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It’s a sensation familiar to many jazz fans: An album catches your eye from a record store window, or from a crate at a yard sale, or from the bookshelf of a music-loving friend. It’s almost magic, the way it invites you in and beckons to be played before you’ve heard a single note. If you’ve experienced that pull, you likely owe the sensation to the album’s cover art, a ubiquitous design element now but an innovation back in 1940, when Alex Steinweiss, art director for Columbia Records, superimposed a photo of Broadway’s Imperial Theatre onto the sleeve of Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart and created the world’s first graphic cover. Early 78-RPM records were sold as single shellac discs, each containing roughly five minutes of music. Most were packaged in paper or cardboard sleeves, adorned with little more than the song’s title. By the 1940s, however, labels began marketing records in multi-disc collections that were named for photo albums and designed for a similar purpose: to compile a set of records unified by a common artist, genre or theme. In time, long-playingrecords (LPs) would increase the amount of music that could be etched onto a single disc, diminishing the need for multi-disc packaging. But the concept of the unified “album” stuck, and cover art was added to provide a much-needed visual component to an album’s theme.
[caption id="attachment_32557" align="alignleft" width="264"] Reid Miles designed the cover of Freddie Hubbard's Hub Tones on Blue Note Records.[/caption]
Jazz has had its fair share of iconic album covers and cover designers over the years. The work of designer Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff, for example, created an aesthetic that defined Blue Note Records for decades. The same could be said for David Stone Martin, whose stark and imaginative line drawings became a hallmark of Verve Records. Even today, when streaming services have rendered albums down to bits and bytes, there is a host of artists and designers working to ensure that jazz albums carry a certain visual magic. We spoke with five modern designers about their artistic process, asking them to comment on one of their recent album covers. We then asked them to analyze a historic album they felt was particularly influential, or a contemporary album they found especially noteworthy for its design. Excerpts from those conversations follow.
Keith Henry Brown
Keith Henry Brown’s interest in art and music have always been fully intertwined. From as early as he can remember, Brown wanted to be a comic book illustrator. For nearly as long, he has been a jazz devotee. “I saw jazz musicians as heroes, too,” he says. “And it didn’t hurt that they were Black, that I could see myself in them.” Realizing his childhood dream, Brown worked briefly as an illustrator for Marvel Comics, drawing for titles like Black Panther and Captain America. In 2001, he was handpicked by Wynton Marsalis to serve as Creative Art Director at Jazz at Lincoln Center for its grand opening. In April 2019, he and author Kathleen Cornell Burton published the children’s book Birth of the Cool: How Miles Davis Found His Sound. Christian McBride Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard (Mack Avenue)Cover by Keith Henry Brown, 2015I was trying to capture the experience of going to the club itself. I looked at a bunch of covers that have been done in the past, including one of my favorites, John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard. And I didn’t want to just draw the band, to just draw musicians. I wanted to depict what it’s like to go down into that red abyss. At the Village Vanguard, there are these red walls, and then you go down into this basement, and then you open a door, and then all of a sudden you’re in this magical place. I was trying to give you that feeling of being on the street and looking down there at the bottom, the anticipation of the concert. Originally, I submitted another design that featured the neon sign that hangs outside the club, but I'm glad Christian didn’t go with it. This one plays to my strength as a cartoonist. I liked the idea that you’re immersing yourself in the music through a sense of place. Even if you’ve never been there, you get it. Various artists, Norman Granz’s Jam Session #1 (Verve)Cover by David Stone Martin, 1952David Stone Martin has this really beautiful, bold line. I love the way he has the different musicians overlapping each other and running into each other, how he captures their likeness with just a few lines. He creates the personalities. I also appreciate how you can read it all so clearly, even though the forms are kind of clumped together. They’re very clean, but also abstract. It’s clear that these figures aren’t realistic, but they’re not cartoons either. I’ve seen drawings of jazz artists from the ’40s and ’50s that make Black musicians look like caricatures, like what some particular people think Black people look like. But with Stone Martin, there’s this beautiful respect in the way he draws them. Even though they're cartoons, there's a dignity to his line. They’re not majestically drawn, like the way a royal portrait would be. But he makes me feel like they’re important.
