Cool Jazz, burnin’ hard bop and the Cold War: Jazz album covers in the 1950s


The world was slowly recovering from the catastrophe of World War Two but it was a recovery which was contradictory and often schizophrenic. Peace had been declared but there was the Cold War; the war had been fought for freedom and yet black Americans couldn’t sit where they wanted to and bombsites covered Europe whilst American art flourished. These ten album covers, are in my personal, and very humble opinion, reflect in different and sometimes not so obvious ways, the transformation whar had become the most powerful nation on Earth.

The album shown above is the 1959 album by Charlie Mingus, Mingus Ah Um, which I think can act as a good opener to this decade containing the buds of recovery and the seeds of revolution; of continuity and contrast:  This most articulate of man has an almost nonsensical, non language-based title. The music itself  is a sublime mix of the big band sound of the forties which was evolving, and the hard bop which was emerging. The cover painting is by a Japanese American, Neil Fujita (who was also responsible for another 1950s Classic – Dave Brubeck’s Time Out).  Fuijita had family in Japan, which he enlisted to fight against. His lovely painting seems to me to owe a debt to Miro and Picasso (but then that could be said of so many).  Its design fits the position of the 1950s – between the certainty of the 1940s and the questioning of the 1960s. Interestingly, and tellingly, Fujita was also responsible for the paperback cover designs of two books which in different ways would question American values and become immensely popular – Catch 22 and The Godfather.


In December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, an action which would help launch the civil rights movement. Paradoxically, just a few months after that very potent sign of the refusal to recognise black people as being worthy of equality, this album was released. The two musicians are of course, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and were of such stature that there was no requirement for their names to be on the front. Everyone knew it was Ella and Satchmo. Even the choice of photographer showed their status – Phil Stern – the photographer for Vogue. Notably, they are not shown as musicians, performing, but instead, they are sitting, as human beings, where they want.


Blue Note Records began in 1939 but it really began to move to the centre stage of jazz in the fifties and sixties. Young musicians, whether indirectly, or in the case of John Coltrane, directly, were influenced by the civil rights movement and began to create music which, in my opinion, is amongst the finest ever created. This 1957 album, Blue Train by the saxophone genius, has the cover design team of photographer Francis Wolff and graphic designer Reid Miles. Both would design scores of sleeves of total and unmatchable cool for the label – defining it, the music and an ethos. Look at the photo of Coltrane, and see a man – thoughtful, intense, intelligent, strong but beautiful. Like his music.


Here’s another Wolf and Miles cover which again has a great photo but see also the typography which splits it from the almost half of the sleeve which is white.


It wasn’t all hard bop in the fifties; there was also Cool Jazz which supposedly had less fire and brimstone, and was commercially more attractive. This witty cover by David Stone Martin, a man regarded by many as the guru of jazz sleeve design, contrasts the sharp suits of the archetypal jazz man with the laid back life style of the West Coast. A foretaste of the sixties dropping out?


That same coolness is also depicted in this drawing on the 1958 album by Johnny Griffin; showing with that shirt that hard boppers could leave the suits behind as well as the cool jazz dudes. Oh and the artist? Well, the world would be hearing a lot from him in the next decade – Andy Warhol.


Art and jazz were often seen at parties together. Here is a live 1955 album by Donald Byrd but instead of a photograph of Byrd blowing his trumpet in a glory of bop, a painting by Mondrian was chosen instead. Very modern, and in a strange way, subversive.


Shirts were important to jazz cats; here Miles Davis sports a more subdued one to Griffin but it’s cool nonetheless. Apart from Miles looking stylish, he is also looking straight at the camera and through it, the listener. This may not sound like a political action, its hardly the March on Washington, but in a sense it was; Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography on how he had rejected the grinning showboating of earlier jazzmen for amusement of the white audience and instead, just wanted to play his music – on his terms. Live, he would often turn his back to the audience but here he is looking directly into your eyes – at the very least, your equal.


This 1951 album is from Count Basie, one of the Big Band greats. Its composition is magnificent. The black woman in the foreground has her back to the listener and other black members of the audience are looking on. The photographer was Bernard Cole, born in London but who lived in America and who was a member of the Photo League: an idealistic, mainly Jewish, group of photographers who believed that the camera could herald social change. For me, this image is showing that jazz is an art form performed by black people not only for the delight of white audiences but black as well. The listener, who may be white, is not important – Count Basie is. One might consider that such images are too obtuse to be effective but then it is important to note that the American authorities didn’t think so, with League experiencing harassment for its beliefs through years of red scares and witch hunts. But their photography has outlived the narrow minded philistines.


We finish with drummer Max Roach’s 1951 Deeds Not Words. The look and the title says it all. Also heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, Roach was to release a series of stunning jazz albums with a clear message demanding freedom and equality. The whole design DEMANDS that the politicians  take note and DARES you to disagree. Released over sixty years ago, but today, at a time when in the United States there is a need for people to demand that Black Lives Matter –  it is still relevant and still powerful.


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