Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Chronicle Books - Blue Note: The Album Cover Art

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"They were sure that with these new
artists they were introducing, so many of them
were leaders for the first time, so
maybe the public in Harlem knew about them,
but across the country they didn't . . .
and they felt it was very important to put these
mens' photos as prominently as
possible on the covers and they got a lot of flak
from distributors across the country
who felt a pretty girl would have been better."

"I would say that ninety per cent of
Frank's photos were taken at the recording sessions.
I got the pictures from Frank and I
integrated them within the design of the moment. … Frank always hated it when I cropped one of his artists through the forehead.”

"Frank tried to get the artist's real expression . . . the way he stood. Reid was more avant-garde and chic but the two together worked beautifully."

“Gosh this is different!... that’s Blue Note … that’s what we want.”

"It didn't mean you had to have full colour —
two colours didn't hurt that product at all.
The few full colour covers I did were not as
strong as the ones with black and white and red."

“Those covers look as fresh today as they did twenty years ago ….”

"Fifty bucks an album . . . they loved it, thought it was modern, they thought it went with the music . . . one or two colours to work with at that time and some outrageous graphics!" 

Jackie’s Bag ...Frank hated that. It had no photograph.”

"That Blue Note era would never have happened in the context of a large company . . . it was a personalized, individual, approach."

In its heyday, the Blue Note record company was the most successful and influential of all the classic jazz record companies.

Blue Note: The Album Cover Art provides a comprehensive, album-sized collection of some of the best Blue Note album covers ever designed.

Opening with a concise history of the Blue Note record company, the book features the cover art of Reid Miles, who designed almost 500 record sleeves for Blue Note over a fifteen-year period.  Reid's canon of work was so individual that his covers were as evocative of the jazz scene as the trumpet timbre of Miles Davis or the plaintive melodies of Billie Holiday.

The covers also promoted a way of stylistic thinking, influencing many of today's trends in graphic art with their pioneering use of typography. And by presenting sophisticated images of fashion and personal flair that mirrored the taste and integrity of the records themselves, the Blue Note label embodied one word: style. It advocated a sense of casual confidence that is given new expression here in Blue Note: The Album Cover Art.

The records shown here continue to enjoy a tremendous following among jazz enthusiasts. The book's impressive array of artists and performers will make it an indispensable collection of memorabilia for both jazz and design buff alike.

FOREWORD:  HORACE SILVER  (Blue Note Recording Star 1952-1979) and at the time of this writing in 1990, in charge of Silveto Productions / Emerald Records.

"Blue Note Records were very meticulous in every aspect of their production: they used the best vinyl, they paid for rehearsals and when I asked to be in on the other parts of my album Alfred Lion (the label's founder) gave me every opportunity. A lot of musicians in those days worked very hard to make good music and once the music was done, they let Alfred Lion go with the rest of it.

One day I went to Alfred and said, I want to sit down with you and look at the pictures you want to use and pick them together and check the sleeve notes before you print them. He agreed to that, and so I had input over a lot of things the other guys didn't bother with.

I learnt a lot from that, and what I learnt about making a record I learnt from Alfred Lion. I don't have a favourite cover of mine . . . but thinking back now you know, I kinda like the Tokyo Blues cover!"


1925: Alfred Lion, aged sixteen, experiences Sam Woodyard and his Chocolate   Dandies in concert and is profoundly affected by the wonderful music.

1930: Lion makes his first trip to the United States, purchasing over 300 records unavailable in his native Germany.

1938: Lion emigrates to the US, escaping Nazism and embracing Hot Jazz. Attends the legendary Spirituals to Swing concert  and is transfixed by boogie-woogie pianists  Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.

1939: Ammons and Lewis are recorded by Lion at an after-hours   session. The  results are pressed up into fifty twelve-inch discs which soon sell  out. The first  brochure  is produced  detailing the  label's  intent.  Sidney Bechet records
Summertime for Blue Note giving the label a 'hit'.

1941: Francis Wolff, Alfred Lion's associate, joins  him  from Germany.

1942: Blue Note suspends production for the duration of the war. Lion is drafted into US Army.

