On both the big and small screen there have been killer soundtracks designed to whet the appetite for a murder. Some, such as the Godfather theme, have become a part of our psyche. Indeed, if it had not been for a recent holiday in Sicily it would have been in this list. Unfortunately, two weeks of hearing it in every shop and restaurant, and from every busker, has made me almost allergic to the evocative tune. Nonetheless, here are ten which show that music can be more than something to merely accompany the credits or fill in the background. Perhaps because of Quentin Tarantino, many films and TV series now as a matter of course feature pop music, but for the most part, these were written specifically for the film or TV programme, or if they weren’t, have achieved fame because of it.
First up, a tune which surely brings a smile when heard – The Pink Panther theme; written by the great Henry Mancini, and winner of the 1964 Oscar for best film score. The music somehow manages to combine mystery with an air of someone tiptoeing along a corridor, trying not to make a sound, but instead crashing over an aspidistra sitting in a pot on the landing – just the tune for Inspector Clouseau. Interestingly, it features Plas Johnson on saxophone, who also played on a song which has a very different kind of mood – Marvin Gaye’s Let’s get it on.
Plas is prolific, also appearing on the Peter Gunn theme from the eponymous American PI TV series which ran from 1958-1961 (and like the Pink Panther, was created by Peter Blake). It uses a repeated musical phrase (known as an ostinato) which can create a sense of intrigue. It also sounds pretty damn cool. Most people have forgotten the TV series, or indeed have never heard of it in the first place, but the tune lives on; whether because of the Art of Noise cover version or its inclusion on the 1980 Blues Brothers soundtrack. The original tune won numerous awards and featured a number of jazz notables, including Peter Candoli, a trumpeter who played with, amongst others, Woody Herman.
Talking of cool, and of a soundtrack which has become more famous than what it was originally written for, we have here the simply sublime Superfly by Curtis Mayfield for the 1972 blaxploitation movie of the same name.
Ditto, Shaft by Isaac Hayes, for the 1971 film, which was released by Stax as a double album, and became the label’s best ever seller.
The theme from Joy House, a 1964 film starring Alain Delon and Jane Fonda has the uber-cool Jimmy Smith doing his thing on his Hammond B3 organ, and can be found on Smith’s The Cat on the Verve label. The tune was composed by Lalo Schifrin who has been responsible for many great soundtracks, including Mission Impossible.
Schifrin also composed the soundtrack for the 1965 film, Bullitt, which starred Steve McQueen as San Francisco police lieutenant Frank Bullitt. It had been originally Spencer Tracey who was to play him and was to be set in Boston –a much slower film imagines, with fewer car chases. More walking.
The first Starsky & Hutch series also had a Schifrin composition, rather slower than the more familiar one (Gotcha) which replaced it. Gotcha being far brasher and more flash – rather like the two main characters. It features sax player Tom Scott -“Who?” you might say. But he is a musician who has been much in demand, including by Blondie on Rapture and Rod Stewart on Da ya think I’m sexy?
Cool has been mentioned quite a lot here – for good reason. However, if you want cool then French cinema + noir + Miles Davis = Ascenseur pour l’echafaud. The soundtrack to the 1957 Louis Malle film is quite simply magnificent. A jazz loving assistant to Malle suggested Miles for the man to create it. After watching a private screening of the film, Miles went in and recorded it in two days. Such speed shouldn’t surprise us when we consider the purple patch Miles was in: a few months before he had released Milestones; a few after, the epic Kind of Blue.
My penultimate tune is Angelo Badalementi’s Twin Peaks, from the 1990’s TV series by David Lynch, with FBI agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) investigating the death of Laura Palmer. It was composed with Lynch sitting by Badalementi at the composer’s Fender Rhodes keyboard describing what he imagined. For me, it has mystery with a touch of camp. Much like the series.
We end on a topical note – the theme from The Bridge, one of the many examples of Nordic Noir which are sweeping all before them. Starring Sofia Helin as Saga Noren (and her green Porsche) it for me, is the best thing on TV at the moment. The theme is Hollow Talk by The Choir of Young Believers who are enormous in Denmark. They specialise in quasi-religious songs, and this one with its haunting melody fits nicely with the bleak nourish Scandinavia.
It was all happening in the nineteen nineties – the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the release of Nelson Mandela and the world premiere of Spice World – The Movie, to name just three. Whether you consider the latter to be a truly historic event or not, is one for heated, philosophical and profound discussions late into the night. But whatever your position on the matter, you probably would be hard pressed to think of any jazz related event which qualified as being worthy of such a description. Unless that is, if you took a look at the obituaries where you would find the likes of Miles Davis (1991), Ella Fitzgerald (1996) and Dizzy Gillespie (1993) all going to that jazz club in the sky.
