Krupa. You wrote me the story about seeing him backstage.
JF: 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.
AG: Did he appreciate your cover design for him?
JF: I don’t think I ever talked to him about that. And I never got any feedback about any of those covers. Except, from 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.
AG: You sent me a Benny Goodman cover as well as a sketch. They are very different. Is that the sketch for that cover?
JF: No, no. This is a different thing. I uncovered this and I don’t remember this being made. 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.
AG: 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.
JF: I guess we all work in cycles.
AG: In the RCA covers, for example in the Sauter-Finegan cover, the Lord Buckley or Redskin Romp, the little figures resemble characters in your children’s books.
JF: When I came back from Mexico in 1952, and got into freelancing in New York, I quickly found out that I 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.
AG: The older things were more abstract.
JF: They were just the wildest things I could come up with.
AG: “Mambo for Cats” for RCA ended up pretty wild. It sticks out from the other covers of your RCA period.
JF: Well, again, that was for Bob Jones, and he could appreciate that and use it. Up until about 1957, within six 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.
AG: On Nick Travis “The Panic is On” did you create this little cartoon inside?
JF: Yes. But the layout inside was done by Bob Jones and his assistant.
AG: On this Jimmy Driftwood cover on RCA, the image looks like a woodcut.
JF: I think I did that on scratchboard. And Bob Jones has the artwork for that in a frame in his house, I think.
AG: It’s like carving out of black. Because the counterspace is black, it becomes form.
JF: Yes. Since I’m more of a graphic person than a painter, I guess I appreciate the use of black more than painters do. That’s why I’m not really a painter.
AG: 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.
JF: They were all done about the same time.
AG: There are little stylized “shockwaves” around the figures in the two Pete Jolly covers.
JF: Yes. I don’t know why I did that.
AG: You would go to the recording session or get the first pressings of the record?
JF: A lot of the times you would get the first pressing at Columbia, but for RCA, most of the time you didn’t get anything. Bob would call me on the phone and say, “Would you do a Pete Jolly record?” I may not have had that record, but I would have another of Pete Jolly’s and I would play that [while I worked].
AG: Sometimes it seems as though you will make a verbal/visual pun, for example, a woodcut look for Jimmy Driftwood.
JF: Oh, I hadn’t noticed that. That would have been unconscious. [laughs]
AG: 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.
JF: 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.
AG: 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 be just a blue pattern, but on close inspection, there are all sorts of figures, people in the theatre boxes doing the craziest things, similar to the naked people on the ship paintings you’re doing now.
JF: Carl Zimmerman used to say, “The mark of the true artist is to know when to stop on a piece of artwork.” He said to me, “You never know when to stop!” [laughs]
AG: For RCA, then, you did some classical covers too. But you preferred jazz and so Bob Jones would send those to you?
JF: 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.
AG: I remember you said you used take your sketchbook into the recording studio and sketch. That was at Columbia?
JF: 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. Duke would pass around and give us the old eye. He wanted to be sure we were getting the right thing. [laughs]
AG: Some of your figures remind me of Henry Moore’s sculptures.
JF: 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, whatnot, 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.
AG: What did you do at that atelier?
JF: Etchings. I loved etching. Mostly Stanley Hayter worked abstractly, so you were encouraged to work that way. 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.
AG: 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.
JF: To me those marks are the music that’s in there. It’s like reading music. It affects your eyes like the music affects your muscles.
AG: Do ever “see” the music?
JF: 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 thinking 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.
AG: There is so much going on in your current paintings.
JF: 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.
I’m feeling my way around. I’m sort of returning back to where I was. Where it leads, I don’t know. 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.
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 ten years, I’ve been doing what I want to do. I hope I have another ten or fifteen years.
Burt Goldblatt was born in 1925 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He served in the army in World War II and afterwards studied at the Massachusetts College of Art. After graduation he worked in a printing plant where he learned all that went into production at that time: stripping, platemaking, retouching, lessons not taught in art school. After freelancing for a time in Boston, he moved to New York City and began a prolific career as a commercial artist and photographer, becoming especially prolific in cover design, creating about 200 cover designs in 1955 alone. That same year he won the New York Art Director’s Award for best cover design of the year and the Princeton University Library exhibited his work.
