Earl Newman wasn’t much of a jazz fan back in 1963 when he was hired to produce a poster promoting the Monterey Jazz Festival; the blues was more his style. He wasn’t going to let that stop him, though. The Massachusetts-to-California transplant went to work, applying his hand-silkscreen technique to a black-and-white piece based on a sketch he’d made of trumpeter Joe Gordon blowing.
Jimmy Lyons, the festival’s founder, was so impressed with it that he invited Newman back—for the next 50 years.
During his five decades as the official poster artist for the annual Monterey event, Newman not only designed some of the festival’s most enduringly popular artworks but also came to love the music—and to know many of the artists whose visages graced his work. “I met Dizzy [Gillespie] half a dozen times,” he says. “He was always out there with the people, walking around during intermission with a camera hung on his neck. He’d come by my booth and sign some posters. I could tell you lots of stories.”
At 91, having suffered a stroke and using a walker to get around, Newman no longer designs new posters. But he does still spend his days printing up the old ones, and telling those stories. Sonny Rollins, Big Joe Williams, Clint Eastwood and his musician son Kyle —those were just some of the regulars who made a point of stopping by to see Newman at the booth where he sold his handiwork. “And Trombone Shorty,” he says. “That’s a more recent one.”
Newman first started dabbling in art when he was only five, and by 12 he’d turned pro. He discovered silkscreen while in art school, and was selling some of his creations at a San Diego fair during the late ’50s when drummer Shelly Manne stopped by to admire his art. “He bought a bunch of things and said, ‘Why don’t you come up to my club [Shelly’s Manne-Hole in Hollywood] and do a few posters?’” Newman recalls.
Initially, Newman had relocated out west with his family intending to be a schoolteacher, but instead, while camping out in a state park for three months, he decided to pursue his art full-time. “It was one of those moments in your life where you say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ I could have gotten the job, but I decided not to,” he says. He’s never regretted the decision.
As the ’60s dawned, Newman, his wife and kids were living in a converted storefront in Venice, Calif. “There was a coffeehouse down the coast [in Hermosa Beach] by the name of the Insomniac,” he says. “I went down there with a poster I had done of the Gas House, which was another beatnik hangout.” At the Insomniac, Newman received a tip that Lyons was looking for someone to design a poster for the 1963 Monterey festival. He “printed up a couple hundred copies of my Joe Gordon artwork,” now emblazoned with the name of the festival at the bottom, and soon he had a steady gig.
Each year, it fell to Newman to come up with a new concept. “I never worried about coming up with ideas,” he says. “I’d get them just by being there [at the festival] and listening to the music.” Many of his pieces feature giants of the genre: Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Satchmo, Ellington. The 1987 poster, split between B.B. King and Ray Charles, is particularly striking. So, too, is Newman’s personal favorite, the 2001 edition, depicting John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Others do not focus on a specific musician but rather an image that suggests jazz: a trumpet perched on a chair, a stark B&W drawing of a flutist over a checkerboard pattern.
Having lived in rural Oregon for close to 50 years, Newman describes himself as content. “I’m up in the hill country right now, sitting in my studio, working on a group of calendars for next year, and I’m going to be printing them tomorrow, by hand,” he says. “I don’t need machinery.”
Retirement? “No,” he says with certainty. “I’m just going to keep at it.”