Quick, what do Andy Warhol, Peter Max, and Romare Bearden all have in common? Our headline gives away the answer, of course, because yes, all of them did the artwork for jazz album covers. And in that they were far from alone: The tradition of interesting and creative jazz album covers goes all the way back to the early days of vinyl, with illustrators and designers like Jim Flora and Alex Steinweiss contributing unique artwork to adorn 78s and LPs in the ’40s.
Over the years, many jazz labels and their designers cultivated a particular look for their albums, whether it be Reid Miles’ cool graphics and typography for Blue Note in the ’50s, photographer Lee Friedlander’s distinctive portraits for Atlantic in the ’60s, the color images of Pete Turner for CTI in the ’70s, or the stark design aesthetic that Barbara Wojirsch has developed with ECM for much of the last five decades.
The CD era that began in the late ’80s dramatically shrunk the canvas for cover artwork, but nonetheless designers persevered, creating distinctive graphics for the 5″ x 5″ format even though the tactile aesthetic of the gatefold cover had disappeared. Now, with streaming and downloads all but eliminating the need for cover graphics, we can look back and relish not only what we had but also what we, as modern-era vinyl hunters, still may find at yard sales, thrift shops, and used record stores.
In picking this JazzTimes 10, we looked only at albums that were originally released on vinyl, and we also endeavored to choose albums that were special inside the sleeves, so that the result is an iconic image representing a timeless and important sound. These aren’t just great-looking jazz albums. They’re great jazz albums, period.
Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie
Bird & Diz (Verve)
No list of iconic album covers would be complete without one featuring the wholly original art and design of David Stone Martin. Heavily influenced by the artist Ben Shahn, Martin started out in the ’40s as a designer for Moses Asch’s self-named folk, blues, and jazz label, which released Norman Granz’s original Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings. When Granz started his own labels, he took Martin with him, and thus one of the great label/artist relationships was born. Martin’s line drawings, sometimes with color added for effect, became synonymous with Verve’s catalog—from Billie Holiday to Oscar Peterson.