13 November 2006
Pierre Ponant (etapes:international, France)
Pierre Ponant (etapes:international, France)

Above: Bird and Diz, Charlie Parker, Verve, 1955; by David Stone Martin

Since starting out as basic packaging for 33rpm discs in the 1930s, the record cover has become a medium providing a visual accompaniment for the music. And the codes of modernism helped foster the cultural integration of jazz.

With courage, boldness and rebelliousness, in the words of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his manifesto, poets and artists at the start of the 20th century invented a relationship of new forms between sound and image. With declamatory effects, poetry broke out of its printed framework and shook up typographic conventions. Images were deconstructed and printed jerkily on the retina. Music magnified the beauty of the industrial revolution, then at its zenith. The new practices and new concepts fell into synchrony, this widening their scope of experimentation.

At the heart of these experiments was graphic design, a uniting force which adopted, and adapted itself, to all the media inherent to the revolution of techniques and media and to their democratisation. Like books, in their primary function as a space for conversing and for collecting writings for dissemination, records emerged as a revolutionary medium for storing and popularising musical creations.

At a point when art and advertising were enriching each other with their research, the concept of artistic direction catalysed the visual output of avant-garde movements and aspirations to a new form of communication in the economy. When applied to the fast-growing record industry, it generated a sphere of limitless graphic innovation. Putting images on music became a continually renewed exercise. Each style had its own visual approach.

In the 1950s jazz, the music of resistance and struggle, adopted the visual principles of modernism to assert its integration - a stance rejected a decade later by rock and pop music, which contradictorily borrowed items of jewellery from art nouveau, the pioneering aesthetic of modernity. In the face of the dominant ideologies, industrial and punk music reaffirmed the Futurist and Dadaist primal scream in a further deconstruction of the image. Alternating movement and syncopation, the relationship between image and music went beyond a simple formal linkage and actually illustrated the convulsions of society.

'Visual Session'

With the invention by CBS of the 33rpm microgroove LP (long playing) record, in 1948, the record industry enjoyed a second golden age. After World War II, the advent of television rivalled the radio stations, forcing them to invent new programmes. Faced with the power of the moving image, radios offered their listeners non-stop music shows which required a reliable recording substrate to replace the archaic 78. The appearance of vinyl discs helped: up to 12 songs of pieces of music could be engraved, thus extending listening time to about 20 minutes. Vinyl thus became the universal recording medium. In 1949, RCA Victor took to market a smaller record, the 45rpm microgroove. These inventions gave the three American 'majors' RCA Victor, Columbia and Decca - global supremacy over the record industry. In 1942 Capitol, followed by Mercury and MGM in 1946, joined the ruthless commercial war. Although vinyl was primarily a music medium, its packaging - a glossy cardboard sleeve - made it a graphic vehicle too. And so the marketing and selling of music began also to depend on imagery. There thus opened up a field of exploration, innovation and experimentation between music and graphics that is still topical today.

The pioneers of sleeve design
The first signs of the process were visible in 1939 at Columbia, where Alex Steinweiss was hired as art director. A young designer who had graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York, Steinweiss intuited that a 78 record packed in an illustrated sleeve would be far more appealing than what covered it at the time, the feeble 'tombstones'. Mundane and uniform, these thick brown or grey paper envelopes, with a hole in the middle to display - without any conception of typography - the names of the performer and the work, in no way swayed the consumer into buying good music. He successfully put his view to Edward Wallerstein, the major's chief.

In 1940, Smash Song Hits by Rodgers and Hart was pressed and packed in the first illustrated sleeve. Alex Steinweiss laid out the title, the musicians' names and the label in the form of glowing lettering, as on the pediment of a show hall. The illustration was inscribed on the red grooves of a record. The product met with commercial success and the experiment was repeated. Steinweiss, opting for a sleeve style of simple forms and sans serif type, and using photomontage, was characterised by the influences of European avant-garde graphics.