One of Goldblatt’s first cover designs was on a bootleg album for Billy Holiday on the Jolly Roger label in 1950. He worked for Savoy, Emarcy, Bethlehem and many other labels. With his first covers he aimed for a visual simplicity and yet also a strength of image by eliminating song titles from the cover and by creating unique and intriguing illustrations. His drawings of musicians employ a dynamic, serpentine line. The variations in weight from thick to thin would alone mark the drawing as distinctively his, but it is his original use of unusual perspectives that distinguishes Goldblatt’s line drawings from others of the same period, whether it’s a view of Don Byas from above or George Wallington from below.
His other illustrative covers are equally distinctive, for example, a broadly abstracted caricature of Frances Faye or a portrait of Bud Freeman composed entirely of tiny saxophones. He utilized a vast range of methods and styles, including collage, montage, even x-rays. In addition to his illustrative designs, Goldblatt also became one of the outstanding photographer/designers. His photographic cover designs for Bethlehem combine evocative pictures with restrained yet lyrical typography. These covers are timeless designs, elegant works unto themselves that never look outdated or old fashioned.
Amazingly, he was self-taught in photography. He kept himself unobtrusive in recording studios and nightclubs, capturing millions of filmed images, some of which later graced his cover designs. He was accepted by the musicians and, in fact, was friends with many. More than just a jazz fan, it is safe to say that Goldblatt was himself part of the jazz scene, not just a chronicler of it.
Goldblatt designed covers into the ‘60s, but the changes in the industry brought about by rock and roll caused him to follow other pursuits. He went from a prolific cover design career to a prolific writing career, publishing and co-authoring 17 books on topics as diverse as Mobs And The Mafia The Illustrated History Of Organized Crime, The Marx Brothers At The Movies and The World Series A Complete Pictorial History. He has also published books of his jazz photography and on the Newport Jazz Festival. Today, living in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and traveling regularly with his wife, he still pursues many projects both as a visual artist and as a writer. His work has been honored many times, in 1962 at the Smithsonian and in the winter of 1993-94 at Harvard University. He finishes the interview by saying, “I’m a survivor; I’ve had cancer and triple-bypass heart surgery. I walk three miles a day with my dog. I was very active as a kid. I feel good.“
The following interview took place in July 1998, at his comfortable home and studio, filled with art and books and sunlight.
AG: Did your parents encourage your interest in art?
BG: My father encouraged me to draw because he used to draw a little himself. He didn’t have the money to give me drawing paper or the wherewithal, nor did he know what would be good for me. He worked in the construction business and they were tearing down a school, so he went in and he took the whole slate from one of the schoolrooms and brought it home for me, this thing must have weighed about a thousand pounds, just so I’d have something to draw on. I wanted to draw. I would draw on everything and anything. I had no training. They used to pack fruit in wooden crates; I used to draw on the crates. I became very friendly with a Chinese laundry man on Blue Hill Avenue, a sweetheart of a guy, who used to paint watercolors himself. He never showed me anything, but he knew I was needy and he would take out a stack of shirt cardboards, one side was very white, the other side was brown or cardboard, and he would give them to me. He never asked for anything. And then there was Garfinkel’s furniture store across the street, and they had these huge corrugated packing cases. And I was dragging these home just to have something to draw on.
When I was in the army in WW2, I used to decorate the envelopes for the other men. The officers censored the mail and here they had some voluptuous woman on the front of the envelope. I found it was an easy way to make some money because the guys liked what I was drawing and paid 15 cents or a quarter. But the officers more than anybody else wanted me to do this because it would titillate them.
AG: How did jazz enter into your world? Was it the radio?
BG: No. I loved to Lindy, I loved to dance. And we used to go to the Raymor-Playmor, near Symphony Hall. I could be there the whole night. I loved to dance.
I wanted to meet musicians, not as just entertainers, but as people. I got very jealous when I used to go backstage at Symphony Hall when they let me in occasionally, and I’d see these people and they were going in and out of the dressing rooms. And I said, “I want to do that.” All the camaraderie. I loved the way Coleman Hawkins played, I loved the way Pete Brown played, Johnny Hodges, whoever. But I wanted to get access. I started to do caricatures of the musicians during the concerts and I would take them backstage. I did one of Big Sid Catlett, who I consider the finest drummer of all. He wrote on it, “To a fine artist. Big Sid Catlett.” Another time, he gave me a set of his brushes, and I made a mobile out of them.
AG: I read a story how you got to hear Lester Young while you were based in Alabama . Did you get to hear much music while you were in the army?
