Article: Album Art Part 2/Jazz LPs of the 1950s

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Article
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Style, like art, is a beautifully undefinable thing. We can point to a thousand examples of it – all completely different from each other yet all related by style  – but we can’t say what it is. True jazz expression can’t be taught – it comes effortlessly out of artists with the ‘knack’, the ‘touch’, the ‘feel’ – attributes which Conservatoria the world over just cannot bottle, try as they may. The same goes for style in art and design. Even though their art is frozen in time – on canvas, artboard or computer file – good designers, like musicians, compose with a mix of broad stokes and tiny increments and let their hand fall away when the thing is ‘right’. And in all LP album art there are few so ‘right’ as the best of jazz LP covers of the 1950s.

But let’s start back at the beginning.

LP records have been around, in one form or the other since 1910 – that’s one hundred years, people! But LP album art only came along over a quarter of a century later when in 1938, Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss as its first art director. Steinweiss invented the concept of cover art, his designs replacing the utilitarian plain paper covers used up until then. By the late 1940s, all major record companies packaged their LPs in full colour album art.

It took the jazz LP covers of the 1950s and the work of one man in particular to elevate album cover art to Art with a cap ‘A’.

Reid Miles was a commercial and magazine designer who didn’t even much like jazz (he was a classical music fan), and yet he created a graphic language and style for New York’s Blue Note Records that is still hugely influential today (the candid and edgy photos taken by Blue Note’s Francis Wolff certainly help). Anytime a designer wishes to resonate city hip, late night vibe and urban super-cool, they go for Miles’ stark Blue Note style – pulling back the palette to black, white and one acid colour and reducing graphic elements as they increase pictorial contrast. Often the results fall far short of Reid Miles’ urbane, edgy artworks, as he, like so many of the great jazz artists he helped package, had that perfect knack for balance, drama and surprise.

As with all lasting innovations in any artform, Miles came to Blue Note at exactly the right time. The overheated tightrope jazz of Be-bop had gone from fashion by the mid fifties and had been replaced by the more taut and blues-based sounds of Hard Bop, Cool and Soul Jazz. Artists such as Horace Silver and Hank Mobley played a music that went for feel and ambience rather than the dizzying alto-acrobatics of Bop stars such as Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.

Columbia Records, the label that started it all, also had a team of superb designers and photographers such as Neill Fujita, Saul Bass, Marvin Koner (Miles Davis’ 1956 LP Round Midnight), Dennis Stock (Miles Davis’ 1958 LP Milestones) and William Claxton (Chet Baker and Strings from 1954 as well as many many others).

Neill Fujita’s Miró/Picasso-inspired designs for Dave Brubeck’s Time Out (1959) and Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um (1959) showed how much influence the fine art of the time had on these designers – and also the level of sophistication Columbia expected from its jazz LP buying public.

Miles Reid had used Andy Warhol as an illustrator on several Blue Note covers (before Warhol became the Pop Art king and ten years before his Rolling Stones covers) and artist/illustrators such as Ben Shahn were featured as well. David Stone Martin produced some notable illustrations for smaller labels such as Clef, Mercury and Asch. However, these covers – charming as they are – now appear dated and very much of their time. The most timeless covers are the works of Miles Reid and, ironically, the covers for other labels by designers who adopted his style shamelessly and slavishly.

A special mention must go to the designers of late 50s-early 60s Bossa Nova LP art. Bossa Nova was the synthesis of jazz and Brazilian rhythms that inflamed (and some would say revitalized) American jazz at that time. In a true case of design convergence, the pre-eminent album designer of Bossa Nova, Cesar G Villela designed in the Miles Reid style, but using only black, white and red. He spun this tiny palette out into myriad variations, all sparkling with rhythm and life.

The graphic concepts of Miles Reid’s and others could not have been a better fit to the jazz of the day. These LPs exemplify the triple treat of a vinyl album – a perfectly balanced synergy between excellent music, apt and stylish graphics, and sharply written liner notes – each element amplifying the others. It’s a beautiful thing.



Published July 2011 on


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