Cover Story #2: Pickled Priest Album Art Spotlight / The Best of Blue Note Records
It happened again the other day. I got all wrapped up in my embarrassingly small stack (relative to the catalog) of Blue Note vinyl. They’re objet d’art, really. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself quietly contemplating the cover art as if in front of a great painting in a museum, almost forgetting there was an album inside I could slap on my turntable. Then I got to thinking about other labels that have consistently combined incredible music with amazing album cover art and I couldn’t think of even one as remotely consistent as Blue Note. With that in mind, I stupidly decided to try my hand at a Top 25 list as part of our ongoing Album Art Spotlight series. So here are my favorites ranked in order of personal affection. I’ve left off a staggering number of superb covers, of course, so there may be a part two eventually. I've also limited the scope to the 1950s and 60s due to the sheer volume of amazing albums in that period. A shocking 80% of them were created by graphic design legend Reid Miles and many feature photographs from the amazing Blue Note staff shutterbug Francis Wolff as well. This list is a tribute to their talent.
25 Bobby Hutcherson | Total Eclipse (1968)
That tribute will have to wait a few moments, however, because this isn’t a Reid Miles design nor is the photo from the camera of Frances Wolff. It's also not very typical of the period for Blue Note. One thing I’ve noticed about the average Blue Note cover is that not a lot of the musicians are smiling. There are some here and there, sure, but most are either in the middle of a hot session or hanging loose like the ultra-cool hip cats that they most certainly are. Which is why this otherwise pretty basic cover appeals to me so much. Bobby is one snifter of cognac away from becoming Tim Meadows’ “The Ladies Man” character from SNL on this cover. He oozes a relaxed confidence; cigarette pinned between his white teeth, shit-eating grin plastered on his lively face. This is what you might expect from a four-mallet vibraphonist from L.A. during a recording session break. It shows what we all know; jazz musicians can have fun, too. I also love that his name, the album title, and the four additional players on this session, all fit within the curly confines of his fabulous afro. Could the Total Eclipse title be referring to his afro’s ability to block out the sun if positioned just so?
24 Andrew Hill | Point of Departure (1965)
Here’s where Reid Miles comes into the picture. He both designed the cover and snapped the covert photo of pianist Andrew Hill. A few of his favorite design tricks are on display here. He liked to cluster the album information in one spot on his covers in a visual soup of names and colors. Usually, you’ll get the main artist’s name, the album title, the session players involved, and the classic Blue Note logo (“Finest in Jazz” slogan in the rectangle, catalog number in the oval, Blue Note name in caps underneath and to the right respectively) all together, leaving the rest of the cover as his visual playground. He also is a master of different perspectives (as you will see throughout this piece). In this case, Hill is obscured by a blurry object, possibly his hand, peaking through at us from behind his nifty coke-bottle sunglasses. It almost looks like it's taken right after he's wiped the fog off a pane of glass. Sometimes you look at a photo more closely when everything is not immediately clear to the naked eye. In this instance, I tend to linger far longer than I would otherwise.
23 Lee Morgan | The Rumproller (1965)
After several minutes of futile research by my crack staff, nobody seems to know what a "rumproller" is exactly, but I'm betting you could find out right quick in the back room of a seedy Thai massage parlor somewhere. Not that such knowledge would have any major impact on our love for this album's cover art. The term is generally agreed to be a made up word created in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Lee’s classic album from 1963, The Sidewinder (which we will discuss shortly). If one album is a “side” winder, then why not travel clockwise 90 degrees to the “rump”? And if one album is a side “winder,” why not make the next one a rump “roller.” Can it be that easy? It sounds plausible to me. This is a unique design because it all hinges on the lettering. Perhaps, this is what happens when you take a standard font and run it through a rumproller? Keep in mind that this font had to be custom created by Miles—there were no computers back then. These days, some freshman design student could do this in a couple clicks, but few were doing this in the 1960s. So it was ahead of its time, you could say. For convenience, the name and title are repeated top left, complete with the usual session information, which is a nice touch. One thing I find amusing about Reid is that he almost always found a way to jam a photo of the artist into the design somewhere and this is among the smallest he’s used (the smallest ever was from Joe Henderson's In 'N Out album where the photo actually dotted the "i" in the title!). Another favorite Reid Miles trademark is his use of white space and this is a fine example. He could have easily filled up the cover with colors or additional graphics, but instead he went stark white with a pleasing black/brown color palette that is pretty slick looking. All that accomplished with some overtime spent in his font workshop!