But it wasn’t quite Jazz RIP. True, it did not have the global power of hip-hop (which was basically taking over the world, Spice included) but jazz could still produce music of note (no pun intended, although I’ll accept it). Jazzmatazz for example, was the rapper Gang Starr using jazz samples to produce a thrilling album. The cover, with its photography and typography, cleverly echoes the Blue Note albums of the fifties and sixties. A Tribe Called Quest, another pioneer of jazz rap also, for their 1991 single Jazz (We’ve Got) did likewise. For some it wasn’t jazz; for others, the mix was jazz updating itself and evolving, like jazz has always done. Some didn’t give a hoot either way. Personally, I’m in the evolution group and think this sleeve neatly depicts how a very modern art form (rap) can adopt, style and incorporate an older one (jazz). It is witty too.
The decade saw the trend of fusing different genres with jazz increase with a whole host of words being bolted before and after it to create ‘new’ hybrids of the music (jazzcore, post-bop, punk jazz, acid jazz et al). Which would at least give gainful employment to the grammar police who could debate whether a hyphen was required or not. Buckshot LeFonque (1994) was the self-titled debut album from the group created by Branford Marsalis to cross jazz with hip-hop. The sleeve, like the album, is bold and fun.
Not that the decade was solely hip-hop, there was also grunge and Brit pop. But I am not aware of the genre of Brit pop jazz (although Noel Gallagher did play guitar on a cover version of the Beatle’s Help on jazz singer Claire Martin’s 1999 album, Take my Heart). Fab Four Brit Pop Jazz?
Something must have been in the air that year because this exceptional album includes Mehldau covering a Radiohead song.
The cover is number of cool blue and green stripes with the title and artist(s) in stylish lower case lettering. The slanting 4 is the final touch; giving the sleeve a pure simplicity.
At least in these comparatively early days of hip-hop, social comment and anger at the poverty, injustice and racism which African Americans continued (and continue) to experience in the States was an important element to the music. Maybe that was one reason why young artists were drawing upon their musical roots – historically, jazz had been greatly influenced by the civil rights movement. In turn, jazz artists saw hip-hop as breathing life into an old form. But jazz didn’t have to rely on its new loud nephew to make a point. Pharoah Sanders was from the generation immersed in the black consciousness movement and spiritualism. Here the stand out track is Our Roots (Began in Africa) which is so self-explanatory that, well I don’t need to explain it.
The cover looks to be like the great man is lost in a vortex of warped perspective which almost look like the folds of time. Considering Mr Sanders’ music and beliefs, that surely is no coincidence.
There was little in the way of subtlety (which is definitely not a criticism) with this album. The cover (by Deborah Bowie) is a photograph from the 1992 Los Angeles riot and the title alludes to the James Baldwin book on race in the USA. It is a live album recorded just a few months after the riots which followed the acquittal of the cops who almost beat Rodney King to death. Tracks include a cover of Strange Fruit, which he introduces with the poignant comment that nothing appears to have changed, and a stunning version of Michael Jackson’s Black or White. (A fine example of how interpretation and context can empower a song; in this case going from a passable if cheesy pop to a strident angry, yet witty, blow-out of rage at injustice). The cover and the music remind me of the great 1960 jazz albums which had a symbiotic relationship with the civil right movement.
This 1995 album also reminds me of the great LPs of the sixties but this time it is because the design uses a painting for the cover. This particular one is by John Marin and is a 1932 watercolour titled Region of Brooklyn Bridge Fantasy and is a good example of both the painter’s love of New York and his debt to cubism.
The Joe Lovano album is on Blue Note and was a continuation of the labels’ emergence from its dormant existence; remembering that it was once home to new fresh releases and not just a vehicle for the selling of dozens of retakes of the same song. This album shows how the label could honour its past and bring it to a whole new generation of artists by using its huge back catalogue to join in the jazz hip-hop scene.
I love the simple style of the sleeve which manages to hark back to the golden era of design and at the same time seem new. The vertical stripe which backs the number 1 divides the classic original artists from the DJs who have remixed them. For me, it is a clever way of crediting all those involved.
Such albums have become very popular (and let us be honest, sometimes very good).
Perhaps the management in Blue Note records noticed that ECM records were releasing albums which were critically acclaimed and were popular (in jazz terms that is – Michael Jackson never feared being out sold by any of them) and were released in imaginatively designed album covers. Here’s another one. Barbara Wojirsch was still at the helm of design for the label (see previous blogs). Here the photography is by Jim Bengston who was responsible for many fine covers. Like this one. Although, call me an old post- punk nostalgia addict but it does whisper in my ear – Joy Division.
