Geneva Anderson digs into art

Interview—The Fillmore Jazz Festival turns 30 this weekend and ARThound chats with its legendary poster artist, Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab created the poster for this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, his third for the legendary free music festival.  Schwab is an internationally-renowned artist whose latest commission is the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016.  Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab created the poster for this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, his third for the legendary free music festival. Schwab is an internationally-renowned artist whose latest commission is the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016. Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

You’ve seen them across San Francisco— striking posters and banners featuring a wavy haired female vocalist in silhouette against a fiery orange background.  Her arms are outstretched and beckoning.  Less obvious is an old-fashioned gray stand microphone that runs up from the floor to her heart, reinforcing a strong vertical.  Behind her, blazoned across the top in a hand-lettered, earthy cream custom font is “Fillmore Jazz.”  The message is simple, transcendent—jazz is here.  The artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists.  His dynamic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, America’s Cup, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, San Francisco Opera, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others are icons of our lifestyle.  Schwab’s signature visual groove lends itself perfectly to jazz—large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold images of archetypal human forms.  He created his first Fillmore Jazz poster in 2006—a standing base player in silhouette against an intense teal.  His 2010 poster of a trumpeter playing up into a blue night sky journeyed right into the roots of jazz.  Both artworks became classics.  I caught up with Michael earlier this week to discuss his third poster and his creative process.

What makes a really effective poster?  And, why are so many posters today so bad?

Michael Schwab:   Simplicity.  There’s way too much visual noise out there.  Graphic messages are conveyed much more effectively when the design is simple, bold and efficient.

You’ve had a long involvement with this festival.  What is it about jazz lends itself to visual expression? 

Michael Schwab:  I love all kinds of music but jazz in particular inspires me.  I love this project because I’ve had complete freedom do whatever I want, provided it worked on banners.   The base player I created eight years ago was my first Fillmore Jazz poster and I envisioned him as a Ray Brown-like bass player.   If you’re driving down the street, you’ve only got a second or two to get the message, so I wanted to evoke the romance and history of Fillmore Street Jazz.  Four years later, they called me again.  At the time, I was really into Miles Davis and was playing Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, his soundtrack for the Louis Malle film, a lot.  I made a Miles Davis-esque horn player.  I wanted a really cool color so I went with a deep blue that evokes that late evening jazz atmosphere that’s so special to Fillmore Street.  Now, four years later, I realize that I’ve been slowly creating my own jazz band here and it was time for a singer and a woman.

What was your conception for this year’s festival poster?

I was inspired by the great romance of Billie Holiday.  Initially, I had just the singer there in silhouette and then I realized that she needed a microphone, which was the last element I added.  That old-fashioned microphone, which harkens back to the 1940’s and 50’s, really pulled it all together.  It often happens that way—that adding something relatively small becomes very important.

What types of source materials do normally you use?  Also, since this year’s festival is all about women of jazz, who do you listen to for inspiration?  

Michael Schwab:  When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise.  I pose and shoot my own photos myself.   In this case, there was a model I’d used a while back and I was able to piece together a few polaroids and work from that.   I wanted the hands to be special and they are actually my wife Kathryn’s hands.  As for female vocalists, it doesn’t get any better for me than early Diana Krall.

And what about your bold colors, how did you decide what to go with?

Michael Schwab:  Not all jazz is blue and cool.  This time, I wanted a color that complimented the other two posters and this bold orange red represents the hot side of jazz.  The flat color tones make the images, which are already abstracted by the silhouette, seem mysterious, almost two-dimensional.  I wanted all three to become a triptych and to work well together.

There is a romantic/nostalgic aspect to these images as well, harkening back to old woodcuts.  I get that sense from their color, strong line and overall energy. 

Michael Schwab:  Several of my heroes were Japanese woodcut and old European poster artists——Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre, from France, and Ludwig Holwein, from Germany, and the Beggarstaff Brothers from England.  There’s a lot of graceful movement as well as drama in those works.  I was never very painterly in my style.  I enjoy working with big bold shapes and challenge myself to get a message across using as few shapes and colors as possible.  I’ll keep working with the colors, combining them and fine-tuning, until they’re right to me.  Then, it’s a matter of getting the image and text to work together effectively.  I really enjoy these jazz posters because I can get very dramatic with them.  Speaking of old-school, I begin each project with a pencil and paper and use a Rapidograph pen and ink to create the line work.  In the end, tough, it becomes a digital file so I’m speaking the same language as everyone else.

What’s the first poster you made and what are a few of your personal favorites?

Michael Schwab:   My first professional poster was for Levi’s, back in 1975, for creative director, Chris Blum.   I’ve been a graphic artist now for almost 40 years and I’ve had a few home runs. The images for the Golden Gate Parks and Amtrak are favorites. I feel very good about some of the logos—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo, Pebble Beach, David Sedaris. I love all of the Fillmore Jazz and San Francisco Opera posters. Frankly, my current favorite is always the one I’m working on, it becomes my child.

What are you working on now?

Michael Schwab:   I just finished the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016.   It’s a gold seal design—a silhouette of a football and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Michael Schwab’s current Fillmore jazz poster can be purchased at the festival. His posters for the 2006 and 2010 festivals are available at

The 30th Fillmore Jazz Festival is Saturday, July 5 and Sunday, July 6th, 10AM to 5PM on San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Street between Jackson and Eddy Streets.  This year’s theme is “Celebrating Women of Jazz & Beyond.”  For information about the line-up, which unfolds on three separate stages, click here.  A more expansive version of this interview with Michael Schwab appears on the Fillmore Jazz website.

July 4, 2014 Posted by | Art, Jazz Music | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment