Written by John Kennerdell
Even if you don't share the view that jazz reached its high-water mark in the couple decades following World War II, can there be much doubt that the art of the album cover did? Those big square sleeves offered the perfect showcase for mid-20th-century graphics and photography, and the best of them still stand as small masterpieces of design.
To be fair, a lot of the most memorable covers relied mainly or entirely on illustrations or typography. But there was plenty of photography too, some of it famous, some all but forgotten. So here's a modest taxonomy of the postwar jazz album cover photograph, with what I take to be a prime example of each type. Not everyone will agree with my taste in either photography or music, but at minimum I'd say they're all worth a look and a listen even to non-jazz fans. Jazz people, you'll know most or all of them.
Chet Baker Quartet Featuring Russ Freeman, 1953. Photograph by William Claxton. That's Freeman at the piano and Chet playing his horn behind him. Claxton had begun photographing Baker in 1952 and was to make him a kind of personal project for the next five years. "After those first few golden years," said Claxton, "it seemed as though he was always on the run—usually away from the law, or else running to find a score."
The session shot
The session shot is what you think of when you think of jazz photography: the musician in action, all spotlights and cigarette smoke and chiaroscuro. In fact surprisingly few of the really good ones ended up on the covers of jazz albums, at least at the time. If you want a great session photo matched to a great record, the best I can do is Herman Leonard's glorious shot of Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist's Ballads, a compilation from 1991. But that's cheating.
Sticking to records from the period, perhaps most iconic (it even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp) is David Gahr's cover shot on A Tribute to Jack Johnson by Miles Davis. That would be a rather divisive choice though, given that it's a soundtrack album as well as, shall we say, a bit outside of many people's definition of jazz.
So I'm going with a dark horse: an early Chet Baker recording with a cover shot by William Claxton, a man up there with Leonard and Francis Wolff as the top session photographers of them all. In fitting with the West Coast cool of the music it's almost formally geometric in its lines, with the top of the grand piano angling down to create a background for the title. It wasn't surprising to find that Claxton did the design as well.
Chet has taken more than his share of criticism from some quarters, not least because his early popularity owed much to his absurdly photogenic looks, mainly as seen through Claxton's lens. But listen to this album with an open mind and you'll hear a wonderfully natural musician, relaxed and inventive and always expressive. You'll also get plenty of exceptionally tasty piano from Russ Freeman, one of the unsung masters of the instrument.
Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Bill Evans Trio, 1961. Photograph by Donald Silverstein. In his short life (1934-1975) New York-born Silverstein burned bright. He spent a few years in Paris with French Vogue and then moved to the London of the Swinging '60s, where he worked alongside Bailey, Donovan, and Duffy. Amid a busy career in fashion, advertising, and editorial photography he shot dozens of jazz musicians but is best remembered for a single 1967 session with Jimi Hendrix.
The studio portrait
While there were some fine studio cover shots of musicians holding their horns or sitting at their pianos or drums—I like the skinny young Ornette Coleman hugging his plastic sax on The Shape of Jazz to Come—more interesting things tended to happen when the photographer took the instrument away. You begin to see the person behind the musician.
This one was an easy pick. Silverstein's portrait of Bill Evans has an immediacy to it that I've never seen in another shot of the pianist. He looks serious and intense, as he always did, but also vulnerable, almost frail. His hands reach out as if for a keyboard. The frame numbers written on the one published contact sheet suggest that the photographer shot at least eight rolls on his Hasselblad. By the end, when this one appears to have been taken, poor Bill probably just wanted to get back to his piano. Knowing as we do the demons he would face over the remaining 20 years of his life, it's a haunting image.
A contact sheet from the shoot
As for the music, I admit a preference for Bill's studio albums, most of all Portrait In Jazz, but that cover shot isn't nearly as interesting. And as live piano trio recordings go, this one pretty much sets the gold standard: three musicians totally in sync, improvising with an emotional connection so subtle and spontaneous that it redefined the trio format. I've even come to like the background clink of glasses and the murmur of conversation, down in that Greenwich Village basement one Sunday all those years ago.
Ray Bryant Trio, 1957. Photograph by Esmond Edwards. Hired as a clerk and then photographer for Prestige just months before this photo was taken, Edwards went on to a long and distinguished career as graphic designer, composer, arranger, and producer. He eventually rose to head Verve Records, making him one of the first African-American
executives in the recording industry.
The location portrait
The location portrait has long been a staple of album covers, and not just in jazz. Think of Bob and Suze walking down that street outside their apartment on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. There's something intriguing about seeing a famous musician out and about in his neighborhood, as if you might bump into him yourself.
This cover, from Ray's first album as a sole leader, charmed me the moment I first saw it. Edwards' minimalist photo hints at the clean, open sound of the music inside, while Reid Miles, freelancing for Prestige from his main gig at Blue Note, has done his usual stylish job with the layout. And look at Ray. He’s quite the dude here, just 25 years old and on top of the world. By this point he'd already been house pianist at Philadelphia's Blue Note for years, playing with the greats of the day. Over half a century of virtuoso jazz still lay ahead of him.
