Most of our special themed issues are planned well in advance, but in a few cases a theme arrives accidentally, from stories that were assigned independently yet somehow coalesce into a shared idea. For the December 2001 issue, we were looking to spotlight vocalists and were intrigued with the story of Lavay Smith, a Bay Area singer/bandleader with an affinity for old-timey jazz and a post-feminist emphasis on sexuality. She had the idea to make the cover photo session a throwback to the pinup images of the ’40s, a nice shout-out to both her musical style and her stage presence. However, the results from the session turned out to be both too revealing for our magazine and not as sharp as we would have preferred. Sean Daly’s profile of Smith was excellent because it captured her unique personality and compelling life story. But for that profile to be a cover story, we needed an equally engaging photo that would work on the cover.
So we looked at the other pieces assigned for the issue. There was an analysis of sexism in jazz record covers, written by Lara Pellegrinelli and illustrated by dozens of examples. We’d all seen those silly images of comely women in suggestive poses on albums from the ’50s and ’60s; Lara deconstructed the underlying causes for their exploitative marketing and pointed out that the practice persisted (as it still does). Fascinating stuff. But we didn’t want to run the cover of the 1956 Playboys album by Chet Baker and Art Pepper as our cover.
What else was there? Writer Bill Milkowski had gone out with photographer Aldo Mauro to profile six families of jazz artists who shared the challenges of balancing a music career with the demands of a spouse and parent. Raising a family is hard for anyone, but Milkowski showed why it’s even harder for a professional jazz musician. Looking back at this piece now, nearly 20 years after it was published, one can see the repercussions of that life choice; each family in it experienced the trauma of either divorce or death in the ensuing years. Still, the story, with its portraits of families in or around their homes, had a genuine warmth, portraying a side of artists rarely seen in a jazz magazine. But once again, as strong as it was, no single photo made sense for the cover.
Finally, James Gavin contributed a groundbreaking, insightful survey of homophobia in jazz, a subject that had never been discussed in the jazz media. It was challenging to find an image for the opening spread, and in the end we had a class at a local art school take it on as an assignment. Although we found artwork we liked for the story itself, none of the illustrations from the talented young visual artists was appropriate for a cover.
Nonetheless, a theme seemed to run through these very different but equally compelling pieces—a sexual theme. In his letter from the editor with a title of “Sex Sells,” Christopher Porter cleverly explained our decision to run a stock image that we thought best connected the stories. “Ultimately we decided to go with a photo of four feet under covers because it represents better what this issue is about,” he wrote. “It’s not just sex we’re selling; it’s all the things that go along with it.”
Overall response to the issue was muted, though a few observers made light of the cover image. But Gavin’s homophobia story generated a lot of mail, pro and con. JT would go on to do more such stories, though none received quite as visceral a response as Gavin’s provocative piece. Sadly, every cultural issue we covered here continues to trouble our world today.Originally Published