The Jazz Album Art of Jim Flora

March 2nd, 2002

Jim Flora

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An Introduction to Jim Flora

by Irwin Chusid

 Vintage record buffs have long been bedazzled by the bizarre, cartoonish album covers tagged with the signature “Flora.” For Columbia in the 1940s and RCA Victor in the mid-1950s, James (Jim) Flora (1914-1998) designed diabolic and hallucinatory covers that enticed music shop habitués browsing in the jazz, ethnic, and classical aisles. His jaw-dropping boldness and savory color combinations invited lingering glances. Although you shouldn’t judge an album by its cover, in the case of Flora’s work, the disc inside almost seemed an afterthought.

Flora’s designs pulsed with angular hepcats bearing funnel-tapered noses and shark-fin chins, who fingered cockeyed pianos and honked lollipop-hued horns amid hyperactive peripheries splashed with droplets seemingly shot from a confetti cannon. Geometric doo-dads floated willy-nilly like a kindergarten toy room gone anti-gravitational. Yet Flora’s wondrous, childlike exuberance was subverted by a sinister tinge of the grotesque. He wreaked havoc with the laws of physics, conjuring up flying musicians, levitating instruments, and wobbly dimensional perspectives. As Flora confessed in a 1998 interview, “I got away with murder, didn’t I?”

Flora’s vibrant figures — particularly his Sauter-Finegan designs — could trigger nightmares. (What’s with those teeth?) Despite lacking a bioengineering degree, Flora took great liberties with human anatomy: bonded bodies (check out covers for Pete Jolly, Andre Previn and Shorty Rogers‘ Collaboration, and Sauter-Finegan); mutant appendages (Gene Krupa); rare skin disease tints (Louis Armstrong, Bix & Tram); oversized and misshapen heads (many). He was not averse to pigmenting Benny Goodman, Charlie Ventura and Gene Krupa like bedspread patterns. He was equally impertinent with instruments — impossibly knotted horns, warped percussion, and stand-up basses shaped like apples with symmetrical bites chomped from the left and right flanks. He also wreaked havoc with the laws of physics, conjuring up flying musicians, levitating instruments, and wobbly dimensional perspectives. “I never could stand a static space,” he once mused. Flora’s cover designs were diversionary. They didn’t reflect the music the way David Stone Martin‘s urbane vignettes for Norgran, Clef, Verve and Asch reflected the arc of jazz musicians in mid-flight. Flora’s designs reflected — well, Flora. As the artist confessed to interviewer Martina Schmitz in 1984, “I had no idea of likeness at all. I always thought that they did their thing and it was my turn to do my thing.”

“All I wanted to make,” he stressed, “was a piece of excitement.”


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THE MISCHIEVOUS ART OF JIM FLORA is the first collection of the marvelous album cover art of Jim Flora. The book contains most of Flora’s known covers. The book also includes rarely seen 1940s and ’50s illustrations and covers from Columbia’s “Coda” trade journal, and some of Flora’s commercial work for magazines of the period.

The book was authored by WFMU radio personality Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, codified an overlooked genre of sonic art. Chusid has produced landmark reissues of the music of cult heroes Raymond Scott, Esquivel, The Shaggs, and the Langley Schools Music Project.

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Note: Many of these albums were issued in several configurations (e.g., 78 and 45 rpm sets, 10″ and 12″ 33-1/3 rpm LP).  Catalog numbers refer to at least one, and in some cases two, separate issues.  Others may exist.  Albums subsequently reissued without Flora covers are not cited.  Most — but not all — Flora designs include his signature.

“Bix Beiderbecke was one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920’s.  His colorful life, quick rise and fall, and eventual status as a martyr made him a legend even before he died and he has long stood as proof that not all the innovators in jazz history were black”

– Scott Yanow, The All Music Guide

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“The preeminent white saxophonist of the 1920s, Frankie Trumbauer was a major influence on jaz performers of all colors — at his peak, his supreme standing on the alto was comparable to the kind of dominance later enjoyed by Charlie Parker.”

