Jim Flora: the genius of the one square foot canvas

New LJC topic: the jazz cover art of Jim Flora.

Selection from Nick Travis, The Panic is On: You Don’t Know What Love Is (Raye / de Paul)

.   .   .

Marc Myers (“Jazz Wax”) pays tribute to Nick Travis, the album and the selection:

“The swinging stuff is great kicks, but dig Travis on the ballad, You Don’t Know What Love Is, a song that always separates the passionate poets from the high poppers.

Travis’ lines here are sultry and sublime, rendering Cohn’s presence on the track almost unnecessary, if that’s even possible.”

 

Musicians:

Nick Travis, trumpet; Al Cohn, tenor saxophone; Johnny Williams, piano; Teddy Kottick, bass, Art Mardigan, drums. Travis, long associated with the  Sauter-Finegan Orchestra,  Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, career cut short in 1964, age 38.

Cover Artist:

James (Jim) Flora, pictured here with some of his finest designs, including centre-right, my Nick Travis “The Panic Is On” (1954)

Flora has been described as the genius of the one square foot canvas. You don’t so much see a Flora cover as hear it.

His iconic cartoonish characters are filled with joy, enthusiasm and excitement, just like the music. There is something positive in Flora’s imaginary world that chimes with the feel-good bop and the early modern jazz oeuvre: foot-tapping, swinging, radiating enjoyment, no doubt a much-needed escape from a world that was much more troubled day to day.

Music is better therapy than medication, with no harmful side effects that we know of, apart from the compulsive need to acquire more records, which may indeed prove beneficial: more music, great!

Many Flora covers were for Columbia in the late ’40s, moving in 1954 over to RCA Victor. The most sought after Flora cover in the cover collector’s canon is Mambo For Cats, RCA Victor 1063, the Mobley 1568 of the Flora-hunter world.

$400 or more to put cats that mambo on your wall. I have suggested before that records in your collection should be valued on a cost per play basis (gulp, a sobering thought in some cases!) A cover on display like this should be valued on a cost per view basis. Seeing it daily over 365 days, Mambo For Cats is little more than a dollar a day, chump change.

Flora’s work over the decades included not only record covers, but also paintings, sketches, advertising, children’s books, corporate stuff, woodcuts, anything that helped pay the rent, all bearing his unmistakeable personal vision: a make-believe world of  jive-jumping horns, grinning cats, and visibly moving air. Irwin Chusid has made a career of documenting the prodigious output of Jim Flora in a series of lovely coffee-table art books.

Flora’s work make great coffee-table art books. Coffee table books are always useful to position strategically on your coffee table, to impress visitors. But the  real beauty of a Flora cover is when you experience it as intended, an artefact, where form and function merge seamlessly into an object of desire.

Tactile, physical, you glimpse the card construction shadow-line underneath the cover art paper, paper-whites yellowing with age, corners distressed with the passing of time, some with a laminated finish that is impossible to reproduce today: not just a cool design, but objets d’art, a  thing of physical beauty.

Created over his 84-year lifespan (d. 1998) Flora’s graphic  design style has a lasting quality, enlisted even today for these Sun Ra titles, music which is also proven resistant to ageing.  They don’t make space travel like they used to.

Designer Space Is The Place.

I was tempted to call Flora the Van Gelder of graphic design, but I think that title still belongs to Reid Miles, along with Francis Wolff photography.

Flora’s vision is remarkable, arguably unique. It is bounded in two-dimensions, entirely graphic design with no photorealistic elements or photography which later went on to dominate album cover design. Typography is secondary to pattern, shapes and colours. The musicians drawn are only loosely representational, more symbolic, expressing their spirit and sound. It works all together, sound and design in dynamic motion.

Some graphic designers pay tribute to Flora thus:

“Jim Flora … took the modernism of painters such as Miro, Klee, and Picasso, blended it with a jazz sensibility, and added a dollop of the Sunday funnies pages.”

 

“Jim Flora’s surreal images pop off the paper and into the viewer’s subconscious. The album covers he illustrated are visual jazz, very playful and improvisational. They’re very cool.”

 

“Fifty years later, Jim Flora’s work remains fresh, breezy, smart, and humorous.” (The same could be said of much of the music of that period – LJC)

 

Vinyl: UK HMV release of RCA Victor LJM-1010 (1954)

Collector’s Corner

The LJC Flora wall: six Fifties original covers in a 100-year old Victorian setting.  Flora covers are good stand-alone, but group well for display, with their common design elements and harmonising colours.

Album frames courtesy of Tiger, Denmark

Records…posters… originals… collectables…damn collectors!

Art, records, all collectables, valuables,  in world where “modern” is made in PRC, with utility but little lasting value. 

The reason for buying these records has nothing to do with the music. People by Flora covers purely for the cover. And they make ideal gifts, provided you know which covers friends already have (Thank you kindly, Dr Who-Jazz!)

A neighbour, who knows nothing about records or jazz, remarked on my repro-copy of Mambo For Cats, displayed in my hall. Unprompted, he commented he was struck by the design. It’s a Flora,  I said, Jim Flora, as you might say about a Warhol. The name didn’t register but I was delighted that a stranger to the world of jazz cover art picked up on this marvellous piece. It’s not just me then.

Anyone else caught the Flora bug? Send out for eco-friendly aphid spray.  Or share your stories, if you like

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4 thoughts on “Jim Flora: the genius of the one square foot canvas

  1. When I started collecting Jim Flora covers for the art in the 90’s they were very affordable as the lps themselves weren’t for the most part. In 2004 at a New Years Eve party I was telling my graphic designer friend Barbara about a cool Alex Kallao cover I had just found and she laughed. She had just finished working on and published “The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora”. It really is a small world!
    What I also found interesting is that he books are from original covers as Jim Flora never kept the original artwork.That basically makes covers themselves are basically limited edition prints.

    • “That basically makes the covers themselves limited edition prints”…. Sorry, I’m a photographer not a proof reader.

  2. Thank you LJC for your hommage to a great pictural artist. As an added bonus, the Travis album gives the opportunity to listen to the remarkeable John Williams, with his original percussive piano style, not out of Silver, but very much his own..

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