BG: Yes. I would go to the PX and as soon as I would put my foot over the threshold, I would hear this tune called “The Birmingham Special” by Erskine Butterfield, a pianist. Very catchy. As you would come into the compound, these black kids would try to sell you sweet potato pies. Walking into the PX, you would see an old fashioned jukebox with all the colored lights whirling around. As you looked out of the window, you saw these little black kids staring up at this jukebox. And you’d finally figure out that this was the most beautiful thing they ever saw in their life. This camp, like all the other basic training bases, was segregated. There was a black section and a white section. The blacks did not go into white areas, they didn’t go to white PX or anything else. I heard there was good jazz in the black section. Nobody ever bothered me, I was very lucky, I heard Prez, playing with a small rhythm section and he sounded good, he really sounded good. And I wish I had been able to devote more time there, but we were going on a 25 mile march the following day and I couldn’t stay very long.
AG: When you got out of the army, you went to Massachusetts College of Art on the GI bill. What were you going to study? Painting? Were you aware of commercial art?
BG: No, I wasn’t aware of anything. I knew I wanted to draw and I wanted to paint. But I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in. Long-playing records were just starting to come out at that time, and, the covers were very crude. I remember I was very impressed with Alex Steinweiss, not about the content of what was on the cover, that didn’t impress me. He did photograms, where you lay objects on photo paper and you develop it.
AG: So this was when you were at Mass College of Art, you were starting to notice somebody’s name on these covers…
BG: Right, but I think it has finally seeped into my brain that, in a way, Mass Art was helpful to me because of their inability to teach me anything, they didn’t teach me the mechanics of how you prepare a piece of art for reproduction. They didn’t teach me how to hand letter something, or how to “spec” type, or how to do any of the nuts and bolts. And because of that inability of them to do it, when I was suddenly pressed out with a degree, what the hell was I going to do? A friend helped get me this job at the printing press. I knew nothing about printing. That’s where I learned the nuts and bolts. I trained to do stripping, where you take pieces of film which are going to be used in different layers and they have to be cut very precisely with razor blades. And that’s how I learned to cut. And that’s where I learned how to coat plates to put them on a press.
AG: While you were at Mass Art, you started making sketches of album cover designs?
BG: Yes. You had to prepare a portfolio. What is everyone else doing? They were doing cigarette ads, they’re doing renderings of ice-cold drops running down the side of a bottle of Coca-Cola. That was not my shtick. I did just album covers.
AG: Did they have hints of your later style?
BG: Yes, one thing that I did learn at the printing plant, when they photographed something for position on a job, they would take a photograph and before they screened it, they would shoot it as line. Then, you would cut it in, and when you finally got the half-tone and you would cut out the line and eliminate it. But I liked the line, you see. So that gave me ideas, like I could take things like this and utilize them in some way. And it went on from there.
I had a friend, Stanley Schwartz, who was a nut-case, he loved jazz. He used to take care of all the jazz musicians, he was a dentist in Boston. Took care of Duke Ellington’s teeth, took care of all the musicians’ teeth. While he was working on them, he was playing jazz. We used to fool around with his x-ray machine. That’s where I got my idea about x-raying musical instruments. We were quite stupid to even mess around with x-rays without taking the proper care about wearing the lead apron. But, when I wanted to do things like that, I would take it over to an industrial x-ray lab and let them make the x-ray. It helped because later one of the major advertising agencies in New York liked the fact that I had won a few medals with the New York Art Directors show and they told me that they wanted me to design something for an IBM typewriter. I took the IBM typewriter, this was a handmade version of it, and I had them x-ray it. Seeing one key laying on top of another key, you know, you get all kinds of things are going on, crazy things. But, the main thing is that you were looking at it freshly, you weren’t looking at it the way anybody else looked at it, you were looking at it your own way. And, it was exciting to do this.
In adversity you learn some hard lessons. When I started to do covers, a lot of these people had no budget for photographs, they had no budget for illustrations, which meant that I had to do everything. And I was glad I had to do everything, because it was all mine. I didn’t have to call up some photographer and tell him, “I want you to shoot a picture from this angle and light it that way.” I did it myself.
I noticed that when I pulled two pieces of glued illustration board apart, that there was a beautiful pattern of the cement that was left there. I would photostat that pattern, and I would end up shoving it in a file and I would say, “I’m going to use that one of these days” and I did. These were the things that I was forced to utilize in order to express things the way I wanted to express them.