22 Larry Young | Unity (1966)
Could an album title better sum up the concept of jazz in one word? Unity is what jazz is all about. Yes, the instruments sometimes seem like they’re off doing their own thing at times, but they're all serving the song in their own subtle ways. Which is why, I imagine, Reid decided to make the word so huge on the cover. The orange dots clearly symbolize the members of the quartet that recorded the album; even though there’s all kinds of white space for the dots to hang out unencumbered and get some fresh air, they’ve all chosen to stay together in one spot ("U" Are Here!). This Miles design very simplistically sums up a complex principle with the easiest possible visual. It seems so obvious, right? The great ones make it appear that way.
21 The Ornette Coleman Trio | At the “Golden Circle,” Stockholm, Volume One (1965)
If you’re a group of black musicians touring Sweden in the dead of winter, you’re going to stand out. So why not use that to your advantage? This black and white photo does just that. And if I’m a sequestered Swede, anxiously looking for a reason to get out for a night on the town, you’re damn right this is the band I’m going to go see. The band couldn’t look much cooler, literally, in this shot. Oh, how I wish I could pull off the top hat and trench coat look like Ornette does here. File under things that will never happen. Also inspired is how the black & white photo contrasts with the purple/orange lettering, which in theory doesn't quite add up in my mind. But in practice, where it counts, it really pops. Again, notice how the snow creates the perfect amount of white space in the foreground. Very clever Mr. Miles!
20 Dexter Gordon | Go (1962)
I’ve stared at this simple cover a long time in my life wondering just what it is that draws me in. Then it hit me—the simplest things are often the best things. The title is two-letters, so why focus on anything but that fact? I also wonder how many people would’ve thought to make the G-O in Gordon the same color as the album title. It seems so obvious now, but it’s a clever little touch nonetheless. The small photo, at this point, was pretty standard, but it is tinted blue to match the font used for the contributing musicians' names. Another small yet subtle design touch. That said, there’s a couple things that have always bothered me about this cover. One is that the word “GO” doesn’t have an exclamation point after it. In most cases, a “Go” command is made with emphasis ("Go!"). And Reid Miles, as you will find out VERY soon, was known for his love of exclamation marks. So I wonder what caused the restraint in this case. Perhaps I've answered my own question right there--the unexpected is often the best option. Another issue: green is the universally accepted color for “Go.” So why use red for the word instead? My guess is that green doesn’t jump out as much on an album cover, but perhaps he did it intentionally to fuck with us a bit? Maybe he liked the idea of sending us mixed signals. If it was indeed intentional, a doff of the cap to the master. But I also wonder if years later he popped the side of his own head realizing his obvious miss..."D'oh!"
19 Jackie McLean | “It’s Time!” (1964)
Now do you see why I was perplexed by the lack of an exclamation point in the last entry? Perhaps Reid Miles only had so many !!!!s allocated to him and he blew them all on this one Jackie McLean album cover during a cocaine-fueled design session? If you think about it, Go and "It’s Time!" are basically the same concepts. Both initiate action and do so with the implication that haste is in order. But then again, “It’s Time!” also carries with it serious life-changing connotations. If you’re pregnant, “It’s time!” means you’re about to drop everything, race to the hospital, and have your world rocked. Such a circumstance would seem to merit the almost sarcastic number of exclamation points used here. If you must know, there are 244 in total. You'd better be having at least septuplets to get this level of enthusiasm!!!!!!!!!!
