Talking all that jazz

Blue Note Records embodies the spirit of jazz cool with its hip record sleeves. Emma O’Kelly looks at Volume Two of the Cover Art of Blue Note Records

From depressed indie kids to guitar-wielding rockers, musical genres have long had their stereotypical devotees. But the most sophisticated of these has to be the followers of the Blue Note label. Complete with shades, Weejun loafers and double-breasted suits, they were the kings of the New York jazz scene.

And just as the fashions and the sounds were slick, so were the record sleeves sharp. Nothing was more cool than being photographed in a button-down shirt, shades intact, on the cover of a Blue Note sleeve. And 250 of these have just been published in the book, The Cover Art of Blue Note Records – Volume Two.

It comes as a sequel to the hugely popular volume one, which also contained 250 sleeve designs from the mid-Fifties to the Seventies. While volume one traced the history of the label from its origin in New York in 1939 by German ex-pats Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, in volume two, writers Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham feature Reid Miles, the man who designed almost 500 of the label’s 700 record sleeves in 15 years.

Although after the war Blue Note had snapped up such talents as Thelonius Monk and Fats Navarro, it wasn’t until the mid-Fifties when it moved from the 78 format to the 12-inch, that there was any call for cover art. Among the budding artists on the New York scene commissioned for sleeve designs was Andy Warhol, but it was when Miles joined in 1956 that Blue Note really developed its distinctive, much-replicated look.

Miles would ruthlessly crop photos of artists (taken by Wolff) to minimal proportions and boldly run type across them. Abstract blocks of colour and shapes created the label’s minimalist trademark. Glamorous models, shiny cars and soft-focus greenery all took their place next to artists on keyboards, saxophones, trumpets and turntables.

Volume two also documents the jazz revival which hit Europe in the mid-Eighties when Acid Jazz was born. Then came silly hats and retro

Seventies in the form of Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies. In the UK, Blue Note reactivated the Blue Series in 1991 and revivalist sleeve designers paid homage to Miles.

But one thing was missing; followers could still buy great recordings of Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock – but neatly packaged in a CD. Whereas house music has adopted the CD format, using textured packaging and abstract images to sum up the mood of the music, jazz has not. The great covers of old lose a lot in translation to the smaller format.

Callingham sums it up: “Jazz is still confined by the CD. Someone really needs to come up with something new for its CD covers.”

The Cover Art of Blue Note Records – Volume Two is published by Collins & Brown, priced 18

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