Before I got to New York, I picked up the Boston Globe one day, and lo and behold, there was an ad: Columbia Records wanted someone to design covers for them. They were still located in Bridgeport. And I took my portfolio of all the dummies that I had done. It impressed the art director. (this was around ‘51) and he like me enough so I did a John Kirby cover. I don’t know who the art director was them, strangely I don’t remember the name. I never approached him to do more work because, by that time, I had made enough contacts with the musicians. Like, I knew Stan Getz and Stan was recording for Roost Records at the time, so he would say, “Burt, why don’t you do some covers.” Or, Savoy Records. As a matter of fact, 142 West 46th street was where I was living, where I had my studio, and on the 2nd floor was Jolly Roger Records. Jolly Roger was a bootleg record operation; they would find clean copies of 78s, record them, assemble them as an album. They would ask me to do the covers. That’s how I cut my teeth, learning, They had no budget. You were forced to use one color or two colors, or whatever.
AG: But the constraints gave you more freedom?
BG: Yes, right. You do a number on yourself up here [taps head], so you say, “Well look, I don’t have a million dollar budget, how am I going to do this thing?” And I sat down and I would do it.
AG: What made you leave Boston and go work in New York?
BG: I worked for a while with some little advertising agency and I said, “I’m going nowhere if I want to go into the music business,” although I did some very nice things for Storyville. But I said “New York is where I want to end up.“
AG: Once in New York, did you try to get cover design jobs? Did you have other kinds of design jobs?
BG: I tried to get whatever I could possibly get to do the work that I wanted to do. I think I did covers for so many people, that’s why I’ve said I’ve done over 3000 covers, so that if you asked me to sit down and say, “I did this and this and this,” I can’t.
AG: You say you did covers for Savoy, and that label had some beautiful covers, but they usually didn’t have a design credit on them…
BG: No, I always signed my Savoy covers. But Savoy did pitifully bad covers, they did awful covers, because Herman Lubinsky, the owner had to be the “designer” more or less and he didn’t know beans. He was a horror, that guy. I always signed my name and he never objected. This wasn’t like doing work for Columbia or one of the major labels where the ego of the art director was so uptight that they wouldn’t let anybody sign any of the covers. But I always signed them. I’m always surprised to see covers that I did that I’ve completely forgotten about.
AG: This Don Byas 7″ cover on Savoy is a perspective drawing of him. Did you stand on a chair while you drew him because he’s viewed from above.
BG: Well, I was always sketching and always doing those kind of things.
AG: So, this “Holiday in Sax” 10″ EP on Emarcy is also drawn from a perspective this time looking up. But you didn’t have to get in that position to draw this, did you? You drew from memory? It wasn’t always like the time you had George Wallington come over your place and lie down so you could draw him as though from below the keyboard, right?
BG: Right. The reason I had George Walllington lie down that way was that I tried to rent a piece of glass that would support someone standing on it and I found out it would cost me something like $2000 to rent it. I couldn’t do that, so I did the next best thing.
AG: But more often, you drew from memory and imagination.
BG: I drew from in here [taps head].
AG: When you did this cover of Don Byas, you not only have this great drawing in perspective, but also this interesting white shape with the yellow background. Now, you chose all of this, right: the typeface to put “Don Byas” in, these lines here, all of it?
BG: The whole thing. No one did any of that for me, I did that.
For Savoy Records, I would work the whole night. I would do three or four of these in one night, bring them over to Market Street, he had a store and above it was his office. And, he’d give me a check right away, and I’d grab a sandwich and go home and sleep.
AG: Would you show a sketch first?
BG: I always dummied it up. What I used to use were the gels they used to use to project light in nightclubs. I would have file drawers filled with those because it was cheap.
AG: Did you get to know Don Byas.
BG: Yes, yes. A wonderful musician, I’m sorry that he ended up living in Paris and I never really got to spend much time with him. I was at rehearsals of his. And, he was a fine musician. It’s not one of my better drawings…
AG: Oh, I think it’s great. Now, that’s a tenor sax and I read that you kept instruments around so you could render them with authenticity.