And here’s another one by the same photographer and on the same label. It neatly shows how ECM would often use design which appeared to be a still from some European art-house movie.
But let’s end on a dash of colour with this 1991 album by the Mubal Richard Abrams Orchestra and has a fantastic bright and vibrant cover painted by Abrams himself. Abrams, like Roscoe Mitchell, who we encountered on the last blog with an album cover painted by himself, was formerly a member of the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AAACM). The AACM had emerged from the cultural empowerment of the sixties and were a collective who rented out city lofts to play at.
It is a bright note (yep, it is a pun) to end on, with a veteran jazz man from political times, producing a fine album in a fine sleeve.
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.
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.
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).
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!)
The silver Airstream mobile homes, under a lovely blue sky and glistening in the autumn sun, look like aliens from a 1950s sci-fi flick. An iconic image. This is the second album from guitarist Pat Metheny, whose fusion of jazz and rock split many into lovers and haters. As the blog’s title says – Marmite jazz. (Okay, so the majority of people couldn’t give a hoot either way, let’s not spoil a well-worn cliché).
In the 1970s jazz was fusing faster than an electrical system installed by cowboy sparks. Rock, funk, classical, Latin – jazz musicians were being influenced by them all, and in turn influencing them.
American Garage was released on the German ECM label. A label which in itself can divide a jazz gathering into those who adore its classical stylings and those who see it as muzak. But hey, I’m just looking at the covers here. And in any case, when the ‘but is it jazz?’ wars were being fought, I was just moving from T. Rex to the Sex Pistols. To me, ‘All that Jazz’ merely referred to an Echo and the Bunnymen track.
Another Metheny album (his first) and another ECM record. There are a few here because I genuinely find the covers attractive (as indeed do many others, who collect them as works of art). The design team for the label was Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch. After Burkhart’s untimely death, Barbara would, along with photographer Dieter Rehm, create, a recognisable style for the label. Similar to Blue Note in the fifties and sixties, you could tell the label from the design. It was a type of branding. Although the designs from the two labels are very different, both share a playful approach using different fonts, photography and art. Both looked very cool.
Here, the photograph of an isolated house in the country reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of an almost mythical American landscape. The bright light from the house compliments the title. Then there’s that large white margin, keeping it clean and focussed.
From Germany to Sweden. The Swedish Caprice label released this 1972 album featuring a painting by the artist Moki Cherry. The blaze of colour all but jumps out at you, and has a marvellously naive, almost childlike quality about it. Moki incidentally, as well as being a fine artist, also happened to be married to the trumpeter.
Gil Scot Heron and Brian Jackson’s great 1974 album was originally called Supernatural Corner, after the collage featured on the sleeve. Created by artist Eugene Cole it refers to a house which Heron lived in and was reputed to be haunted. Heron though, found the title rather too obtuse, so chose Winter in America instead, a far more appropriate one, considering the themes of songs such The Bottle. The four by eight foot painting is Cole’s sense of confusion and anger following the murder of Martin Luther King.
A simple but effective photograph of a lone figure standing tall, proud and dignified in front of the African landscape. With apartheid South Africa provoking world-wide outrage and the movement against it growing, the image spoke volumes.
This masterpiece has the seventies written all over it. Just look at the design, the clothes and the garish typography. For the central image, the Galician-American artist, Victe Moscoso uses a modern image (a tape head demagnetiser, which was a recording tool at a time. And no I have no idea what they do), and creates an African mask out of it. So it’s a jazz-funk cousin of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon then. Moscoso had become well known in the late nineteen sixties counter-culture for his psychedelic posters and illustrations in Zap Comix.
This is the wonderful Alice Coltrane’s third album and features the equally wonderful Pharoah Sanders. The cover art is by Jim Evans, an artist who, like Victe Moscoso made is his name in underground comics. The album sleeve design reflects the ancient Egyptian mythology which inspires much of the album’s music. (I’m guessing that Pharoah Sanders was chosen because he is one of the finest sax players in the world and not because his name fits the concept. And yes, I know the oa is reversed, it was a joke).
The 1971 album is another superb example of how to contrast a title with an image. In this case, the billowing flames from an industrial chimney has little in the way of a blue horizon. I think it is that thing called irony. It could have easily been used by Gil Scot Heron.
Yet another ECM cover. I have a fondness for minimalist art because, without sounding pretentious (or at least any more pretentious than I usually do), I find the purity relaxing. I think the sleeve reflects the space present in Bley’s piano playing.
The album’s title is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (on the album one track is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like a rife. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. Great cover – great album.
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.