18 Andrew Hill | Compulsion!!!!! (1965)
Based on the last entry, perhaps this title is Reid Miles’ cry for help. I seriously doubt Andrew Hill had anything to do with the superfluous exclamation points added to his album’s title (the title track, indeed, has no exclamation points at all), so I take the five exclamations as a courageous admission of an exclamation addiction. It’s not in my control—it’s a genetically programmed compulsion! Perhaps he spent some time in a twelve-step Exclamations Anonymous program at some point in the mid-60s to curb himself of his compulsion. (Step One: Admit you are powerless in the presence of exclamations; Step Seven: humbly ask another editor to remove unneeded exclamations.) The layout of this cover is actually pretty basic for a 1960's Blue Note cover, but what’s most interesting is the kaleidoscopic photo collage. It shows Miles was on top of all musical trends at the time, even those normally thought to be in the realm of rock and roll. Rock and roll stars, in truth, had nothing on the jazz artists of the age. If any genre was an early adopter of psychedelics, it was jazz. The glory days of the peace and love generation were still a couple years out at this point, so the album has a cutting edge feel to it as a result. It also approximates visually what goes on in an altered, compulsive mind.
17 Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers | Moanin’ (1958)
Another pre-Reid Miles cover and you can tell. It lacks that 1960’s-era vibe, but I love how stark and bold it is. In some places at the time, a well-dressed, black musical genius couldn’t eat at the same Woolworth counter with an unemployed piece of white trash. The look on Art’s face seems like he could be contemplating that injustice at the very moment the photo was taken. But this cover goes all-in, challenging you to deny his brilliance. The tower of letters stacked in short rows to the right of his face is one of the simplest and most structured the label produced, but this is a face you can’t cover up, so it makes sense to fit the words in however you want as long as you stay out of Art's way. Strong but nuanced,
just like Blakey’s drumming style.
*Side note: This is also one of the only covers I know of that doesn’t list the album’s title on the front. Not sure why, but in later editions the Blue Note catalog number was swapped out for MOA and NIN’ to clarify matters, perhaps.
16 Eddie Gale | Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music (1968)
If album covers are made to stir intrigue, almost daring you to listen, then mission accomplished here. You cannot look at this cover and not want to hear what it sounds like inside. The visual would surely make some (white people, mostly) uncomfortable if they stumbled upon this group of hooded black men standing imposingly on a hillside, accompanied by large dogs, some with black sunglasses on. It may take a couple seconds for some to notice there are instruments in their hands and that you're about to hear some music inspired by their time spent on the hard streets of New York City. It’s definitely one of the most atypical Blue Note covers of the era, and it was not designed by Miles either. The country was right in the middle of a civil rights movement (the first of many sadly) when it was released. More and more musicians were bringing that movement into their music and album art. It’s a striking image that seems just as powerful today as it did then.
15 Jimmy Smith | Home Cookin’ (1961)
Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B-3 produced so much musical color that it makes sense his album art would follow suit. There’s no other artist in the Blue Note stable whose albums were so individualistic. Jimmy’s covers, designed by Reid Miles and photographed by Francis Wolff, weren’t abstract or stylized like most others in the label’s stable. Instead, slices of real life were featured. Back at the Chicken Shack featured Jimmy with his loyal dog posed in front of a chicken coop. Midnight Special found him bumming a ride on a freight train. And Home Cookin’ shows Jimmy in front of a classic 60’s-styled diner, perhaps about to go in for a hot lunch and some Italian ice (a deal at 5-cents!). I do wonder why this one artist was handled differently, but I assume Jimmy had a role in the final decisions and wanted to "keep it real." What is particularly striking are the strong reds and blacks throughout, both in the photo and the graphics (the photo above doesn't do the vibrancy of the colors justice). The cover is definitely busy, but rewards close inspection. It’ll make you want to have a slice of American pie right here at Kate’s Place. And if you're jazz musician, the "Food Served at all Times" claim would be a major selling point, I imagine.
14 Tina Brooks | True Blue (1960)
This ingenious cover uses the sample cards you’d get at a paint or hardware store as inspiration and has some fun in the process. It’s definitely one of the more overtly whimsical covers in Reid Miles’ portfolio. A small photo of Harold “Tina” Brooks is used in place of “True Blue,” the album’s title, but the rest of the blue hues are given clever paint color names you might use when decorating a newborn baby boy’s nursery. A sampling of the colors available: Blue-Hoo, Too Blue, Blue Away, Sticks Like Blue, Blue or False, Blue Jeans, and you didn’t think they’d blow a golden opportunity to use it...Blue Note. So, if you're ultrasound had an unexplainable saxophone-shaped image in it, you now know what color to pick.
