Cover Story #3: Album Art Spotlight / Our 25 Favorite Jazz Album Covers (not released by Blue Note)
After taking a little time recently to show an appreciation for the Blue Note label's consistently great album covers, we thought we'd delve into the non-Blue Note world for some of our other favorite jazz covers. Not an easy take to say the least. Every day, I seem to stumble onto another one I like, but for entirely different reasons. Here are 25 of our favorite jazz covers not released by Blue Note. We've even ranked them to make it more challenging. Presume this is going to be a regular series until informed otherwise.
25 BABS GONZALES | Tales of Manhattan: The Cool Philosophy of Babs Gonzales (Jaro)
This being a feature about album covers, intimate knowledge of the artists and albums selected is technically optional. A great cover is a great cover. The contents may be similarly great, but that's not a prerequisite for inclusion. Which leads me to this Babs Gonzales offering, which I'd never heard before. Based on the cover, however, I've been missing out. Babs is one luscious babe—exotic, chesty, stylish—the quintessential New York woman about town. Alas, with the least amount of surface-level research possible, I soon discovered that Babs is actually a guy, and not the Sophia Loren lookalike pictured here. So I had to readjust my perspective a bit. Alright then, Babs is the guy in the cool, light blue sports car then. A sophisticated man on the scene, checking out the local dames covertly from behind a pair of black Rayban shades—the classic big city ladies man. Again, I soon realized that Babs isn't the guy in the car either. In fact, Babs is a black man who combined his boyhood nickname ("Little Babs") with a Spanish surname to avoid racial segregation back in the late-1950s. Real name = Lee Brown. It makes for an intriguing storyline on its own, but if you want enough fodder for a really remarkable movie script, spend five minutes perusing the highlights of his Wikipedia page. To summarize, he was a hip confirmed bachelor who influenced the jazz lexicon and also had a flare for the absurd (he avoided the army by showing up for his physical in a dress—pre-dating Maxwell Q. Klinger by well over ten years!). The great Sonny Rollins once quipped, "Just thinking about him makes me laugh," and If that's not an endorsement meriting investigation, I don't know what is. This album cover reflects a glamorous view of sophisticated Manhattan life via a live action shot taken in the late-50s and it promises the inside scoop if you'll just come inside and listen for a while. Babs is certainly the philosopher you'll want to spend some time with.
24 HERBIE MANN | East Coast Jazz/4 (Bethlehem)
The owl's face seems to be saying, "Oh fuck, this branch is actually a flute! How long do I have to stay? What's the protocol?" A nightmare scenario in the owl community (prompting the pervasive 1950's PSA "Give a hoot, don't land on a flute" ad campaign). Herbie "The Love Bug," to his credit, doesn't seem put out in the slightest by the owl's presence. In fact, his friend appears to be holding down a valve or two with its left claw, perhaps enhancing the performance in some unexpected way. This cover once again demonstrates that, from a design and musical standpoint, jazz is often best served by minimalism and white space. It's best to play only what's needed and leave yourself some room to roam free when given the chance. It's the essence of the genre's improvisational nature. This cover was a Burt Goldblatt creation, one of many the black designer (not common at the time) was responsible for during his lifetime. His work could, like many other graphic designers on this list, account for a Top 25 all his own. He was that prolific.
23 LIONEL HAMPTON | Lionel Hampton Big Band (Clef)
David Stone Martin was a legendary jazz album cover designer in the 1940s and 50s, working on 400+ in total during that period. He is revered among jazz collectors worldwide who refer to him simply by his initials, DSM. You know you're good when collectors buy albums solely because of your album covers and not necessarily for the music contained inside, which has often been the case with DSM affiliated records. It's an insult to limit the guy to just one entry here, although that's exactly what I've done to maintain variety. He clearly deserves his own list—and an expanded one at that, perhaps 50 or 100 entries long. Personally, I find his work so alluring because it comes in such stark contrast to what was typical at the time in the jazz marketplace. His simplistic sketches were usually accentuated with unpredictable splashes of whimsical color, as if his alter ego was a bashful watercolorist. This example is particularly amusing, with a touch of humor infused in the design (note how his tie is also the string of his balloon head). This drawing demonstrates the dilemma of virtuosic vibraphonists everywhere, who, by nature of their trade, have to make the most of their every movement to bring their instrument to life. With this cover, he seems to be equating Hampton's ample skills to those of a dextrous nightclub bartender on a Saturday night (complete with hand behind back). His use of color is fascinating. When you use so little, the eye tends to investigate each use individually, appreciating its nuances, while a busy cover might overwhelm the viewer, forcing them to take the whole thing in in one large dose. Another thing I love about his drawing style is the sudden and inexplicable lack of detail: the line left out of his left foot, the incongruous tailoring of the jacket, a lack of facial characteristics, a missing glass in his left hand (replaced with a hint of liquid through barely visible coloring). Taken all together, it's truly amazing how something so seemingly simple can keep your gaze for so long.