Illustrator Steven Erdman has long been enamored by the power of comics to engender human emotion. “I remember falling in love — like literal, heart-fluttering love — with a girl in a Dondi comic strip,” he says. Though he originally set out to become an architect — working for several prominent firms — Erdman’s love for alternative comics ultimately led him to the children’s television network Nickelodeon, where he designed props for promo videos. He has since exhibited in galleries near his home in the Catskills and designed album covers for Philip Glass. In addition to his design work, Erdman performs under the stage name Lard Dog with his art-rock group, The Band of Shy. A double album featuring Jamie Saft, LaLah Brooks and others is due out soon. Jamie Saft Quartet, Blue Dream (RareNoise)Cover by Steven Erdman, 2018It pulls from Dada, Surrealism school, first and foremost. I wanted to take the album name literally, a dream that was blue. So I wanted to go for something that was a bit Salvador Dalí, a bit Joan Miró. I wanted it to look like something that came from my favorite era, which is the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s. So I had this idea to put the titles of all the tracks on the front cover, which people don’t do anymore but was big back in the day. Those amoeba-like shapes for those two figures are also straight out of the ’50s. They could be from an Alexander Calder mobile. Now, whether the female figure was saying something to the male figure that was enchanting or annoying is for the audience to determine. Are they fighting? Did she say something intriguing? It’s up to you. And then I just love to throw in oddball creatures. This morphed, Panda-animal thing hanging on in this strangely designed tree, I use that little guy a lot. It’s a representation of somebody I will not reveal. Well, maybe on my deathbed. Jackie Gleason Orchestra, Jackie Gleason Presents Lonesome Echo (Capitol)Cover by Salvador Dalí, 1955This whole thing is just mind-blowing. I mean, that’s Salvador Dalí working for Jackie Gleason! How crazy is that? Honestly, the music doesn’t really float my boat, but this cover just can’t get any better. It’s the genius of artists like Dalí to use less and convey more. That’s always the hardest thing. When insecurity creeps in, you tend to over-design. But on this one, it’s hard to describe in words, really. The only word you can give it is “magic.” There’s something about it that grabs your heart. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with Dalí’s personality, this just crazy talented, lovable, funny guy. Now, I don’t know what the symbology was. And I’m not even sure that’s the point, because for me, this stuff has the magic. And then the real mind-blower is turning the cover over to see Gleason and Dalí having that famous handshake, like Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. There’s almost a distance between them, but it was also just the most beautiful thing.
[caption id="attachment_32568" align="alignleft" width="2048"] David Cowles Illustration by David Cowles[/caption]
David Cowles was born in Rochester, New York, and got his start in illustration in the art department of his local newspaper. “If the editor gave me a map or graph to design, it had to be finished, photographed and on the page by deadline,” he says. “I learned to not overthink things.” In the late-’80s, Cowles did a series of paintings for Musician magazine depicting popular musicians — Sting, U2, Madonna — in the style of historic artists. Cowles has since designed covers for jazz pianist Bill Charlap and the alt-rock group They Might Be Giants. He has also worked on projects for Disney, Sesame Street and Cartoon Network, and he regularly designs posters for his hometown Rochester International Jazz Festival. Steve Gadd Band, Way Back Home: Live From Rochester, NY (BFM Jazz)Cover by David Cowles, 2016For this album cover, I really wanted to convey the expression Steve would have on his face when he's drumming — that concentration, that almost angry look, even though we know that's not what he's thinking. It’s this great intensity that I think is really the key. When the label contacted me, they wanted to show Steve surrounded by Rochester, by the skyline and architectural landmarks. Those buildings are pretty close to what I’ve been doing ever since I got heavily into the work of [Mexican illustrator] Miguel Covarrubias, stuff where it’s kind of Cubist, kind of retro ’20s and ’30s. That’s the Eastman Theater looming high up in the background. There’s the Bausch and Lomb building to the far left, and the Xerox building to the far right. After I’d put each building in place, I’d have to see how the colors were reacting, whether they’re standing out too much or blending too much. Once you get in there, you’re constantly comparing what’s in your head to what’s on the page. That’s just part of the artistic process.Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra, Bix and Tram (Columbia)Cover by Jim Flora, 1947This album was just sort of around the house when I was growing up, though I don't know that I actually played it. As a kid, I thought it seemed so odd, obviously not too far removed from some of the cartoons that I was watching at the time, Hanna-Barbera stuff, those UPA cartoons. And though I didn't know anything about the musicians themselves, it just prompted so many questions: What is this? What is going on there? That is what the best album art does. It draws you in and makes you want to listen to the music. I just love the simplicity of the colors that Jim Flora used, even though I know that was probably for budget reasons. “Use what you got” — it was the same when I worked at the newspaper. I also love the shape of these faces. I love the profile with the one eye, the little detail like that ear, the way it looks like the handle on an instrument case, or like a coffee cup. Those little things coming out of their instruments, those “Tinkertoys” connecting back to their arm or their mouthpieces. Everything about this is fantastic.