BG: I did. In fact, one of my closest friends was Pete Brown, the great alto saxophonists. I ended up giving him a clarinet, I ended up giving him an alto, also. And, to this day, I kid Cecil Payne who studied with him. I say, “Cecil, are you still using rubber bands to give a little more snap to your keys?” And he breaks up when I say this because he learned that from Pete, to add a rubber band to certain keys so that the valve closes quicker or opens up. Or he would safety pins. It gave him a certain sound. Pete was wonderful.
AG: On “Holiday in Sax,” these are such firey colors…
BG: Now you see, this kind of treatment here, that would be the kind thing that I would find when I would pull apart those two glued illustrations boards. You get this rough texture. Somehow it worked.
When I did these things, I stumbled a lot. But a lot of times, when you stumble, you learn. When you do lettering, people don’t realize that it is not only the weight of the letter itself, but it’s the space in between that is just as important as the weight of the letter. And a lot of people don’t understand that, but you do have to pay attention to it. I didn’t do an illustration and then put in type as an afterthought. It has to go with it, otherwise it’s not where I am coming from.
AG: Tell me about this cover on Bethlehem for Johnny Hartman, “Songs from the Heart.“
BG: That was taken right at the session. He was a nice guy. He died too young.
AG: The juxtaposition of the lines, the soft line of the script type and the and the hard line of the block type. Were you exposed to the typography of the Europeans like Jan Tschichold?
BG: No. I tried to make these things fresh. I didn’t want to get into a bag where everyone who saw a cover of mine would say, “Oh, that’s a Burt Goldblatt cover.” I didn’t want that. I wanted a freshness.
AG: Did you take a lot of photos at recording sessions?
BG: Oh, I always did. When I went to these recording sessions, number one, I liked the music. I got to know the musicians. I didn’t know specifically whether I was going to use it on the cover or what. No one paid me to go to these rehearsals or recording sessions. But I enjoyed it and I felt like I was a part of what was being put together. Sometimes they would give me a tape or a dub when I got through and I would take it home. And while I was designing the thing, I was actually listening to the music. I was not just a graphic designer trying to outshine anybody or anything. I wanted to get a feeling for what was taking place at this recording session. That was very important to me. It wasn’t going to be like what Lee Wiley once asked me to do. She came up to my studio on 46th street and said, “You know, Burt, I’m part Indian.” And I said, “I know that, Lee.” She said, “How about if we rented an Indian costume with a headband with a feather and you had me beating on a drum?” I said, “Well, Lee, I don’t think so.” Whenever I did try to keep my distance from the musicians, it was when I didn’t want them to tell me what to do. I would tell them, “I don’t tell you what songs to record or what group you should have. Why should you tell me what the graphics should say?“
I loved the music. It was very important to me. It wasn’t background music to me. The way I had clamored to go backstage to meet the musicians at Symphony Hall when I was just a kid, I felt like I was part of the music. I felt very honored when I recently found out that Chris Connor recorded an album for Atlantic on which she recorded “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” and she scat sings my name in the song. She sings, “I’ve got cartoons by Burt Goldblatt.“
AG: You went to recording sessions and rehearsals to photograph the musicians. Did you photograph at clubs too?
BG: Oh sure. I became friendly with the owners of Birdland. And there were always a lot of “hoods” standing at the door. But they let me in, didn’t cost me a cent. I would go to what we called “the bleacher section.” You weren’t sitting at a table, you were sitting in a row of seats that were right on top of the band. And I had my Hasselblad camera, and I had a couple of telephoto lenses. I could take what I wanted. I used available light because I didn’t want to bother the musicians. They never knew I took these pictures. I also have motion pictures that I took of many of the musicians. I’ve got motion pictures of John Coltrane. I’ve got the only motion pictures of Pete Brown. Unfortunately, they don’t have sound. I’ve got dozens of musicians that I photographed: Dizzy Gillespie, Cecil Payne, Art Farmer. Black and white, with a very good 8 mm camera. I probably have half a million pictures, negatives and color slides.
AG: Tell me how you photographed Teddy Charles covered by stripes on the cover of Teddy Charles Tentet on Atlantic.
BG: I took a screen with lines, horizontal lines, close together, in my enlarger, sat him right underneath my enlarger, raised it up and turned the light on from it and then photographed him.
AG: With the white and green type treatment, were you reflecting the stripes?
BG: No, I wanted to break up the lettering so it didn’t jump out as much.
AG: Did you have any preferences among the typefaces?