22 DOLLAR BRAND TRIO | Anatomy of a South African Village (Fontana)
When Dutch artist Marte Röling was commissioned to do a series of album covers (16 total) for Fontana Records' avant-garde jazz series in the 1960s, she returned with a set of similarly-themed covers that seemed to indicate that all people, musicians included, are made up of a vast series of past experiences and influences. Some of those influences are clear to us, others are buried deep within our psyche. In her drawings, you could literally draw a connection between an artist's music and this highly varied assortment of creative building blocks. A pretty cool concept. Each drawing strangely featured a dotted line down the middle, perhaps separating the things we have buried in our collective histories from the frontal lobe, the place most neurologists believe stores a mainframe that sorts through the input from myriad firing synapses and converts them into our own unique, sometimes creative, personalities (neurologists were not consulted when writing this article). Some are able to take all these sources and make great music, some are not. This highly collectable series of album covers clearly celebrates the former, here featuring South African pianist Dollar Brand (now Abdullah Ibrahim, still releasing albums to this day).
21 WAYNE MARSH QUARTET | Music for Prancing (Mode)
Despite prancing being highly overrated, this album makes the activity seem almost appealing. That said, even under the best circumstances, I don't think you'll ever need an entire vinyl LP's worth of prancing time. It's highly likely that even a small amount of prancing will skip the vinyl record as it plays, defeating the album's stated purpose in the process—at least in my creaky 99-year-old house it would (plus, it's near impossible to flip a record mid-prance with anything resembling grace). If you've never tried to prance, this album cover demonstrates the proper form, which is moderately useful. I really dig the line drawing of Warne Marsh here. It conveys just the right mix of bohemian whimsy and clandestine skulking. Even better, it does so without any added "action lines" that are often used to indicate motion in cartoons. The artist has conveyed this movement via his drawing skill alone. It has a fun, clean, hip look that mirrors the record's intent. And that's what an album cover is supposed to do.
20 LOUIS ARMSTRONG & ELLA FITZGERALD | Ella and Louis (Verve)
Just another boring night down at the local Legion Hall. Ho-hum. If you didn't know better, you might think this is just another candid shot from the Friday all-you-can-eat fish fry. The photo features a shy fella with droopy, unfashionable white socks forcing an awkward, if endearing, smile from his folding chair perch and looks like he can't wait for the photographer to go away. The conservative and classy lady, perhaps waiting to be asked to dance or simply resting after a night on her feet, seems pleasant and put together, politely accommodating the mild intrusion for now. Of course, we all know the guy is among the most influential musicians of all time and has a major airport named after him and the gal is known as the "first lady of song" and is one of the most celebrated vocalists in music history. But, for this moment in time, they managed to look the part of every man and every woman, just enjoying a night out, waiting for something to happen. And that's what makes this snapshot so completely captivating.
19 SAUTER-FINEGAN | Inside Sauter-Finegan (RCA Victor)
Remember the name Jim Flora. His designs appear twice on this list. He was one of the O.D.s, or "Original Designers" who helped overhaul the album cover from the "tombstone" look they had in the early years (basically a brown cover with the artist's name stamped across the top—hence the graveyard reference) to the complete other end of the spectrum. And when I say other side of the spectrum, I'm not kidding. Witness this bizarre and surreal cover from the early 1940s. If you remember what it was like to go from radio to color TV in about ten years, this is way more extreme than that minor leap! I don't know shit about Sauter-Finegan, but with this cover, I want to find out what they sound like. They literally have the music in them on this cover—one the writer, one the conductor, both joined at the musical hip. It's hard to believe this cover was the next logic step up from a paper bag or a blank brown sleeve, but it was, and jazz expressionism would never be quite the same again.