1943: The label resumes activities, moving to 767 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, and during the next four years records small swingtets (comprising seven or eight players).

1948: By this time Blue Note had absorbed the stylistic changes of Bop and was recording the new talents, such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Fats Navarro.

1951: The year that Blue Note moved from 78s to the ten-inch format, introducing as it did the need for cover art. Paul Bacon,Gil Melle and John Hermansader are the early cover designers.

1953: Gil Melle introduces Lion to Rudy Van Gelder, a recording engineer working from home in Hackensack, New Jersey. It was Van Gelder's ears that helped mould what became known as the 'Blue Note   sound'. His attention to details, such as   the audibility of the hi-hat cymbal, gave the records their definition and dimensional warmth.

1954: The Jazz Messengers are born (including Horace Silver and Art Blakey) heralding a new era of soulful, swinging and inventive jazz.

1956: Reid Miles begins working with Lion and Wolff as Blue Note's  graphic  designer. Soon-to-become legendary organist Jimmy Smith  is signed to the label, completing the cast, as Michael Cuscuna described it, with Lion, Wolff, Blakey, Silver, Van Gelder and Reid Miles.

1958: Fledgling 'Star', Andy Warhol, draws a reclining woman motif for the covers of Kenny Burrell's Blue Lights Volumes 1 and 2.

1959: Blue Note, with new A&R man Ike Quebec, move recordings to Van Gelder's new studio at Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

1963: Ike Quebec succeeded by Duke Pearson.

1964: Blue Note have two hit albums in the grooving Song For My Father by Horace Silver and The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan.

1965:  The recording  giant Liberty makes Blue Note chiefs Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff an offer to sell out. The two were becoming exhausted by their diligence to the label and accepted the offer.

1967: Alfred Lion quits Blue Note due to health problems. The label no longer has Reid Miles as graphic designer and the visual changes become disturbingly obvious.

1971: Francis Wolff dies. The label moves towards fusion and continues to have hits.

1975: A re-issue programme continues the tradition of Blue Note's heyday, with classic albums made available again. This particular programme survives until 1981.

1985: Blue Note is fully revived by Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cuscuna, at Capitol Records, with a comprehensive re-issue catalogue of old classics and previously unheard gems. New artists are signed, as well as new albums from old faces such as McCoy Tyner. The label celebrates with a party at the Town Hall, New York and the whole jamboree is committed to vinyl and video.

1990: Blue Note is afforded space in many surveys of Twentieth Century music, outlining its indelible importance.


“Reid Miles designed almost 500 Blue Note record sleeves during a period of some fifteen years: a canon of work so individually styled, that a Reid Miles sleeve was as recognizable as the trumpet timbre of Miles Davis or the plaintive phrasing of Billie Holiday.

As Blue Note embraced the musical changes of its recording artists, so Reid Miles caught the slipstream creating sleeves that transcended the mugshots and mysticism of other genres' sleeves.

Whether cropping the photographs (taken by label boss Francis Wolff) to minimal proportions or finding a funky typeface, Reid Miles made the cover sound like it knew what lay in store for the listener: an abstract design hinting at innovations, cool strides for cool notes, the symbolic implications of typeface and tones.

Though commercial artists such as Harold Feinstein and Andy Warhol were commissioned by Blue Note, it wasn't until Reid Miles took over as the in-house designer that the label could boast of a visual identity to match the 'Blue Note sound' created by Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion. Though Miles considered the Warhol sleeves for Kenny Burrell's records to be wonderful, especially in their graphic simplicity, his own work still gives him a sense of tremendous pride. As with any innovator, Reid Miles could be found ahead of the pack; stylistic changes made in his work consistently re-invented themselves to prevent any sense of deja vu.

In 1958 the sleeve for Peckin' Time by Hank Mobley showed the album's acetate protective sleeve, handles and fortified corners clearly visible, with the main session details printed on the outside. In 1959 this was stripped down to a card folder for Jackie's Bag by Jackie McLean, tied in the centre by a coloured thong, with the session details printed on a label. A visual pun appears: Art Taylor is listed as Art Sailor but this is poorly concealed by a series of typed Xs. Miles considers this sleeve to be 'an incredible concept for the time'. The rakish angle of the stamp bearing the album's title combined with the humour create an informality that would only re-occur in the 'Sgt. Pepper' period.