13 Eric Dolphy | Out to Lunch (1964)
There’s an undercurrent of irony to this classic Reid Miles design. Eric Dolphy died prior to its release (diabetic shock), but some have speculated that the album’s title could indicate he might not be gone for good. Only furthering that thought are the multiple hands on the clock all pointing to a different time for his eventual return. Yes, he “Will Be Back,” but how or when is open to debate. The photo is nothing special on its own, but the blue tint added to the photo gives it an almost dream-like quality. Still, there’s something about this composition that becomes more thought-provoking due to the circumstances surrounding its release. In such times, even the most normal everyday things we take for granted suddenly become profound.
12 Bobby Hutcherson | Happenings (1967)
Make no mistake. Miles wasn’t a one-trick pony. While his label had a trademarked design aesthetic, there was still room for innovation. Enter this saturated blast of fuchsia (that’s the color my eyes see at least) which is unique in the Blue Note gallery all by itself, but the fact that the label normally went with a photo of the artist or something more abstract to reflect the album’s title, this cover subject is a notable outlier. There are numerous album covers with women on the cover in the history of Blue Note, but this one is perhaps the most striking in that the model is both beautiful and assertive at the same time. She seems strong and confident to me while still maintaining an exotic femininity as well. The combination of rarely used elements makes this cover one that stands out from the rest of Reid Miles' 500+ album cover creations over the years. Who is this woman? Will the music tell me or will it remain a mystery?
11 Hank Mobley | No Room for Squares (1963)
Admittedly, this design concept kind of fell in Miles’ lap, but it doesn’t mean it’s still not a great cover. I think I could’ve come up with a few design ideas based on the album's title, especially if I had a this cool Francis Wolff photo to work with. Mobley looks like a total badass in this gold-tinted photo (almost leaning toward orange in certain light). I’m not sure what he’s looking through, but he exudes anything but "square," what with the dark sunglasses and well-trimmed ‘stache, not to mention a cigarette with a full inch of ash hanging on for dear life. He's one cool cat. Once you get over the all-star cast that played on the record (supergroup comes to mind), notice the strange, unexpected twist in the top left corner. The title doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the design and seems oddly off to the side, doesn't it? It’s square shaped of course, and there’s even a second square inside of the first one, but the interesting thing is that the color and framing doesn’t match anything else in the design. Then it hits you. There’s No Room for Squares for a reason! Squares ruin the fun. Squares don’t fit in. Squares are on the outside looking in. And then it all makes perfect sense.
10 Donald Byrd | The Cat Walk (1962)
Donald Byrd was well known for his “car covers.” He loves his cars, that's for sure and this is one of his best. It's certainly his classiest. Another killer Francis Wolff photo manipulated to great effect by Reid Miles with a heavily saturated red filter throughout, with the obvious exception of the album's title and artist name. It's the perfect title for a jazz album and it deserves a slick approach to match. Here was have a debonair Byrd sporting a well-tailored, snazzy suit next to what appears to be a Rolls Royce (don’t quote me on that). On top of that, the "cats" playing on the album are undoubtedly of the coolest variety: Pepper Adams, Duke Pearson, Laymon Jackson, and Philly Joe Jones. If you don’t want to hang out with well-named guys like that for a night, your sense of adventure got run over along the road somewhere.
09 Thad Jones | The Magnificent Thad Jones (1956)
The earliest record on this list immediately stands out artistically from other Blue Note covers of the period. Francis Wolff was still the Blue Note photographer, and what an amazing composition it is, but Reid Miles wasn’t involved yet. The photo is like a time capsule of vintage 1950’s America with the beneficent Jones feeding pigeons on a New York street. The photo on its own is framable, so rich and detailed. The addition of the light green font over his right shoulder gives it the appearance of a large sign mounted on top of a building across the street. It’s not, clearly, but the color and font seems strangely modern for the times. I also like the simpler Blue Note catalog number. Perhaps they went a little overboard with their logo in the 60s by comparison? The whole scene draws your eye back again and again and every time you’ll be looking for new details you missed the last time.
