Jazz album cover art. The Hep cats of the 1940s


Teddy Wilson/BillieHoliday Early 1940s

Yeah, music is the thing; plenty of my favourite albums have totally naff covers but that is not to say that album cover art is irrelevant. Even a cursory look in any bookshop will show numerous books on the subject. This blog, is the first in the series which shows my personal favourites from 1940 to the present. Perhaps not surprisingly, this particular one looks at albums of the 1940s. They’re not necessarily that they’re my favourites for the music nor are they musically the most important in the genre; they’re here because of the sleeves.


Various artists: Boogie Woogie Early 1940s.

Alex Steinweiss, the first art director of Columbia (to begin with he was the only graphic artist there) is credited by many as inventing the album cover. It was he who designed the two wonderful covers above. He figured that the covers were dull and boring (often resembling a brown paper bag) so he thought why not add some colour. He did. sales rocketed. Inspired by Art Deco and Art Nouveau he used bold topography and modern illustrations. He would even copyright curly hand drawn letters used in some of the designs as Steinweiss Scrawl. Here the simple design of one black and one white hand at the piano is an obvious reference to keys but could it also be more obliquely to race? To the black and white musicians, sharing a love for the music in defiance of the racist segregation?


The Voice of Frank Sinatra. 1946.

I have no intention of charting the history of the album: the phonograph’s invention in 1877; the 78 rpm introduced by Victor in 1903; RCA Victor launching its first commercially available 33 1/3 LP in 1931 etc etc. If you’re interested, check out Wikipedia. However, the change from the 78 rpm to LP whilst greatly important sonically and eventually cover-wise it would be wrong to think that there was a blanket jump from dull to fabulous. For starters, the covers so far all shown were 78s.

This Sinatra is also by Steinweiss. Interestingly, this is the 78 rpm cover but for the later 33 1/3 it was dropped for a plainer cover. Maybe, it was his ears and drooping bow tie.


Dexter Gordon: Dexter Rides Again. 1947.

Big Band and Swing were still big and swinging but the new jazz was Bebop. As Miles Davis said of it, it was about change and evolution. For some, it was more like revolution. The giants were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie but there were others, such as tenor sax player, Dexter Gordon. Here we find an example of two elements of jazz album covers: that photos of the musician can sell units and that despite their unmatched cool, they were still capable of looking very very silly. Gordon, born in LA and a son of doctor is here a cowboy. Well, of course he is.


James P Johnson: Jazz Band Ball. 1944

One of the early Blue Note albums which would really dominate in the 1950s, this is for the stride pianist James P Johnson, who was from a segregated time when the band would have to slip in the back, which this fine drawing by Paul Bacon captures well.


Edward Hall/Sidney DuParis: Jamming in Jazz. 1949

Another by Bacon, who was Blue Note’s first designer and would not only design album covers but also book sleeves for major paperback titles (Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 to name but two). I love the delicate outline pencil drawings of the musicians set against the bold red background.


Bix Beiderbecke/Frankie Trumbauer. 1947

Another major sleeve designer who produced his first work in the forties and who also earns the honour of a double entry in the blog is Jim Flora. Playful and sometimes absurd, his designs are marvellously full of vitality but with the occasional hint of something more mysterious.


Kid Ory: New Orleans Jazz. Early 1940s

This sleeve for the New Orleans trombonist and band leader, Flora shows his great joy of art, borrowing from Miro and Calder. Flora’s fame would lead him to not only illustrate but write children’s books.


Muggsy Spanier/Pee Wee Russell. 1947

Hey, they seem to be lining up in their pairs. We end on the most collectable of artists – David Stone Martin. His covers for Verve with their mix of drawings and washed water colour are highly sought after. Here, is one of his earlier designs, signposting his way forward.


Coleman Hawkins. 1940s

We finish with another by DSM: this powerful picture of the Hawk (the musician’s nickname) soaring behind him, ready to attack. Like Flora and Bacon, his reputation would lead him into other areas such as a number of covers for Time magazine and he can be found in both New York’s MoMA and the Met.

That was just ten faves from the decade and we will next visit the 1950s. And that is tasty.

Phil Brett



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