18 RICHARD 'GROOVE' HOLMES | A Bowl of Soul (Valiant)
There's nothing more stereotypical in popular music than the obligatory hot girl on an album cover. From Jimi Hendrix to the Ohio Players to Ween to 2 Live Crew, it's all been done before and to death, with nothing really shocking us any more (with the possible exception of Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking, that is!). Is it the same for jazz? While there are some examples, I'm going to report that the practice is far less prevalent, and far less crass in execution. Groove Holmes' A Bowl of Soul (better title: Body of Soul) was one of the best uses of the female frame regardless of genre. Sometimes covers can pander and/or objectify, but I'd argue this one doesn't so do either, instead celebrating the female form, like a museum sculpture or painting. Oddly, the record started out more conservatively, with a simple cereal box on the cover—the aroma of cocoa butter nowhere to be found yet. Then somebody in the art department got wise and realized sex sells even in jazz. Yes, this cover attracts the eyes to and fro and back to to again like an erotic game of Space Invaders, but while there's admittedly much to ogle both to and fro if you are so inclined, the central focus is her smooth, defined, torso. It's nothing less than a silky soft, chocolatey wonderland, cast in bronze by a famous sculptor. If John Mayer has actually written "Your Body is a Wonderland" about this cover, maybe I'd be able to tolerate the song. One last fetish note: what ever happened to loosely knit outfits like this? Please tell they're coming back in style soon.
17 BLOSSOM DEARIE | Once Upon a Summertime... (Delray)
Blossom Dearie was always the coolest girl in the room, even on the ultra-hip lower West side of Manhattan in the late-50s and early-60s. There was a timeless quality to her childlike voice and her natural playful spirit made everyone around her feel just a little more carefree and lighthearted by association. This cover captures her personality in a nutshell. With coy smile, salted-carmel eyeglasses (Warby Parker take note), and cute haircut she seems poised for some sleepover gossip, but is likely listening to a studio playback instead. She could walk into any jazz club in 2021 without changing a thing and present as most intriguing person in the room. The inspired addition of some frolicking black and white birds only cements her image as a creative woman leading a highly charmed, almost Disney-like, lifestyle, full of flights of fancy and improbable occurrences.
16 GENE KRUPA AND HIS ORCHESTRA | Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (Columbia)
Remember when I asked you to remember the name Jim Flora? Well, here he is again, but this cover predates his Sauter-Finegan design above (#19). A little background first. For good reason, Columbia Records is considered the pioneer of album cover design. They were the first to move from the aforementioned "tombstone" approach to a more artistic and visually appealing way of marketing albums to the general public. Why not draw them in with something visually appealing? It seems obvious now, but then it was a new concept. In the end, they rightly assumed that catchy designs would help them sell more records. So they hired the "Father of the Album Cover," Alex Steinweiss, to be the creative force behind the label's many musical divisions. Soon overwhelmed, Steinweiss hired Jim Flora to take over the jazz arm of Columbia. And holy crap, did he take the creative process to the next level! He did a ton of album covers, many of them colorful, cartoonish, and wild, just like this one—my personal favorite—mainly because it is not only colorful and wild, but it also conveys the frantic motion of drummer extraordinaire, Gene Krupa, a guy who just had to have more arms and legs than the average human. How else could he play the drums like that? This cover, complete with five arms and four legs, tells any casual buyer that something spectacular is going on inside.
15 EL CUARTETO DEL CHIVO BORRARO | En Vivo (Qualiton)
The power of a great album cover is that it can lure people into the music when they might not have done so otherwise. Prior to noticing this cover, I'd never heard the album before. I was immediately taken in by the distinct profile of Argentinian saxophonist Horacio "Chivo" Borraro, which was seemingly exaggerated for effect, but rendered beautifully with patches of crosshatch shading to create a textured, nuanced portrait. As it turns out, he doesn't look too far off from the drawing! I also liked how most of the effort was spent on Chivo's face, with his instrument of choice only penciled in quickly, almost as an afterthought. With light traces of a saxophone, you know what you're getting, and the little red heart adds just a dollop of whimsy to the affair and lets you know the record is played with passion and heart. And indeed, it lives up to expectations. It's a fabulous live album recorded at the Cricket Night Club in Buenos Aires in 1970. Without the cover I wouldn't have found this gem of a record. With it, I did.
14 ORNETTE COLEMAN | Ornette! (Atlantic)
This iconic album cover is nothing short of a piece of contemporary art, much like the avant-garde music contained therein. In other words, a perfect match of style and substance. Simplified, it looks like a poster long ago plastered to an unsuspecting wall, perhaps temporarily protecting an active construction site or a boarded-up window of a vacant city building, that has seen better days, now beaten and torn by weather and time. It was once meant to attract attention with its bright blue and yellow coloring, and somehow it still does, almost looking better now than it did originally. Some things improve as they wear, like a pair of blue jeans or Leonard Cohen. There's also no other jazz cover quite like it, which gives points for originality. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this cover has garnered some love over the years, most notably with a straight out homage by Liverpool alt-rockers Clinic back in 2000 with their influential Internal Wrangler record. A fitting tribute to a classic cover.