08 Big John Patton | Let ‘Em Roll (1965)
"Who’s gonna take the lady with the skinny legs? You all know the lady with the skinny legs got to have someone, too!" That was Joe Tex’s famous line from his 1967 hit R&B single "Skinny Legs and All," but it applies here as well. The silhouette of the woman here fascinates, particularly her chosen pose. She’s facing away from the camera, hair draping down her shoulders, hips thrusting forward in a short patterned skirt. You can't see what she's doing with her arms either. She could be firing a pistol for all we know. If she's being told to "Let 'em roll" what is she rolling? Has she just thrown a bowling ball perhaps? There are way more questions than answers around this cover. I do like how lettering borders her frame tightly, flowing top to bottom just how your eyes would track when you’re checking her out as she passes by. (I call them as I see them, I don’t advocate such behavior.) Another neat touch is how her right foot appears to be standing on Big John's last name. Reid Miles knew how to use the color red, that’s for sure. It darkens the tone enough to take away some of our ability to make our what we see, but we see just enough to make the visual intriguing.
07 Andrew Hill | Judgment! (1964)
Andrew Hill was the beneficiary of some of Francis Wolff’s and Reid Miles’ best work. His third entry on this list is undoubtedly his best. It shows Hill working in the shadows, as a jazz artist would often do—they live after dark, haunting small corners of smoky clubs. Looking at it again, though, it looks like the spotlight caught him mid-prison break. How many times have we seen a similar visual in cartoons and old crime stories? Reid tints the photo slightly blue and matches the color to Hill’s name (and the Blue Note logo) at the top. The title is in a rarely used green color which offsets the rest of the cover nicely. Again, the title track does not have an exclamation point, but the album title does, so it seems to again be Reid’s handiwork (he had a problem and someone should've staged an intervention). Not only that, why would the word “Judgment” require an exclamation point after it at all? I can't think of a scenario where I would say that word with such emphasis. Perhaps in Biblical times, but not so much here. Unless they mean it in a racial sense, of course. Is Reid Miles pointing out our rush to judgment when a black man is "caught" out late a night, wandering the city streets? I hope not, but I fear that has something to do with it.
06 Sonny Rollins | Vol. 2 (1957)
This iconic cover (not a Reid Miles design, but Wolff shot the photo) got some renewed interest after Joe Jackson adapted it for his Body & Soul album (albeit with a pleasing orange
tint), but the original, drenched in a blue spotlight, ranks with the great album covers of all-time. It features the most effective use of color-tinting by Miles with a striking white offset for the title and band members (what a bunch of hacks, too: Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and Art Blakey!--was nobody else available?) Sonny is shown taking five and having a cigarette, but his majestic horn is the main attraction, extending from high in the frame all the way to the bottom. What a beautiful instrument it is, Sonny's partner in brilliance. This is what a jazz musician should look like.
05 Joe Henderson | Page One (1963)
This is another Miles/Wolff masterpiece. It’s relatively simple in appearance, so why does it rank so high? Mainly, because it combines everything that made the dynamic design duo great. The wall and the sidewalk come together at the seams, which gives the false illusion of downward motion. Of course, there’s plenty of white space, which draws your attention immediately to where the all the action is happening—in the top left corner. That positioning takes an ordinary photo and by giving it depth, it adds mystery. It's almost if Joe is saying, “I’m fine back here, thanks. Take the shot.” Later, Miles works his magic by taking a black and white photo and then adding a splash of vibrant color into the mix (hot pink and orange, no less!). This is also the only Blue Note album that lists the main participants and then adds an “Etc.” to cover all the rest! He was stingy with his white space and every square inch was crucial to the design. I wonder who he cut out.
