Tribute to Jazz Label Art (and Miles)

This is a piece I made using leftover parts for another portrait of Miles I made that is being used as part of a longer term piece. My vague intent with this was to convey the sense of an album cover from the early to mid 1950s.

DSC_1039 copy

It doesn’t imitate any exact label, but personally I’d place it somewhere in the Prestige or Columbia spectrum. Next to these examples, I’m afraid the piece doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like, but it got me studying it, so I’m happy.

Anyways, having done this research (after the fact), I thought I’d offer an informal guide to Jazz Album Art style across different labels. The site http://www.birkajazz.com/archive is absolutely invaluable in this, and I recommend studying their extensive collections by label.

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Blue Note

When people think of jazz album art they immediately think of Blue Note Records, and for good reason. Designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff gave them a consistency of style and voice that allowed the full label’s stable of artists to present a unified visual identity.


This piece is representative of the early Blue Note style, which often fits the mold of photos fit into random shapes with text randomly arrayed aligned it.


This image kind of fits the same vein, but the parts are all simplified, and the sense of design is more confident all around, leading to a period when the photograph would be allowed to dominate the proceedings more freely.


This is the quintessential Blue Note cover from this early period. An expressive photograph is given the majority of the space, with an overlay of blue used to flatten it somewhat while the title shouts itself from the perimeter in a stand-out white that boxes the photograph in. It’s perfectly simple and yet also perfectly manipulated.


An early typography experiment that points towards the future.


An example of the line drawing you will find on some albums, in this case, if you can read the signature it belongs to a young Andy Warhol.

I’ll continue this at length after the jump.


By 1960, the style of the label was firmly in place and Reid Miles was completely confident in what he was doing.


This cover has always stuck out to me for it’s choice of including green AND blue overlays, making it busier than most Blue Note albums.

As classic as these albums are, Reid Miles’s style was influenced by what came before. Other Jazz labels had their own designers and styles.

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Columbia

Columbia Records had a long history of album covers from the 40s through Miles Davis’s tenure into the 70s.


This is representative of their earliest covers, representing the wild energy that jazz had as a dance music at the time.


This cover is indicative of many covers from the early 50s. Similar to the earliest Blue Notes, you see the photograph fit in with arbitrary shapes and text that all compete with each other. Many of the elements that define the later genre are in place but need to be tamed.


You can almost see that order being forced into place in this cover from 1956.


Suddenly, the mature style. This is very similar to Blue Note, except more exaggerated, The depth of the red and the little flair of blue in the album title, which has been printed in simple Helvetica. We’re now in the golden age of Jazz Album covers.


One of the key differences between Columbia’s covers at this time and Blue Note is color. Blue Note defined itself by limiting it’s pallette while Columbia thrives by embracing multiple colors. Sometimes they express this through simple contrast, as in the Round Midnight cover, and sometimes it’s the willingness to use a full color photograph. Next to this photo,look at the different colors used for “Miles Ahead,” “Gil Evans” and “19.” The use of color isn’t overwhelming or garish, but they get the most from simple effects.


This is one of the most explicit connections of Jazz in 1959 to the trends in painting during the same time (along with Brubeck’s “Time Out”).


Text color.


No color here, but the use of gray serves a similar effect. This is one of the most striking covers ever.


And then it was the 70s.

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Prestige

Prestige Records, began it’s life with bare bone screen printed covers before the legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder demanded they upgrade their visual profile to match what he was doing audibly. While they tend to drift into repetitive motifs more likely than some of the more renown labels, their peaks are still generally very high.


This is representative of the early style Van Gelder was eager to get away from.


This simple, graphic and playful design from 1955 shows that Blue Note wasn’t the only label innovating the field.


Another rare example of using modern art to represent the jazz form, this time from 1956, predating some of Columbia’s most notable examples.


A good image to compare against Blue Note. The image isn’t as distinctive as the photographs Blue Note was accustomed to, but they use it’s mundane nature to their benefit. The contextual overlay of green on the light with the color of the text, and general use of the text within the photo is an interesting midpoint between the styles of Blue Note and Columbia that ultimately defines Prestige’s own style well.


Similarly, this cover uses the divided cover, with constrained photo and color overlay as a Blue Note but uses colora more like a Columbia.

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Atlantic

Atlantic spent much of it’s existence putting out album covers that fit somewhere in the established vein we’ve seen above. A few of the better ones:


Graphic illustration + Text + contrained photo.


Fantastic use of photo, color and text.


The typography cover.

What’s interesting is the shift made starting around 1960 as art director Marvin Israel asserted his vision. At first this resulted in a series of Box and text covers:

Suddenly, though, starting in 1961 the label had an explosion in extremely bold, graphic, colorful covers different than almost anything being done by other labels.

The tragedy here is that at the same time they set out in this direction, they also transitioned away from jazz music, leaving us with only a handful of examples.

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Impulse

Finally, Impulse Records, a relative latecomer as a label, immediately brought a visual sensibility that fit the changing era of the 1960s perfectly, feeling ages later than the 50s Modernism of Blue Note.


The use of vibrant, complex colors, particularly blues and oranges, is a hallmark of this label, as is much of the crisp, high contrast of their subjects and the often stark black background. Their embrace of avante garde photography is also noteable, frequently emphasizing movement, abstraction and distortion.


While they didn’t feel the need to stick with Helvetica as a font throughout their covers, they always respect the weight of text. The “Mingus” in this title is literally given a 3rd dimension, and ample space above the Helvetica album title. The photograph lacks the stark black background of other covers, but the sprawling institution wall and the feeling of Mingus being forced out of the screen has it’s own dramatic effect.


The blur of movement, and the glare of the light in the shot give this cover the feeling of heat, energy and intensity that expresses the philosophy of music Coltrane generally held, as well as the emotion you’d hope to feel at one of his shows.


This album is interesting for breaking so many of the usual Impulse conventions. The plain black background is replaced with plain white. The album title is given playful alternating colors as Coltrane sits unassuming. It’s a very inviting cover, all things considered, which is ironic given the full aural onslaught that the music itself represents.


As time wore on, Impulse’s style changed with the times, as fit their identity as a product of the 60s.


Finally, by the 70s Jazz had been largely subsumed by rock and soul music and the era of it’s covers as a sub-genre unto itself largely ended. The covers there were still trends, but most of the styles were probably driven by the styles of rock and soul covers.

This analysis went a lot longer than I anticipated, and I actually left out a lot of history and labels, but hopefully I’ve done some justice to a genre that appeals to me almost by default, as a visual artist who loves and buys a lot of jazz. I’m also left feeling regretful that my piece doesn’t quite hold up next to so many great examples of design. Oh well.

-JD

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2 Responses to “Tribute to Jazz Label Art (and Miles)”

  1. That lower towards the bottom Coltrane album is reminiscent of your masking strip tear-ups, “Coltrane’s Sound”. I like the work.

  2. You could certainly see your expertise in the work you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to say how they believe.
    Always go after your heart.

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