Hairspray, linen suits, big hair and all that jazz: My favourite jazz covers from the 1980s


In the 1980s you were never far from a sax solo. If there was a movie scene which demanded an element of sex or sophistication, or both, usually involving a lot of hair spray, then you could bet your rolled-up jacket sleeves that some smooth jazz would be playing in the background. Smooth jazz, emerged (with silky ease) out of the 1970s. Basically, it was Jazz rock fusion with all the edges, indeed interest…well…er…smoothed out. Kenny G was the king of the genre, a genre which many loved and many others thought was akin to watching white paint drying. Running him a close second was sax man David Sanborn. Linking Sanborn with smooth jazz might be doing him a disservice as he has been keen to distance himself from the genre; plus the fact that the list of musicians who he has recorded with boasts an impressive number of the jazz and rock greats.
But we’re here to discuss album covers and this 1982 LP from Sanborn has a sleeve with a picture by the marvellously named Lou Beach (I really hope he has a son called Sandy) which is worth a look. Born in Germany of Polish parents, Beach came to the USA at the age of four. Leaving high school he hitched a ride with some hippies and after several blue-collar jobs concentrated on his art. He hit fame with his Grammy winning album cover for Weather Report’s 1971 debut album.

I like its bold colours, which if you have read my previous blogs, you will already know that I am a sucker for (and if you haven’t read them – why not?). I also appreciate the way it initially appears to be a simple street scene but on taking a closer look, the distorted perspectives and repeated images appear. It is bright and brash, and I think fun. Like much of the eighties.


Talking of Germany, the label, based in that country – ECM – also featuring in my 1970s blog, was going from strength to strength. This 1984 Art Ensemble of Chicago album is designed by the ECM design supremo, Barbara Wojirsch. The effervescent cover is a painting by one of the musicians of the band, sax player Roscoe E Mitchell. Mitchell was one of the founding members of the nineteen sixties non-profit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which had been inspired by the black cultural movements of the decade, which had in turn had grown out of the black consciousness movement. The Art Ensemble grew out of the AACM.


But in the 1980s things were also brewing elsewhere in Europe, in the UK to be precise. Acid jazz was yet another fusion, of jazz with funk, pop, soul and disco (and the kitchen sink if required). Like previous fusions it repulsed as many as it attracted. One band in the nineteen eighties club jazz scene was the James Taylor Quartet who had Taylor’s Hammond B3 playing at its core. Mission Impossible was their debut album and as both the title and design suggest, was a set of cover versions of film themes. This was groovy before Austin Powers was even a sparkle in Mike Myers’ eyes.

freedom principle

This 1989 compilation is an example of the work of art director and designer Andrew Sutton who designed albums for many acid house and acid jazz musicians. But is it a jazz album?


There was less ambivalence about the rise of the London born jazz sax player Courtney Pine. Destiny Song (1988), is his second album with the sleeve a repeated photograph of Pine, from music industry photographer Mike Prior.


As Pine shows, sometimes you don’t need fine art, playful visual puns, collage or fancy typography – a photo of the musician looking cool is quite enough. And coolness is something which jazz musicians have a large stock of. Don Cherry is sitting there, with his trumpet pressed to his lips, wearing a white hat. Just cool.


And this one too. This photograph by Irving Penn is so close up that you feel as if you can see every pore of Miles Davis’ skin. Penn specialises in close ups of the famous, the VERY famous, with the likes of W.H Auden and Picasso having their faces snapped by him. The cover won a Grammy for the Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka, whose credits also include designing the costumes for the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the uniforms for the Japanese 2002 Winter Olympics team.

Ghost factory

A different Davis. This one is Anthony. His 1988 album features a simple and effective, if none too subtle, picture with an allusion to the title. But then designer, Ivan Chermayeff, has made his name with effective designs which stay in the memory because his CV includes logo designs for a host of well-known multi-nationals. A thought does occur to me that many of the sleeves of the nineteen sixties and seventies were influenced by the militancy of the time. Whereas here, the links are with big corporations; maybe that is a coincidence or maybe it says a lot about the decades concerned.


Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy was a massive hit in the eighties but wasn’t from this album. Oh well. It is however a sign that Blue Note records was beginning to awake from the slumber it had fallen into during the seventies.

The designer is Paula Scher who has received multiple Grammy nominations for cover designs and acclaim for her work for the cultural giants of Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum and the New York Ballet. The sort of names you drop at dinner parties. She too has a corporate client list which would have Madison Avenue slobbering with jealously. Scher claims inspiration from the Russian Constructivists (the 1917 revolution wasn’t in vain then) and believes that you can learn everything you need to know about album design from three Beatles albums (Revolver, Sgt Peppers and the White Album).

cotton club

There were several jazz films in the 1980s and Cotton Club, whilst being far from the best, the original soundtrack did have a great cover. It is a stylish black and white image with cool typography and the shadow of the machine gun is that of a trumpet. Design was by Steve Gerdes who did likewise for a number of movie soundtrack albums (and indeed for synth poppers Depeche Mode).

Cotton Club is a nice enough sleeve but it exemplifies something which struck me whilst compiling this list; that most, if not all, would struggle to get into my equivalent for the fifties and sixties. Indeed, my problem with those decades was how to restrict them to a manageable number. Yet, in the two which follow the pickings get far fewer. So many of the jazz sleeves of the nineteen eighties show the musician looking like an extra from Miami Vice. Of course, it could simply be personal taste – bad haircuts in brightly lit photographs – may be your thing. But I think that in the main, they look tacky. Too much of the corporate idea of what is cool. There appears to be little thought given to them. Is it linked to the fact that by the mid-sixties, jazz was not where the big bucks could be found? Rock, pop and soul made the profits, so time and effort should be spent on them and not on a minority interest. Maybe also, as the years rolled past, the truly great innovative and revolutionary jazz musicians and albums declined.

We shall see. The 1990s are next (didn’t expect that did you!)


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