Though based in Connecticut, Jill DeGroff calls herself an “itinerant saloon artist.” The bon vivants, barflies, musicians and other denizens of the nocturnal world are her subjects, the city streets and cocktail lounges her studios. As a teenager, DeGroff lived above a bar that was a regular haunt for jazz musicians. “I used to take my Rapidograph [pen] and a little notebook down to that club — and to Central Park and to Columbia University — and just sketch faces,” she says. “It was like a whole world was opening up to me.” She has caricatured more than 1,000 people and recently authored Lush Life: Portraits From the Bar, a collection of portraits and stories about characters she has met over the years. Arturo O’Farrill Sextet, Boss Level (Zoho)Cover by Jill DeGroff, 2016I first came across Arturo O’Farrill during one of his shows at Puppet’s Jazz Bar in Brooklyn. I got a really good sketch and I sent it to him. We spoke on the phone and he gave me this incredible story about life as a musician in the ’70s — the little jams he would play at and the hangs where they would shoot the breeze. He was describing a moment that was frozen in time, and that seems to be rapidly disappearing in this world. I wanted to capture the spirit of that moment for this album cover. This is Manhattan. Jazz is such an urban phenomenon, the beat, the rhythm, the spirit. So even before you have music, I wanted to convey that energy in the automobiles and the traffic and the architecture. Arturo’s music has set that sense of craziness, energy. It reminds me of listening to Gil Scott-Heron. Or to Arturo’s father’s music, Chico O’Farrill. If you look closely, you can see a little portrait of Chico in the streetlight. Giveton Gelin, True Design (self-released)Cover design by Autumn Steele, photography by Rambo Elliott, 2020My attraction to this album cover is on an emotional level. It’s just so perfect in its way, and for this time. I don’t have to listen to a note, but I know this is a man who just wants to share his art. He’s so subdued, he has his trumpet in his hand, and it’s like, “Give me a chance to live and play my music and share my music.” And I love that he’s surrounded by nature, and the texture of that nature, the way things overlap, like how textures of jazz overlap with other music — the music of the Bahamas, in Giveton’s case. And Giveton has definitely made his way in the jazz world. He’s played in New Orleans, in New York. He’s become a rising star. But I just love the quietness of the cover. The album may contain so much beautiful music, but there’s a sense of silence to the cover that draws you in, and you can almost hear him whispering, “Hey, give me a chance. I’ve got a lot to say.”
Tokyo-born graphic designer Takao Fujioka fell in love with jazz in 2007, after his first trip to New York City. “I could feel my emotions welling up,” he relates by email, translated from his native Japanese. He was so enraptured by the music that he began drawing his impressions of the musicians in his notebook. On that same trip, he caught the eye of Dale Fitzgerald, co-founder of the Jazz Gallery. Fitzgerald was smitten with Fujioka’s designs, and the following year, the Jazz Gallery held a solo exhibit of his work. Fujioka, who studied art in Osaka, finds particular inspiration in the work of Reid Miles. But he also draws influence from the manga series Dragon Ball and its primary animator, Akira Toriyama. “My manner is rooted in the distortion used in some Japanese comics,” he says. Fujioka also runs the monthly jazz paper Way Out West.Stan Getz, Moments in Time (Resonance)Cover by Takao Fujioka, 2016This album is special for me because I love Stan Getz’s improvisation. I take pride in representing the essence of Reid Miles and David Stone Martin — their work is essential to me. As for the design, I was trying to convey the atmosphere of the 1970s in as simple a way as possible. [The album features never-before-released music recorded by Getz in 1976 at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco.] Zev Feldman, the producer of Resonance Records, has trust in my craftsmanship. He and I have established a good partnership, which is very important for artists. There are some producers who, historically, have shown great appreciation for the arts, like Alfred Lion or Norman Granz. This piece became a major turning point for me.Lester Young, Lester Young (Norgran)Cover by David Stone Martin, 1955It’s hard to choose just one, but this Norgran release from Lester Young is absolutely beautiful. I found it at a record shop in Osaka. It’s by David Stone Martin, and it’s a masterpiece. The composition is wonderful, and I love the way he drew the connection between art and everyday life in a humorous way. It’s perfectly balanced, and I hold it so highly.