BG: If I could, I preferred sans serif faces because in those days I didn’t have the right to go down to the press to supervise a job on press and say, “lighten up here” or “a little more red.” They just did it. You never knew what the final result was going to be, until you saw the finished job. They couldn’t mess it up too much if it was sans serif.
AG: Your cover for “Bud Powell Trio Plays” on Roulette is a memorable cover.
BG: He named one of the tunes on it after me, “Burt Covers Bud.“
AG: Talk about the cover for “Bud Freeman” on Bethlehem, which won the gold medal from the New York Art Directors Club. The saxophone makes a perfect mustache.
BG: He was a nice guy. A gentleman.
AG: Why the cars for the Mel Tormé on Bethlehem?
BG: He loved sports cars; he collected them, so I got a collection of sports cars, cut them out and did a caricature of him. Because I had done two or three other covers for him before and none of them were like this.
In this album cover for “K.+J.” (Bethlehem), that is Kai and JJ. They came over to my studio on 46th street. I had a sheet of background paper. They sat right in front of it. I had the bell of a mellophone, which was a bigger bell than a trombone. And I had it propped up on a stand. They sat, playing their own trombones. Well, it took me awhile to figure it out how to photograph it because I didn’t want to be in the picture. I got behind the paper background, cut a hole in it, shoved my camera lens through and took the picture.
AG: How did you get to know Stan Getz?
BG: I go way back with Stan. I knew Stan for about 40 years. He and I were very tight. He was an oddball dude. Stan was a womanizer and he was a ballin’ cat.
I’ll show you movies that I have of him. He’s at a recording session and he’s barefoot, nothing seemed to go right at this session. He would call me up like three o’clock in the morning, “Come on down, Burt. I have a gig for Norman [Granz].” And Norman would let him record anywhere that he wanted to. So, I go down, and he went through three or four pianists, three or four trumpet players, three or four bass players, nothing seemed to coalesce at this session. But I got something interesting there: I was shooting an 8 mm movie and he grabbed my movie camera and took movies of me taking pictures of some of the other musicians.
The musicians felt comfortable with me. But I never pushed myself in front of them or said, “Would you please stand on your head?” or “Do this” or nothing. Mingus once said to me, something I feel very good about: “You know, Burt. I like you. You come into to a session, you take pictures. I never even know that you’re there.” And that was the most flattering thing that he ever said. I never asked anyone to pose. The closest to a pose was that K + J thing, and that was a reflection. But I never asked musicians to pose. I like the fact that I could go over to Billie Holiday’s house, who lived right beside Central Park West, and say, “Let me get you away from these people here.” And we walked right down the street, we crossed into Central Park. She sat down on the grass and I took the pictures. I didn’t ask her to do a thing. Or the time she was in the backyard and my two year old daughter came over. And she made a grab for her and put her on her lap. My daughter said, “When I got through sitting on her lap, I had a little splinter and she was trying to comfort me because it hurt. And she took me in the house. She had a collection of ivory elephants on a wall. And she said, ‘Leslie, go over and take any one that you want.’” She still has that ivory elephant. Billie was very giving in this way. A few days later I was going to take Billie out to dinner, and she called me and told me that she couldn’t do it. Why? Her husband, that son of a bitch, hit her over the head with the telephone receiver. And I saw her a few days later and her head was all in bandages.
AG: You knew Duke Ellington quite well?
BG: I tell you what I have that no one has ever seen. I have a movie of Duke at the recording studio, the Columbia recording studio on 23rd Street which used to be a church. The band had cleared out, they were on a break. And Duke was sitting at the piano rewriting charts. And I took my stills and then I took out my 8mm movie camera and I started to shoot. I would never do these things to annoy. If he had said, “stop,” I would have stopped. But he didn’t mind. And you see a piece of Duke that no one has ever seen. You know what he did? You can read his lips. He says, “Oh! I’m in the movies.” And he picked up an empty cigarette pack from the piano and he starts juggling. You would fall on the floor it is so funny.
AG: Do you think, perhaps, that you are too critical of your own work? That perhaps you are holding back things that others would consider good?
BG: I’ll tell you something, when I do something, I sometimes feel like Monet going over to the Louvre where he has a painting hanging, with a little palette and a brush, and he’s correcting it. He actually did that, you know, and they had to arrest him a couple of times because he was correcting his own paintings. I’m always doing that. I say to myself, “Why didn’t I do this?” I’m never satisfied.
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