In 1948, with the release of Cole Porter Songs conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and his Orchestra, Steinweiss implemented graphic and technical principles of printing 33rpm LP sleeves which became the record-industry standard. With an output of more than a thousand sleeves, for Columbia and as a freelance designer for Decca and Everest, Alex Steinweiss took a visual approach to music rather than just commercially promoting it.

Throughout the 1950s, several styles of graphic design developed, symbolising the various musical genres or simply musicians' take on their own work. Among these genres, one stood out: jazz. In essence a popular music, jazz was evolving towards a more political view of the world and a repertoire of forms akin to the work and exploration seen in contemporary artistic movements.

The visual approach it took prompted the most influential and original exploration in the field of sleeve design. Four designers took part in the movement: Jim Flora and Rudolph de Harak for Columbia, David Stone Martin at Verve and Burt Goldblatt for the Bethlehem label.

All through the 1940s Flora, whom Steinweiss recruited to Columbia in 1942, devised brightly-coloured sleeves with caricatural and even naive graphics. He drew on the art deco movement and abstract painting, and offered a rereading of modern painters Klee, Kandinsky and Miro as he settled on a style close to that of comics. His graphics were influenced by pre-Colombian art and the Mexican muralist tradition. Unlike Alex Steinweiss, a classical-music buff, Jim Flora was wild about jazz. With his illustrations he captured the music's playful and humorous spirit, producing visuals for releases by Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Shorty Rogers and Andre Previn.

Rudolph de Harak, a founding member of the Los Angeles Society for Contemporary Designers, along with Saul Bass and Alving Lustig, migrated to New York in the early 1950s to take over art direction for Columbia. He brought about a minor revolution by introducing the use of black and white photography. This idea created a new visual link with the content. Jazz was at a conceptual watershed and this was reflected in the sleeves, which blended bold type with photographs set in abstract and geometric forms.

Faced with Columbia's dominance, the competition got its act together and several independent labels asserted the artistic directions - musical and visual - that they were taking.

Among them were Clef and Verve, where David Stone Martin established an unfussy illustrative style. His style was forged in intellectual kinship with the work of illustrator Ben Shahn. Shahn, who had assisted Diego Rivera with the execution of the mural painting commissioned by RCA at the Rockefeller Center, was behind the revival of American illustration and its adoption by posters. To render the ambience of a subject and reproduce a musician's defining features, David Stone Martin used a simple Chinese ink line technique, punctuated with flat areas of strong colour. His illustrations reflect a subtly glamorous atmosphere, and this style of drawing would influence a whole generation of artists and a talented 'recycler' of forms named Andy Warhol. Stone Martin's sleeves for Charlie Parker, the Lester Young Trio, Billie Holliday and Oscar Peterson remain masterpieces of simplicity and graphic efficiency.

The last pioneer of this first wave of illustration was Burt Goldblatt. Up to the 1970s, Goldblatt produced more than 3,000 record sleeves for Roost, Savoy, Atlantic, Columbia, Emarcy and Bethlehem - the most famous being his visual for a Carmen McRae album, a sequence featuring nine sets of the singer's lips in action. What made Goldblatt's approach original was his use of photographic effects. His superposition of photographic and line elements, as with Charlie Ventura's 1954 album F.y.i, is an example of inventiveness. The same year, a dentist friend provided the X-ray equipment and Goldblatt X-rayed Charles Mariano's saxophone to illustrate the cover of his latest album. In the mid-1950s, Burt Goldblatt best summed up the conceptual relationship between the experimental fields of graphic design and jazz.

Blue Note, a visual saga
The Blue Note label was founded in 1939. It grew out of a boundless passion for jazz shared by two friends, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Lion, a young Berliner, took his first trip to the United States in 1928, where he discovered the mecca of jazz: New York. An accident forced him to return to Berlin, but in 1933, with the Nazis on the rise, Wolff and Lion left Germany for good. In the early 1930s, the Hot Jazz movement popularised by Louis Armstrong was surfing the wave of swing. Alfred Lion was fascinated by the dexterity of the boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Having secured funding, he managed to get the two musicians into a recording studio. He naively let them improvise and they ran over the time permitted by the recording technique - forcing Lion to replace the 10-inch 78 with a 12-inch format reserved exclusively for classical music. This 'youthful error' put Blue Note in a register of its own in the label community. The 1952 re-release of this first classic, on a 33rpm LP, had a sleeve illustrated by Paul Bacon on which the two pianists' postures were inscribed in stylised characters. But Blue Note wasn't just a technical error; it also - and primarily - embodied a manifesto and a certain ethic.