For all that was to come later, there's a freshness and purity to this one that makes it my favorite. Ray's technique sparkles and he couldn’t stop swinging if he tried. Above all you hear his poise: he can launch into a phrase, take it somewhere fanciful, and then wrap it up so neatly you just have to smile. Anyone who can listen to "Blues Changes" here and not feel better for it is having a really bad day.
Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter, 1966. Photograph by Reid Miles. Despite designing hundreds of Blue Note covers, many of which he also photographed, Miles preferred his music classical and had little time for jazz. He relied on session notes from producer Alfred Lion to come up with his designs.
This is my catch-all category for the rest, from cover photos inspired by the album title but unrelated to the artist (for example, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch) to composites like Speak No Evil. At least I think it's a composite. Like the music inside, it's an image that works in ways not necessarily open to logical analysis. There's Wayne lurking behind some kind of plant, looking his most sphinx-like. Blurred in the foreground, in best William Klein style, is his wife of the time, Irene Nakagami. The whole thing is toned a deep blue. Jazz album cover designers were big on toning photographs, often strongly and often, for obvious reasons, blue. Sometimes that could feel clichéd, but here it really adds something. Maybe because it's the color of night, somehow it helps prepare you for what you're going to find inside.
And just what is that? Speak No Evil has been called the “dark sister” of Herbie Hancock’s ever-popular Maiden Voyage, recorded about the same time with mostly the same musicians. While Maiden Voyage was the record you gave to a friend to get him interested in jazz, Speak No Evil is an altogether stranger brew. Not that it's a difficult listen, nor lacking in its own mysterious beauty. It's just that Shorter's tenor sax here seems to be operating on an instinctive level that might take some getting used to. He doesn't play many notes but what he wrings out of them is extraordinary. The rest of the band, especially the young Herbie Hancock and the veteran Elvin Jones, is brilliant. But Shorter, impossibly, is even better.
• • •
Those are my picks. I'd like to hear yours, even if it means doing a face-slap and saying, why didn't I think of that one? It was a time so rich in both music and photography that there are plenty of favorites to go around for everyone.
Bangkok-based photographer John Kennerdell writes two essays a year for TOP. His past contributions can be found under his name in the Categories list in the right-hand sidebar.
©2016 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
s.wolters: "The Blue Note cover designs stand out by miles. Powerful and pure. The Cover Art of Blue Note Records: The Collection by Graham Marsh is probably the best book to start with. There is a nice book on the covers of Prestige as well, by Geoff Gans. There are two large anniversary books that are beautiful. One on 75 years of Blue Note, called Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression, and one on Verve called Verve: The Sound of America. Both by Richard Havers. There is also a book called Blue Note with only the photographs of Francis Wolff on his work for the label. Another favorite of mine is The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965. Roy DeCarava’s book The Sound I Saw is also stunning. The two greatest European jazz photographers are Jean Pierre Leloir and of course Ed van der Elsken.
"And finally: last year I surprised a friend with prints I made of downloads of photos from the Library of Congress. There are a lot of jazz musicians in that archive and the resolution and detail is quite good."
phil fogle: "I worked for Donald Silverstein as assistant from 1972–3. I still have a print on my wall that I did in '72 of the Hendrix portrait for Vogue. It's the inside gatefold from Electric Ladyland. Sadly, Hendrix died before I got a chance to meet him. This is the first reference I've seen to Don's work in decades, and it's very moving. Thanks for posting."
Bryce Lee: "33.3 RPM album covers, an era which is no more. The essay made me go over to the record rack (doesn't everybody have one of those?) and pull out all my Dave Brubeck albums and all those by Don Shirley. Brubeck's album covers were may I say, normal for the period. Shirley's however were dark, moody and mysterious, as much as his music. Given the topic, turned on the Dynaco tube amp, placed the disc on the turntable and am now listening to the following: Don Shirley with Two Basses. Released in 1958 on the Cadence Label, have to thank a late friend who willed me in 1990 his entire massive (over 700 albums) record collection of jazz and pipe organ music. My friend was an early adopter of magnetic recording and as a result the discs are almost mint; he would play and record them once, then carefully place them in their sleeves and return them to the rack. They lived on, played on his 15-inch reel Revox or Ampex machines, one after another. The albums remain, most now recorded to CD.
"There is a 'magic' looking at an album cover and listening to the contents, on a turntable with tube amp and a pair of unspoiled original Dynaco A25 speakers. May well spend this Sunday evening listening to a few other discs, sipping a single malt, and watching the amplifier tubes warm the room. Thank you for jogging my aging brain."
Fred Mueller: "Lee Friedlander: American Musicians. My favorite portrait book. He is not a one trick pony."
Kevin Crosado: "It's all a snare and a delusion.... Back in the round black thing era I was moved to buy several John Surman albums largely because I loved Christian Vogt's photos and Dieter Rehm's ECM cover designs. As time has gone on I've become steadily less convinced that this was a Good Thing. (Actually, I quite like bits of his album with Karin Krog—but more for Krog than for Surman's incessant noodling and vamping)."
Mike adds: Yes, sometimes judging (buying) either an album or a book by its cover is a trap, I agree. As for why I think so, lcome this way to my bookshelves and my record racks.... :-\