13 THE TEDDY CHARLES TENTET | The Teddy Charles Tentet (Atlantic)
Jazz is a game best played in the shadows. That's where it really reveals its secrets. This Teddy Charles cover is a portrait of a bandleader waiting for the last traces of the sun to depart. Maybe he's at this very moment wondering if the other nine members of his borderline decadent "tentet" will show up on time for their scheduled late-night gig. A task akin to herding hepcats—notoriously difficult on the best of days, but overlay a culture of smack addiction and it become nigh impossible. On a design note, the mysterious photo and green/white font contrast beautifully and evoke the cover of a period Raymond Chandler detective novel in the process. Whatever the story is, I want to read it. And whatever it sounds like, I want to hear it.
12 BOBBY TIMMONS | This Here is Bobby Timmons (Riverside)
Sometimes the most obvious covers are the best. On an album that includes two Timmons standards—the duo of opener "This Here" and its side-two cousin "Dat Dere"—it was a given that the album title was going to be This Here is Bobby Timmons. For anyone who has ever stared helplessly at a shopping mall map, you know that you first need to find out where you're at before you decide where you're going. So, in line with that way of thinking, an arrow is needed to let you know the way to the end of this album, and your tour guide is pianist Bobby Timmons, of course. I recommend you follow him closely.
11 THE JAKI BYARD EXPERIENCE | The Jaki Byard Experience (Prestige)
On a very basic level, I like records that you can view sideways, upside-down, downside-up or any which way. Here, we get the playing-card approach with Jaki Byard as the joker, glancing playfully at the king to see if he's enjoying the performance (to his left in green, to his right in purple, as long as you keep him upside-down). The atypical colors surely would please even Benjamin Moore. I also like the chunky font, with all the curved letters getting the same sized interior circle(s).
10 SONNY SHARROCK | Black Woman (Vortex)
What other colors do you need to tell this story? Sonny cast an imposing shadow any time he and his guitar dominated the stage, but here, his wife Linda is the main attraction. The album is clearly inspired by her presence, her depth, her power, and her talent. She was a formidable jazz singer and clearly a major part of Sharrock's creative vision—especially on this mindboggling album. Ahead of its time somehow doesn't even cut it as a description. It's a mindfuck of a listen in the best way possible. Its peaceful cover belies the contents, to say the least. Here, we find Linda reveling in some quiet time, highly aware of an infiltrator nearby. She still manages to retain a sense of calm in the moment despite the distraction. And speaking of being in the moment, her vocals on the album have to be heard to be believed. Listen to the opening title track of this record and you'll see what I mean. It's basically five minutes of Linda wailing over Sonny's wild guitar and it is something to behold. And for the rest of the record, not a word is sung, it's just raw emotion improvised in the moment. It's spectacular, sometimes bizarre, in a Yoko Ono kind of way, but more soulful. Sonny's vision for this record was otherworldly. Clearly, he knew exactly where he was going with this music, the final song on the record is titled "Portrait of Linda in Three Colors, All Black" and there's nothing else quite like it that these ears have heard. This record is two people in lock step with each other's inner workings and the cover is the perfect reflection of that spiritual connection.
09 THE DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET | Time Out (Columbia)
I passed over this cover several times while making this list. Probably because the record is so ubiquitous, you can almost take its presence for granted. It loses impact through ubiquity, much like the parents of a teenager. But at one point I paused to give it a proper eyeball and was really taken by its abstract shapes and vibrant colors. On one hand, it could be an inspired night of doodling with a box of colored pencils. On the other hand, a lively, colorful, interactive set of images working with, and playing off, each other. I'm not sure what's really going on here, but I think it's what jazz looks like on a color TV. Credit goes to the artist, S. Neil Fujita*, for the cover. Fujita was hired by Columbia to follow up on the legacy of Alex Steinweiss (the Father of the Album Cover—see entry #16 for details) and he is generally credited with pushing album cover art design forward. Among his innovations: having painters, photographers, and illustrators submit ideas for album covers. Is that all? If this cover reminds you of another classic cover, you're probably thinking of Charles Mingus's classic LP, Mingus Ah Um. If pushed, I like the Brubeck cover a little more, mostly because of its deeper colors and extensive use of purple throughout.
*Fujita later went on to design book covers, too, with the most iconic being Mario Puzo's The Godfather. You know the one.