As the label moved into the Sixties, Miles found the inspiration for what he considers his best work for Blue Note. The changes in the consumer world brought about an era of design classics, amongst them the E-Type Jaguar sports car. With its reptilian headlights and elongated, curvaceous wings it provided the perfect foil to frame the relaxed features of Donald Byrd. The album was titled A New Perspective which was triumphantly reiterated by the foreshortening effect of Miles' camera position. The fine lines combine to give a smoothness redolent of skin, not steel.

Miles' needle, despite this success, did not stick in this stylistic groove. In 1964 he produced the ultimate pared down graphics of In 'n Out for Joe Henderson. The typeface swerved to suit the implications of the title whilst the artist's photograph, so often abbreviated, became the definitive punctuation mark forming, as it did, the dot of the ‘i’.

However, Miles was to return to the car motif, almost a year to the day from the highway codes of In 'n Out, for Stanley Turrentine's Joyride. Perhaps this is the culmination of the design traits most associated with Blue Note through the Fifties and Sixties. The incorporation of the musician's face, two typefaces, a car and the abstract textures in equal measures forms a startling image. The headlight cowling puts the musician in context vis-a-vis the title; however, the swirl of undergrowth and the comparative sharpness of the musician's reflection suggest the capturing of a fleeting moment suspended in this timeless composition.

Whilst Pacific Jazz had William Claxton, with his photographic eye for 'la mode' of the medalist, and Clef had the unmistakable, quirky wit of David Stone Martin's much-copied linear drawings, Blue Note had Reid Miles. Whatever was Hank Mobley's next groove was Reid Miles' next move!”


“Consider the irony - the button-down shirt, which came to symbolize all that was hip about the Blue Note musicians, was originally English. Polo players at the turn of the century were seen by John Brooks, of Brooks Brothers, to fasten their collars with buttons to keep them from snapping in their faces. Brooks, no novice in such matters, took the idea back to New York and turned it into standard issue Ivy League.

This piece of sartorial history was of no concern to us, however; the mere fact that Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and other Blue Note luminaries were photographed wearing these shirts, on their respective album covers, was endorsement enough.

Now I'm sure to those musicians it was just another clean shirt, but in the early Sixties, unless your taste was for home-grown, the importance of being imported applied to the clothes as much as to the records. While Modern Jazz was required listening, the desired look for any self-respecting hipster was American Ivy League.

Time not going to clubs, listening to records or just hanging out was reserved for tracking down those essential imported threads. Black and white photographs on the backs of record sleeves, copies of Esquire and Down Beat magazines helped bring the details into focus.

It was an obsession; a friend of mine was not a happy person until he owned a striped button-down identical to the Shirt Big John Patton wore on the sleeve of The Way I Feel. Eventually the obsession turned into some kind of eternal quest to score the correct items of clothing on the menu -narrow lapels to go, hold the double-breasted!

Let me tell you what we looked like. You can probably get an argument about it, but the generally accepted shirt was either plain blue or white Oxford cloth button-down, a close second was the tab collar. The necktie was knitted, narrow, very black and made by Rooster. A leather or webbing belt held up the trousers of a three-button, natural-shouldered, half-lined raised-seam suit, with the inevitable six-inch hooked vent. The purist suit was in tan needlecord, or olive or dark blue cotton. At the bottom of the narrow, plain-front trousers, beneath the one-and-a-half-inch cuffs, was a pair of long wing-tip brogues or beef-roll loafers with the lowest heels you've ever seen.

The Mecca for most of these ready made American clothes was the late, great store - Austins', situated on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. A visit to which severely dented the hard-earned folding.

Today, by way of compensation, with original Blue Note records fetching prices that Sotheby's would be proud of, you can still buy a Brooks Brothers' button-down shirt for about forty-eight dollars - plus the airfare to New York.”

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