See my thoughts on post-punk and women
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.
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.
Never being one to fear the accusation of self-indulgent bollocks or unoriginality, I was inspired to write this by The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, which I am in the middle of reading. It explores human history through objects, showing how we have shaped the world and been shaped by it. And I thought – are there 10 objects which I could list which have played a part of making me who I am? With nothing on TV and not worrying if anyone could give a toss, I decided to give it a go.
So, switching concepts and ripping someone else off, we start our magical mystery tour, and as you read it, maybe you might consider what you might list for yourself:
A MAGIC CUPBOARD.
Or to be precise, the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis. Because quite possibly, much of what follows stems from this book. It was as a primary school kid, listening to my teacher read this to the class every day that I first got totally enthralled by a book. I couldn’t wait for the next day’s reading; always knowing exactly where we had got up to. Every book which I read later and loved, be it by Raymond Chandler, Leon Trotsky or Hilary Mantel or whoever, was read because that teacher introduced me to a different world. It doesn’t matter that now, as an adult, I find the book wanting – that is totally irrelevant , it hooked me then. Years later, and I am myself now a primary school teacher, and I make sure that I read to the class every day. Indeed, with successive governments doing their best to damage a child’s love of reading and writing with their mechanical obsession on the technical aspects of language, it is vitally important to remember that the primary reason for reading – is to enjoy.
NANA’S GREEN SHIRT.
At much the same time I was given a green, button down check, short sleeve shirt by my maternal grandmother. It wasn’t expensive (probably bought from a stall in the then not-yet gentrified Islington, north London). It was way too large for me. But I thought it the epitome of cool. So I kept it in my own cupboard (sadly without witches or lions) and once a year would get it out and try it on. Finally, by the time I left school, it fitted and I wore it to death. A neat metaphor maybe for the importance of my grandparents, but certainly for my shallow love of clothes.
THE HOOVER BUILDING
Mum and Dad are from London and we would often visit relatives there. A highlight would be to jump in my uncle Bernie’s car (we didn’t have one) and at Christmas drive up and down the A40 looking at the Christmas lights. The stand-out was the 1933 Art-Deco masterpiece of the Hoover Building. During the war it had been an armaments factory and now it is a supermarket (there’s a moral in there somewhere) and I still think it is wonderful building. For me, it started a love of architecture, especially industrial, and a belief that London was where IT WAS AT. Even if it was just the A40.
SPINNING DISCS OF WONDER
One Christmas, Mum and Dad gave me a red record player (possibly a Dansette, or more likely a copy). To go with it they had bought a single they knew I liked, Children of the Revolution by T.Rex (an apt choice in view of future political changes). The stylus hitting the vinyl, was the start of an expensive love of music.
Without an older brother or sister, to guide me, I missed the ‘serious’ music of the seventies. Many friends might be into heavy or prog rock but I stayed with the pop, which by then was deemed by the more hip as being childish. So when I first heard the Clash on a friend’s tape recorder (his dad had a few bob, so he had one of the very first) it was quite a jump from The Sweet to punk (then again, maybe not). But it changed me. I could have listed the Clash first album here, because as a 15 year old, feeling bored and listless in a Hampshire/Surrey commuter village (the village I grew up in is on the border, and for some reason I always felt that locating it in Hampshire was more street cred than Surrey. Sadly, decades later, I still do it) its anger strangely resonated with me. Soon after hearing it, came the music now known as post-punk which consumed me totally.
But not being allowed to, let alone being able to afford to, go to London on my own, the trip to Guildford and in particular, the record shop, Bonaparte Records, in Phoenix Court, was a trip to wonderland. It was a shop which was rare, in that it stocked as many of the new punk and indie releases as it could (writing this, I googled it and found that it was apparently owned by the manager of the Stranglers, so that explains it). Waiting for it to open on a Saturday morning, and running in to look at the new singles stapled to the wall was the highlight of the week. In my mind I can still see them there. Many we would have heard on John Peel but others we would pester the poor sales assistants to play (and wo betide if they hadn’t had time to unpack them – hey, I might have been a fledgling socialist but never mind worker’s rights, if we were waiting for the latest Slits, or Raincoats or Buzzcocks single- work a bit quicker!).
I would read/hear about feminism or socialism, or lesbians or gays. That was all new to me. You never heard about any of that at our local post office. And in our overwhelmingly white village, I was also was introduced to the fact that black music other than the Jackson Five existed. That whole time started to shape my politics. It was an education and shifted my dissatisfaction leftwards to find answers. Depending on the latest single release or article in the NME, I would call myself an anarchist or socialist or a mixture of the two. In reality, not knowing what they actually meant. It was then, on Anti-Nazi marches that I took my first political action. Indeed, the iconic ANL lollipop could/should have been the fifth choice here. But as sad as it might seem, it was those records on Bonaparte’s walls, which got me asking questions, and thinking I had the answers. Political awakening can come from all manner of places.
Now Bonaparte Records has long gone, and I wonder if the era of downloads has deprived people of that joy of seeing a single as more than just three minutes of music.
But back then, I was starting to be able to pay for those records from my wages because the ‘O’ Levels were over and I was working. The final five were to come.