– Jason Ankeny, The All Music Guide

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Benny Goodman

This is Benny Goodman and His Orchestra

RCA Victor LPT-3056 (1955)

[/infobox]“Benny Goodman was the first celebrated bandleader of the Swing Era, dubbed ‘The King of Swing,’ his popular emergence marking the beginning of the era. He was an accomplished clarinetist whose distinctive playing gave an identity both to his big band and to the smaller units he led simultaneously. The most popular figure of the first few years of the Swing Era, he continued to perform until his death 50 years later.”

– William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide

 

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“Louis Armstrong was the first important soloist to emerge in jazz, and he became the most influential musician in the music’s history. As a trumpet virtuoso, his playing, beginning with the 1920s studio recordings made with his Hot Five and Hot Seven ensembles, charted a future for jazz in highly imaginative, emotionally charged improvisation. For this, he is revered by jazz fans. But Armstrong also became an enduring figure in popular music, due to his distinctively phrased bass singing and engaging personality, which were on display in a series of vocal recordings and film roles.”

– William Ruhlmann,All Music Guide

 

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“The first drummer to be a superstar, Gene Krupa may not have been the most advanced drummer of the 1930s but he was in some ways the most significant. Prior to Krupa, drum solos were a real rarity and the drums were thought of as a merely supportive instrument. Krupa, who with his good lucks and colorful playing became a matinee idol, changed the image of drummers forever.”

– Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

 

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“Kid Ory was one of the great New Orleans pioneers, an early trombonist who virtually defined the ‘tailgate’ style (using his horn to play rhythmic bass lines in the front line behind the trumpet and clarinet) and who was fortunate enough to last through the lean years so he could make a major comeback in the mid-’40s. “

– Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

 

 

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“Sidney Bechet was the first important jazz soloist on records in history (beating Louis Armstrong by a few months). A brilliant soprano saxophonist and clarinetist with a wide vibrato that listeners either loved or hated, Bechet’s style did not evolve much through the years but he never lost his enthusiasm or creativity. A master at both individual and collective improvisation within the genre of New Orleans jazz, Bechet was such a dominant player that trumpeters found it very difficult to play with him. Bechet wanted to play lead and it was up to the other horns to stay out of his way.”

– Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

 

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“A fine middle-register trumpeter whose style seemed to practically define ‘cool jazz,’ Shorty Rogers was actually more significant for his arranging, both in jazz and in the movie studios. After gaining early experience with Will Bradley and Red Norvo and serving in the military, Rogers rose to fame as a member of Woody Herman’s First and Second Herds (1945-1946 and 1947-1949), and somehow he managed to bring some swing to the Stan Kenton Innovations Orchestra (1950-1951), clearly enjoying writing for the stratospheric flights of Maynard Ferguson.”

– Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

 

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“His Royal Hipness was as unique as they come, an eccentric white cat who made his mark by recasting familiar tales–from Shakespeare, the Bible, and beyond–in a frantic spray of black street lingo, jazz-speak, and hipster jive. In Buckley’s mind, Jesus became ‘The Nazz,’ Gandhi ‘The Hip Gan,’ and explorer Vasco da Gama ‘Cabeza de Gasca.’ That would be adventurous now. It was simply unheard of in the 1940s and 1950s when Buckley was plying his trade, entertaining audiences he called his Royal Court. He was too weird to be more than a cult figure, but his defiant persona, deep individualism, and comic sense of cool certainly influenced the likes of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and even Bob Dylan. Gone, wailin’ stuff.”

–Michael Ruby, Amazon.com

 

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Other Albums

Various Artists

Mambo for Cats

RCA Victor LPM-1063 (1955)

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The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra

Inside Sauter-Finegan

RCA Victor LJM-1003 (1954)

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Pete Jolly Duo (Pete Jolly and Buddy Clark)

Pete Jolly Duo

RCA Victor EPA-637 (1955)

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Nick Travis Quintet

The Panic is On

RCA Victor LJM-1010 (1954)

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Pete Jolly Trio

Coming-Out Party

RCA Victor EPA-630 (1955)

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Morton Downey

Morton Downey Sings Songs You Love

RCA Camden CAE-245 (1954 or 1955)

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Andre Previn and Shorty Rogers

Collaboration

RCA Victor LJM-1018 (1955)

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Ralph Flanagan and Buddy Morrow Orchestras

The War of the Bands Concert

RCA Victor LPM-3211 (1954)

 

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Text and art published with the consent of the author

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