04 Sam Rivers | A New Conception (1967)
Jazz is the music of shape-shifters. It often doesn’t go where it should, it bends and twists when it should stand still and straight, and sometimes it slinks off into a corner when you want it to be the life of the party. Sure, it can be sophisticated at times, but it rarely, if ever, behaves itself completely. Sam Rivers made music with that idea in mind—hence the title. He wanted his jazz to sound novel even to trained ears. The photo of the woman in the fur coat almost seems like she's reacting to the music she’s hearing in real time. It’s almost like she’s trying to move to the music, but got caught in a passage she couldn’t get out of safely. (Either that or she had a gyros sandwich for lunch.) Her positioning seems to reflect the atypical music found on the album. If I had to describe her movements I might settle on "sophisticated chicken." Unpredictable yet beautiful, adventurous yet awkward. Side note: this is the rare Blue Note cover that lists song titles instead of musicians. A New Conception across the board then.
03 Donald Byrd | A New Perspective (1963)
This would make for a striking car advertisement. I’m not sure what kind of car it is, but I want one. That it also happens to be a great jazz album is an added bonus (for which you will pay through the nose if you don't watch the salesman like a hawk). Sometimes I wonder what really came first at Blue Note: the photo or the title? I can equally imagine the artist reviewing the photo shoot proofs and then coming up with the album title on the spot or the photographer lining up the shot to reflect the album title. The Blue Note version of the chicken or the egg, if you will. Either way, this is another cover that just conveys that distinct jazz mentality of constant movement and evolution. I know I’ve said it before, but I love the way Miles adds color to his black and white covers to provide some sweet visual candy to his designs. It’s the perfect way to make each one stand out with entirely different approaches. A new perspective, indeed.
02 Lee Morgan | The Sidewinder (1963)
This cover seems relatively simple in its construction, but then why does it grab the eye so completely the second you lay eyes on it? I find it easier to assess in list form:
First off, The Sidewinder is a cool title. It has a certain mystique to it because nobody knows what it means in this context. If R.E.M. taught me anything it's that a sidewinder is a snake. But what does it mean here? If I had never heard of Lee Morgan I would probably buy this record based on the title alone just to find out.
And if you have a great title like this one, make that title pop on the album cover. The thick black font stretching from side to side does that here. And adding Lee Morgan’s name in a thinner orange font below is just the right contrast visually.
While we're on the subject, let’s give the orange and black color combination some love. They’ve always looked good together. That’s why you see it over and over to this day in modern designs, fashion, cars, you name it. Orange always surprises. When you bite into one and get an eyeful and when you work it into a design and get the same thing in a different way.
I also love how Reid Miles worked in a little “ticker” line with the band members between the title and Lee’s name. It’s additional information for active eyes and predated CNN’s by about 40 years!
The album is called The Sidewinder, so of course you’re going to show Lee blasting on his trumpet from the left side of the frame with his trumpet extending horizontally across the album cover all the way to the right side. Snakes stretch out--that's their nature. So should all the visuals. Also, the “blocking” technique here works perfectly. Everything gets its dedicated chunk of real estate.
I would, of course, like to point out that despite the visually appealing top half of the album cover, there’s still plenty of white space below, which is a Reid Miles trademark. In this case, Reid has chosen a mild yellow eggshell backdrop in lieu of stark white. It gives the album the look of an important historical document, which seems perfect for such a prestigious record, one always listed on most Top 10 Blue Note albums of all-tim lists.
01 Freddie Hubbard | Hub-tones (1962)
This cover is the ultimate in tasteful yet innovative design. Nine vertical boxes, eight of them solid black and symmetrical. One box dropped down slightly, like a depressed piano key, with a red tinted image of Freddie Hubbard tucked near the bottom. You know how a bad magician will try to steer you toward a particular card in a deck by pushing one card slightly out from the rest? He’s making it easy for you to find a card, that’s all. Or that's what he wants you to think. This is what Reid Miles is doing for us here. There’s a lot of jazz out there, but this is the one you should pick next. This, after all, is Freddie Hubbard, the real deal. Directly under his photo, in that same red tint, is the artist's name, Freddie Hubbard—all in lowercase letters. And that’s a key point as well; lowercase black bar, lowercase letters, too. So subtle, so perfect. The band and album title follow suit for continuity. Would Black Flag even have their “black bar” flag logo without this album planting that seed first? Nobody knows for sure. All I do know is a great album cover when I see one. And this is design magic.
That's all the album art chat I have in me today. More to come soon.