08 MILES DAVIS | Birth of the Cool (Capitol)
Red is the symbol of heat, blue is the symbol of cool. So why not make the word "COOL" an icy blue? Perhaps because Miles Davis's playing was so smoking hot back when his classic album was released, that nothing else would do but fiery red. I really love that single solitary splash of color. The rest, black and white, with Miles and Miles's horn shining and glistening in the overhead lighting. How could a sound so cool cause one to sweat so much?
07 THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET | The Sheriff (Atlantic)
This is a combination of related elements. It draws from America's fascination with Western movies and it also adds in a nod to early modern abstract art in the process. I love the way the head floats incongruously above the torso, the hand above the arm, the gun floating out of hand's reach. In a way, an almost childlike cut-and-paste production. The approach mirrors the separate but equal nature of jazz music, with each instrument occupying its own distinct space, with a mind of its own, but always in service to the greater whole. Nice touch putting the record's catalogue number inside the badge, too. The cover was done by Polish graphic designer Stanislaw Zagórski, perhaps most famous for his album cover art for Loaded, the Velvet Underground's legendary fourth record.
06 STAN GETZ / ZOOT SIMS | The Brothers (Prestige)
Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin remains my all-time favorite cartoonist (by a landslide) to this day. Early in my life, I adopted his "longhead" style as my own and I draw faces in homage to his characters to this day (complete with massive jaws, expressive eyes, and giant oval noses). We connected when it came to loving music, too. Martin was an avid music lover and he particularly loved jazz. It makes sense, then, that he would have an interest in doing album covers as well. While I've only found a few he did (including Miles Davis's 1956 album, Miles and Horns, most notably), this is my personal favorite. Strangely, it's actually not done in his trademarked Mad style, here replaced with round stocky old men in trench coats. Perhaps he sought out a new identity in this alternate world, one where he could use a whole new approach to drawing. If any artist fit in with the jazz milieu is was Martin, who was also known for making up crazy words to go with the sounds he heard in his head, many of which sounded like the noises jazz bands might make if their sounds translated into words: Bweep, klomp, skreeezt, cha-gonk, kashslapth, zizazzik, and countless others. This cover looks the like same old man in time lapse, unable to take his eyes off something. Whatever it is, he's fascinated by it. Is he listening to the music perhaps? Either way, the inspired use of color makes the whole thing hang together.
05 ELVIN JONES AND RICHARD DAVIS | Heavy Sounds (Impulse)
To me, this is what I think about when I think about jazz. Two cool cats chilling between sets, doing what's necessary to free their minds for the expansive set of music to come. Improvisation ain't easy, people. Sometimes you need a little help getting there. Elvin was a drummer and Richard played the bass, so they were uniquely qualified to bring the promised "heavy" sounds, and if they had to get high to do it, shrouded in a cloud of thick smoke, so be it.
04 SHIRLEY SCOTT | Girl Talk (Impulse)
If I didn't know better, I might think this was a 1960s girl group record produced by Phil Specter. But Shirley was jazz through and through. She knew her way around an organ, as well. A Hammond organ, that is. I love the phone dial graphic with Shirley's name in the center, a different photo for each number on the dial. And, I love that no matter what you dial on this phone, you're getting one thing and one thing only....girl talk. Love the design, the colors, the concept, and the off-center placement as well.
03 SONNY ROLLINS | Way Out West (Columbia)
There's a fish out of water quality to this cover that I love. A legendary jazz saxophonist walks into a saloon in some Gold Rush town, packing nothing but his horn (no gun in the holster gentlemen, and I assume spare reeds in the bullet belt). This is a movie I want to see and music I want to hear.
02 CHARLIE ROUSE | Yeah! (Epic)
This cover sums up the response to every great sax solo ever blown at a jazz club. It's the spontaneous release of joy and appreciation in equal amounts. Without an exclamation point, the "Yeah" could mean anything from a sarcastic retort to a casual affirmation, but with an exclamation point, there's immediate excitement in the air. And, with Charlie perched atop what would be a period without him, there's no confusion as to who is bringing the thrill to the proceedings this time. I want to feel what he's feeling. I absolutely love the giant block font, too, with all letters connected, and an informative scroll with pertinent information on the bottom. Several years later, the Beatles would echo this sentiment in triplicate and rock and roll was off to the races!
01 CAL TJADER | Cal Tjader's Latin Kick (Fantasy)
This full-color New Yorker-esque cartoon makes me smile with delight every time I look at it. There's a simple genius to it that makes me wish I had thought of the idea first. Jazz has long been associated with hidden corners and dark shadows, its natural milieu, but what happens when there is nowhere to hide from the harsh glare of a Mexican afternoon sun? You improvise, of course, and not just with the music.
That's all for now, hipsters.