A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But welcome to the 1960s and to Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve won a Grammy for its design but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because that in 1968 Martin Luther King had been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States, and although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance it is quite possible that people saw allusions closer to home; seeing the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Those who saw the cover perhaps saw the resistance as being against the racist (Nazi?) US state or against the imperialistic Vietnam War. Or perhaps that at the time of the Blank Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening. But if some were troubled by it, many were inspired.
Whatever the reasons for the controversy, the sleeve, supervised by Columbia Records’ art director John Berg and photographed by Norman Griner, is often more talked about than the (marvellous) music.
John Berg was also responsible for overseeing another iconic 1960s album sleeve – Bitches Brew. Miles Davis’ 1969 album was one of the first albums which would be labelled jazz-rock. The gatefold sleeve had a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, an artist who also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.
Mati Klarwein was born in Hamburg in 1932. His mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. The family were Jewish, fleeing Germany in 1934 and settling in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. Through these associations you can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work.
Interestingly, later, he added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that the two religions need to understand and respect each other.
How could this 1967 album not be included with its painting of Simone as Cleopatra? It, like Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. At the time the Black Arts Movement were promoting African American art and demanding a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and recognition of the worth of black history. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Nina Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was significance beyond wearing fancy dress. And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra.
The title is also telling, with the record execs wanting to catch a ride on the soul train. Because in 1967 soul was proving to be highly profitable.
Whilst generalising is a dangerous thing, it is quite legitimate to say that by the early to mid-sixties young black audiences were drifting away from jazz and towards the sound of Motown and Stax. Soul was reaching huge audiences whilst the experimental avant-garde jazz, which had exploded into the decade, was leaving many cold. Jazz though, has always been adaptable and many artists saw soul as not a threat but instead was something which could be incorporated into their music. This 1963 soul-jazz classic by the Hammond B3 legend, Jimmy Smith, was enormously successful on its release and remains hugely popular today.
It is so with me. Back at the Chicken Shack is just one example of the series of 1960 album sleeves which were designed by Reid Miles and photographed by Francis Wolff for the Blue Note label. Their brilliance set a new level of album design. When I saw first saw this album, my knowledge of jazz consisted of Ella and Nina. I picked it up to admire the red shirt and the juxtaposition of the chicken shack and Smith looking so damn cool. I played it purely for that reason. After hearing it – I threw myself at everything jazz related I could find.
Jazz could still have hits though. The Girl from Ipanema sung by Astrud Gilberto is taken from this album and proved that it certainly could (the song is the second most recorded pop song of all time – after Paul McCartney’s Yesterday). The album cover features a lovely abstract expressionist painting by the Puerto Rican artist Olga Albizu. It radiates warmth and joy, like a hot sunny holiday – an effect totally in keeping with the music.
But whilst soul jazz and bossa nova retained a wide appeal, one type of jazz was far more polarising – free jazz. Even now, the mere mention of those two words can send people scurrying off for shelter. Cries of “that’s not music, its just noise” will greet a thirty minute sax improvisation. This is the audio equivalent of the reaction which modern art often receives – “my seven year old could do that!” So it is apt that this 1961 album by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollack’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here.
The sixties were a decade that the pressing political questions of the time were never far from many people’s thoughts. I think this sleeve by the Dutch artist Marte Roling wittily captures this. It is one of her covers for the Fontana label which featured drawings with cut-away heads. This one says it all – look closely at the words at the back of his head.
The previous blog on my favourite jazz covers of the fifties closed with a Max Roach album and there could have been several more of his in this one. For example, I could have included his 1960 album, We Insist, with its cover evoking the sit-ins of white-only restaurants; a case of the era’s militancy not only influencing the artists but becoming the art itself. Charlie Haden’s 1969 album, Liberation Music Orchestra does a similar thing with the group holding aloft a banner, referencing a sight often seen on the streets – a demo.
The sleeve of It’s Time (1962) is simply a portrait of Max Roach. It is an excellent portrait by a clearly talented artist but the artist, Richard Jannings, had difficulty getting work because of his colour. It seemed that black artists were fine to sing or play an instrument but not to design an album cover. The title speaks for both artist and musician, and for all black people, in echoing Charlie Parker’s classic demand for equality – Now is the Time. What I really like about this painting is the feeling of depth; it is as if you can actually feel the layered paint.
The sixties will also forever be associated with other rebels – hippies. Long hair, Flower Power, dropping out and all that stuff (maaan) is usually more associated with white audiences but psychedelic stylings spread even to jazz albums. This 1967 album by Archie Shepp manages to combine hippy flowers with the West African witchcraft in a delightful mash up. Was this the first Gothic African Hippy Trippy Free Jazz album?
Now this is REALLY dropping out. If society is so corrupt and the individual needs to escape from it then perhaps it is best to leave the planet which spawned it. Sun Ra claimed that he was from the “Angel Race” and hailed from Saturn. Born with the name Herman Poole Blount, he changed it to Sun Ra (Ra was the Ancient Egyptian God of the Sun), insisting that Blount was merely an imaginary person. His rejection of his birth “slave” name echoes Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali and can be seen as more than just an eccentricity.
Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One is one of his key albums of the mid-sixties (1965), highlighting his break from other types of jazz and his invention of cosmic jazz. It was originally released in a black and white cover, which he designed himself. I cannot say on which planet that was done.