A type of blue – the typographic covers of Blue Note

Blue Note record sleeves have provided jazz with many of its most enduring photographic images. As it turns 75, a new history of the label shows that it was no slouch when it came to covering its music in wild typographic expression, courtesy of graphic designer, Reid Miles

Joe Henderson, In ‘n Out, 1964. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Blue Note record sleeves have provided jazz with many of its most enduring photographic images. As it turns 75, a new history of the label shows that it was no slouch when it came to covering its music in wild typographic expression, courtesy of graphic designer, Reid Miles…

Blue Note – Uncompromising Expression (Thames & Hudson) by Richard Havers is the first official biography of the jazz label founded by Berlin-born Alfred Lion and writers Max Margulis and Emanuel Eisenberg in New York in 1939.

In charting Blue Note’s evolution, Havers’ book in fact tells the story of jazz itself as it moved from boogie-woogie and swing to be-bop and into the avant-garde and beyond.

Poster for Jamming in Jazz, the first concert organised by Blue Note on December 15 1945. Courtesy of the family of Max Margulis


From the outset, the photography of Francis Wolff, a friend of Lion’s since his Berlin days who joined the Blue Note company late in 1939, would set the tone for the label.

His shots of Blue Note musicians – a pensive John Coltrane on the cover of Blue Train in 1957, for example – helped to define its look, while its first art director Paul Bacon and, from 1954 onwards, graphic designer Reid Miles used these pictures to create some of the genre’s most identifiable sleeves.

While Havers’ book features several fascinating contact sheets, each revealing the sequence of images surrounding a chosen cover shot, it also collects together a wealth of Reid’s approaches to sleeve design that favoured lettering rather than photographic portraiture.

Jay Jay Johnson, The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Volume 1, 1955. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: John Hermansader. © 2014 Universal Music Group


Miles began assisting the designer John Hermansader (see example above) and his first co-designed sleeve for Blue Note came out in late 1955 on the new 12-inch format that the label was trying out.

He was 28 and had worked for Esquire magazine but, notably, Havers writes, Miles wasn’t actually much of a jazz fan. If anything, his preference for classical distanced him enough from the music – “allowing him to approach the design unencumbered by all but the basic details – the album title, the feel of the music and something about the session.”

 

Release sheet for Blue Note’s very first album, The Blues, a ‘folder album’ of two 12-inch, 78-rpm records, Nov/Dec 1939. Courtesy of the family of Max Margulis


Since its inception Blue Note had produced ‘release sheets’ and posters (above) which were mostly image-free. And while Miles made regular use of Wolff’s imagery, he also favoured white space and graphic marks to suggest something of the rhythm and and tone of the music. (His first cover for Miles Davis Volumes 1 & 2 in 1956 was one half white, the image of Davis occupying the bottom third of the sleeve below some bold red type.)

Horace Parlan, Us Three, 1960. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group


Miles’ early Blue Note work also incorporated woodblock, stencils and repeated phrases – a type-only cover appearing in 1958 for Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else. An example from 1960 (above), for Horace Parlan’s trio, used just numerals to get the feeling across.

Collected below are some of his best covers which eschew photography in preference for type. In some cases the musician’s portrait is in there, but it’s really the expressive typography that conjures up a visual interpretation of what the music sounded like.

Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers is published by Thames & Hudson; £48. The hardbook contains over 800 illustrations. See bluenote.com

 

Jackie McLean, Let Freedom Ring, 1962. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Dexter Gordon, Go, 1962. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Horace Parlan, Happy Frame of Mind, 1963 (the cover was designed in 1963 but the record was not released until 1986). Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Freddie Hubbard, Hub-Tones, 1963. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

 

Don Wilkerson, Shoutin!, 1963. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Jackie McLean, It’s Time!, 1964. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Grant Green, Talkin’ About!, 1964. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

 

Hank Mobley, The Turnaround, 1965. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Lee Morgan, The Rumproller, 1965. Photography: Francis Wolff. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

Larry Young, Unity, 1966. Design: Reid Miles. © 2014 Universal Music Group

 

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