There's more beauty to jazz than only the music, and album covers prove that— here are 5 of the most stunning covers ever
Jazz has a reputation for being all about the music. In fact, it’s so much more than that: the music’s distinctive style has been the inspiration for a host of other cultural masterpieces, from avant garde poetry to Oscar-nominated film. But the most enduring form of jazz art is both the most obvious and the most overlooked: album artwork.
The age of cover art began when jazz was at its height, with the appointment of graphic designer Alex Steinweiss as art director of Columbia Records in 1938. His early jazz album art, such as 1941’s Boogie Woogie, used flat colours and simple shapes to evoke musical motifs, a drastic change from the austere brown paper it replaced. Over the following decades, jazz covers ranged from simple and inviting—such as Phil Stern’s warm photo for 1956’s Ella and Louis—to bold and experimental, such as Reid Miles’ graphic design for Jackie McLean’s It’s Time! (1965).
Today, social media and visual albums have taken album artwork to a new level. But with the resurgence of vinyl, the cult of cover art is back. Here are five jazz album covers from across the decades that are as colourful as the music inside.
Bix and Tram by Bix Beiderbecke with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra
Columbia Records designer Jim Flora saw the whimsical side of jazz in his 1947 caricatures of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, two of the most popular jazz players of the 1920s. Reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist profiles, Bix and Tram have been reimagined as 40s bebop players, their fragments and angles more fitting with the fast tempo and complex structure of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s improvisation than the hot jazz on the record.
All or Nothing at All by Billie Holiday
This arresting illustration by David Stone Martin captures how the world saw Billie Holiday in the year before she died. Martin’s other covers for Holiday draw on her struggle with addiction, such as the woman with her head in her hands on Billie Holiday Sings (1953) and the naked figure on Billie Holiday at Jazz at the Philharmonic (1954). All or Nothing (1958) is a collection of jazz standards in which Holiday’s voice sounds aged and drawn in moments, but remains enchanting. The gentle backing by a small combo, including saxophonist Ben Webster, is a salve for the anguished figure on the cover. A year later, John DeVries memorialised Holiday in a stunning posthumous cover for Commodore: passionate, powerful and liberated from the world that was against her.
No Room for Squares by Hank Mobley
Hank Mobley is the epitome of “cool” on this 1964 cover: sunglasses on, ash hanging from the cigarette in place of his tenor sax. The cover has the unmistakable Blue Note look, with its casual photo of the album’s frontman, whimsical typography and the monochrome colour scheme that features on other iconic covers, such as John Coltrane’s Blue Train. Cover designer Reid Miles creates a visual pun out of the album title, circling the square by cropping a photo of Mobley at a New York subway station, taken by the label’s co-founder Frank Wolff. Reid’s geometric design continues to be referenced on covers, including on South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s 2020 Blue Note album Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld.
Bitches Brew by Miles Davis
Miles Davis’ album covers changed alongside his sound over his 50-year career, from Blue Note’s play with graphic design for his hard bop compilation album Miles Davis Volume One (1956) to the Corky McCoy cartoons of On the Corner (1972), reflecting the record’s funk fusion sound. This 1970 album artwork by the French-German painter Mati Klarwein is no exception. Klarwein achieved depth of field and vibrant colours using a layering method known as Mischtechnik, making the flame-like flower psychedelic and the skin tones of the figures overlooking the ocean rich and hyperreal. Rising from a wisp of hair, the clouds become a window to the woman’s mind; as a dreamscape, the image gives the music an ethereal quality. Klarwein also collaborated with Santana and Jimi Hendrix; his rock associations are fitting for Davis’ experiments with rock idioms on Bitches Brew.
Polyhymnia by Yazz Ahmed
When thinking about women in jazz, the mind turns to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday. But it’s another big voice who inspired British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed on her award-winning 2019 album Polyhymnia: Malala Yousafzai. “One Girl Among Many”, inspired by Malala, is one of six tracks celebrating courageous women, each with an accompanying artwork by illustrator Sophie Bass.
On the cover, an introspective young woman rises from the centre of the image like the “Birth of Venus”, her candle bringing light and colour to the reading girls around her. The arabesque geometric floral patterns make for a striking image on a vinyl sleeve or a Spotify thumbnail—and perfectly complements Ahmed’s colourful, evocative music as cover art should.
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