There could be no compromise. Lion and Wolff didn't feel concerned by the stylistic and commercial buzz around jazz - they'd founded Blue Note to identify emerging movements and to support, and foster encounters between, new talents. The first such encounter took place during the be-bop revolution that sent tremors through the jazz world. Blue Note spotted two tremendous pianists, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and signed to produce their first albums. In 1953, saxophonist Gil Melle introduced Lion to Rudy Van Gelder, a young sound engineer. The eccentric Van Gelder - who had set up a recording studio in his parents' living room - bewildered Alfred Lion. But the warmth of the sound he recorded, the way it developed in space and was faithfully reproduced, and his flair for detail, persuaded Lion to hire the young man.

In 1954 it was under Blue Note's aegis that The Jazz Messengers were formed, bringing together pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey. In the mid-1950s, the label was becoming a breeding-ground for talent: Lion scouted and organised the sessions, Wolff chronicled the encounters in photographs, and Van Gelder designed the sound in conjunction with Silver and Blakey. The Blue Note sound was born, and only the final touch was needed: the image. This job was given to Reid Miles. After training at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Reid Miles settled in New York in the early 1950s. He was hired to assist John Hermansader, art director of the agency that designed Blue Note's sleeves. Reid Miles was assigned to the task and carried it out to his client's great satisfaction. When he quit the agency to collaborate with Esquire magazine, he took the Blue Note budget with him.

The collaboration between Blue Note and Miles went beyond a simple client-designer relationship. It was more like a fusion between several artistic experiences.

Between 1939 and 1967, Francis Wolff compiled a photographic account of every Blue Note recording session. With the eye of a humanist documentary-maker, he had built up an exceptional image bank about the world of jazz - and his photos gave Reid Miles the cue for his layouts. Miles homed in on the zeitgeist - the swinging '50s and '60s with a range of visuals connoted by spontaneous poses, movement and clothing statements - a strongly distinctive look reflected on albums like Cool Struttin' by Sonny Clark, Donald Byrd's A New Perspective and Like Someone in Love by The Jazz Messengers, and which had a timeless bond with typography. The typographic treatment was rigorous, in accordance with the principle of international graphic design set out by the Swiss Josef Muller Brockmann, in layouts that called to mind some of the new advertising concepts. Photographs and type supported one another in compositions that rarely lacked balance. For some series, Reid Miles used type as an image, typically sans serif.

The results were remarkable sleeves for albums by Joe Henderson (In 'n out), Horace Parlan (Us Three) and Jackie McLean (Let Freedom Ring). Jazz embraced the way contemporary society was moving - it was a liberational music with an undertow of protest, flowing from the African-American community at a time when civil-rights demonstrations were being held. Reid Miles staged some musicians in urban spaces, with dominating attitudes. Take, for example, his visuals for Herbie Hancock, Thad Jones and Bennie Green. Like many of his contemporaries, Reid Miles gave his viewpoint on modernity. He worked in close proximity to the research being done on concrete abstraction, playing with embedded forms and photographs. His designs for Larry Young (Into Somethin' ), Andrew Hill, (Smokestack) and Herbie Hancock (My Point of View) are good examples.

With certain projects, the nexus with contemporary art took the form of commissioning artists. Andy Warhol did several visuals for Kenny Burrell's albums, and gave jazz a fresh brand image - indeed he perhaps moved it away from its popular roots by giving it a more elitist status? At the point where sound and image intersect, in the history of modern jazz there are now pre- and post-Blue Note periods.

About this article
This article is republished with permission from the October 2005 edition of etapes:international. To learn more about etapes:international visit their website