JAZZ ALBUMS AS ART SOME REFLECTIONS





In the Process of Completing Research for This Issue, I Realized That What I Want to Say May Be Divided into Two Sections. Part One Surveys the General Topic of Album Art; Part Two (Outlined in the Accompanying Sidebar) Considers the Conspicuous Absence of Black Artists from the Process of Designing Jazz Packages: Covers, Liner Notes Etc. This Second Part Will Be Published in an Upcoming Issue.--R.G.O\'M.

The enclosed portfolio of album cover art springs from my ongoing concern with the emergence in the United States of a jazz culture that has affected not only virtually all other music, here and elsewhere, but other forms of expression as well. This influence has been exceedingly potent in the visual arts world where for nearly a century, painters, sculptors, photographers, and filmmakers have been inspired by jazz to create visual counterparts of the music. Working in varied media, artists have not only created likenesses of the musicians and their instruments, they have attempted to capture formal aspects of the music itself--its rhythms, call/response exchanges, and impulses to improvise--in the work that they do as visual artists who want their work to swing.

In the process of pursuing these various lines of influence,(1) it has occurred to me that the jazz record album itself comprises a unique and significant item of American material culture (above all the covers but also the entire package, including the shellac, vinyl, and metal disks, the liner notes, and the sleeves and boxes that hold them). What follows here is a set of brief notes reflecting on the jazz record package or album as a unique multimedia creation deserving a comprehensive scholarly study and perhaps a museum show of its own. The jazz record and its sometimes spectacularly beautiful grooves and sleeves prove again and again the truism that American art at its most original is where you find it. It is often produced in unexpected places by designers of things for sale in the marketplace of the moment which nonetheless have lasting aesthetic value: American vernacular art.

Of course the raison d\'etre of the jazz album is to provide listeners with reproductions of jazz performances. But it is also true that at its best the jazz record--especially the 12-inch LP but occasionally the early cylinder and the heavy (at first one- sided) pancake platter of yesteryear and even the 7- or 10-inch recording, and the CD of our own era--can be such a perfect package that it looks and feels just as jazzy as the music itself. The truth is that sometimes the entire package (cover art, liner notes, disk, and label) actually outswings the music it is meant to complement. In some cases one keeps the record only for the sake of its beautiful wrappers and writings! But when all of a jazz album\'s artistic values are high, music and package alike, the listener/observer/holder/reader has access to an aesthetic experience that is deeply and uniquely satisfying.

Prior to the introduction of the 12-inch LP in 1950, 78 rpm jazz records (and records in all categories) were packaged either in single paper sleeves or in sleeve-pages of "albums" having two or more platters bundled together. They were "albums" (from Latin albus, "white") in the sense that they consisted of display pages where items were collected for storage and private viewing, like autograph or photo albums. According to the research of German art historian Martina Schmitz (whose 1987 book in German, ALBUM COVERS, is the definitive work on this subject),(2) before the mid-thirties, all record albums were plain, purely functional holders. "What they used originally was either brown, gray, or tan paper, said Alex Steinweiss, who became Columbia Records\'s first art director in 1940. "They would stamp in gold the name of the record, and it would just lie in the window of the record store like a tombstone: nothing attractive about it. It had no color, no personality."

In about 1935, some of these designless "tombstone" albums, as they were called, first appeared with pictures pasted onto their covers. The first jazz album, "Chicago Jazz" (1939), consisted of six 78s bound in an album whose yellow cover bore simple blue designs and drawings of the musicians at the edges; producer George Avakian (who at the