In the early days of jazz, there weren’t schools cranking out composers, pianists, or saxophone players. The way a musician learned was by playing with other musicians. The older guys were a tough bunch. The new players had to demonstrate their abilities and dedication right there on the bandstand, and were often laughed off the stage or otherwise abused. The younger players had to develop a thick skin, go home and work on their chops and come back for more. Acceptance came as a result of a combination of talent, luck, and perseverance, all part of the learning process, fueled by hard economic times and necessary competition. Gradually, younger players who showed promise and commitment were recognized by the older ones and gained their respect. Once they passed through the gauntlet a few times, they were allowed into the club.
The cartoon jam session seemed a strange way to do what is usually a very solitary activity, unlike playing in a band. It worked for me. I learned a lot from the older artists. The sessions I remember attending were usually with Bill Woodman (Who is now up in Maine somewhere, probably painting his excellent watercolor land- and sea-scapes between cartoons), and Sam Gross, who was another one of my early mentors. Sam and Bill were the masters and I was the new guy from California. They were mostly kind and encouraging to me, but there was a bit of something like tough love demonstrated, too, though neither of them would probably use that term except ironically. One time I drew something which involved a road-sign. I drew all the elements of the cartoon before adding the words on the sign at the end of the process. When I started lettering, I realized I had underestimated the space I needed for the sign’s message and as a result, the words went off the edge of the sign into the background drawing. When Sam saw it, he said something like: “Always do the lettering first, shmuck!”. I had no idea what a shmuck was at the time. That word didn’t exsist in my West Coast Presbyterian dictionary. I did learn the lesson, though, and to this day always do the lettering first if I’m doing a cartoon where it’s involved.
Sam, I hasten to point out, is really a warm-hearted guy with a tough New York-style demeanor. There wasn’t much venom in his “shmuck”, though I did feel the bite, just enough to learn that small lesson. He taught me a lot (The Shmuck!) and I’ll always be grateful.